Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Rising Discontent:
The Czech Republic in 1999

Jan Culik

In an attempt to assess developments in the Czech Republic over the past year, I have created a summary of the main news items as they were reported by the Czech media since January 1999, and divided them up thematically into several categories. An interesting and perhaps rather disturbing pattern emerges from this.

Since June 1998, the Czech Republic has been ruled by a minority social democratic government, which has been held in power by the coalition "opposition agreement", concluded with its main rival, Vaclav Klaus's dogmatic centre right Civic Democratic Party (ODS). The existence of this opposition agreement has been the source of serious disillusionment for the Czech voting population, especially since before the June 1998 election both the social democrats and the civic democrats said repeatedly and emphatically that they would never form a coalition with the other party. The existence of the opposition agreement is also a source of major frustration for several other, smaller Czech political parties who feel that they are being crowded out of the political arena by the co-operating social and civic democrats.

So the Czech political scene in 1999 can be characterised as follows: the social democratic party, with the tacit agreement of the civic democrats, has been striving to run the country, to bring it closer to the European Union, to crack down on corruption and to create the long neglected civil service structures. In doing this, the social democratic government has often experienced serious difficulties. Not all of its proposed laws have been properly thought out, and not all of its ministers are really efficient. Corruption is not being stamped out effectively. Nevertheless, the government has introduced, against overwhelming odds, some necessary and civilised legislation, and a few of the social democratic ministers have actually done very good work.

The government has not shied away from confronting corruption and inefficienty in its own ranks. It has sacked three ministers, two of them for corruption or irregular financial practice, and one after a rather hysterical media campaign conducted against him; one of these corrupt ministers is actually currently in custody.

The relatively rational, even though sometimes clumsy actions of the government have been increasingly torpedoed by the Czech media. In the second half of 1999 in particular, the Czech media has learned how to organise sustained campaigns against individual government ministers, mostly based on rumour and unsubstantiated facts. In some instances, these campaigns have been justified by ministers' wrongdoings; in others, the campaigns have been artificially created. The serious agenda that the government has been trying to fulfill has been more or less left undiscussed by the media.

Some cynical observers of the Czech political scene argue that many of these campaigns have been started and masterminded by powerful PR agencies that represent vested political and business interests. According to these observers, such interest groups still seem to rule in the Czech Republic more or less unchecked after having had a free hand under the previous centre-right wing government of Vaclav Klaus. Where the current social democratic government has attempted to curb corruption, this has produced howls of protest from the affected groups who as a result, according to these cynics, try to destroy individual government ministers one by one. Again, it is fair to say that some ministers have aided their enemies in this process by behaving in a clumsy and inefficient manner.

Perhaps the most visible struggle between two conflicting vested interests in the Czech public arena is the ongoing war between the american media conglomerate Central European Media Enterprises and Vladimir Zelezny, the director of Nova Television, formerly a CME business that was taken away from the Americans by Zelezny in August 1999. CME and Zelezny have been fighting it out in the public arena in the Czech Republic since April 1999 and a large number of claims and counterclaims have been made by each side. Of course, most of this information is heavily biased. Nevertheless, the struggle allows us some limited insight into what is actually going on in the world of commercial television broadcasting in the Czech Republic. Last week, for instance, CME published a large advertisement in the Czech economic daily Hospodarske noviny showing the web of personal connections between Zelezny's Nova TV and the second Czech commercial TV broadcaster, Prima TV.

Czech politics works in mysterious ways

After the conclusion of the opposition agreement between the Czech social democrats and the civic democrats, the small right wing Czech political parties feel the danger of being excluded from the political arena, especially since the social democrats and the civic democrats are working on changes to the constitution which should move the Czech Republic more to a majority-based voting system.

In an attempt to get back into the government, individuals close to the smaller political parties, especially the Freedom Union (which split off from Klaus's Civic Democratic Party in 1997-1998 because its members could no longer tolerate Klaus or his leadership) have been organising various public petitions calling for a return to "ethics in politics" and demanding the "departure of all the top politicians". President Vaclav Havel, who does not like the opposition agreement, tends to support these initiatives, as do many ordinary Czechs.

However, when you look at petition initiatives like the Drevic Petition, Impulse 99 or "Thank you, Now Leave" more closely, you discover that they are basically attempts to destroy the current Czech government by unconstitutional means, using a wave of popular discontent. The "public initiatives" seem to be masterminded by people from the smaller political parties. At the same time, nobody wants to call an early election because all the "establishment" parties are afraid of the Communists. As a result of the sorry state of the Czech public arena and the Czech economy, the Communists are now supported by approximately 20% of the Czech population and have become the second strongest political party.

What has the Czech government actually achieved in 1999?

In an attempt to curb the influence of the foreign criminal mafia in the Czech Republic, the Czech government introduced a controversial new regulation with effect from 1 January 1999: all foreigners applying for residence in the Czech Republic must produce a clean criminal record from their home countries. In March 1999, the Czech government limited the right of foreigners to political asylum by introducing the concept of "safe countries" - applications for asylum submitted by people from these countries are not accepted.

The social democratic government has managed, in the face of fierce opposition from the right wing parties, to push through the approval of a Referendum Act, albeit in a watered-down form. The law was eventually approved in December 1999 against considerable protest ("a rule by referendums is a rule by a rabble" - Czech right wing politician Daniel Kroupa).

The government has made it possible for Czechs living abroad to regain their Czech citizenship (if it was lost in the past) by introducing the possibility of dual citizenship for some American citizens of Czech origin who to date have been discriminated against. The government has not, however, made it possible for these Czech-Americans to have their property, confiscated by the Communists, returned to them.

In May 1999, the government approved a new Freedom of Information Act, which enables Czech citizens to acquire information from state institutions. The act comes into effect on 1 January 2000.

In June 1999, the government approved the "state information policy" on the basis of which modern technologies and the internet should be used intensively for communication between the government and the public. The government intends to empower the population by further propagating use of the internet.

In July 1999, the government ratified the European Union social chapter.

In August 1999, the government placed on the internet a free nationwide public register of basic data on all businesses. A land register will also be published.

In September 1999, the government approved a draft law on the protection of personal data.

In February 1999, the government started its anti-corruption drive and published a relatively detailed and sensible "Report on the state of the country" - which was rejected by the right-wing parties as political propaganda. In February 1999, the government also started working on constitutional changes which should turn the Czech voting system more towards a majority-based system.

Controversially, in May 1999, the social democratic government decided that the Temelin nuclear power plant should be completed, even though ecologists had sumbitted a highly critical report of the state of the building site. Industry Secretary Gregr is said by some to be far too closely connected with the vested interests of big industrial concerns.

In March 1999, the government proposed a new law on registered homosexual partnership, which would give homosexual partners the same legal rights as those enjoyed by married couples. The act was killed in parliament by right wing parties on 2 December 1999.

In March 1999, the social democratic government proposed the introduction of an ombudsman. On 4 November 1999, the ombudsman act was approved by parliament, in spite of fierce resistence by the right wing parties.

The government proposed a press law, which stipulated that state officials should have the right to reply even to newspaper articles which published truthful information. The controversional sections of the law were later watered down and the law was approved by parliament towards the end of 1999.

Education Secretary Zeman decided to introduce a national curriculum - a basic set of educational targets - to which all schools, public or private, must adhere. A campaign may be starting against him in the media, pointing out general deficiencies in the Czech educational system.

Health Secretary David attempted to curb the power of international pharmaceutical companies by limiting the doctors' right to prescribe medicines, thus relieving the national health service from the need to pay for unnecessarily expensive designer drugs, which are often the equivalents of much cheaper non-trade mark drugs, readily available on the market. Health Secretary David tried to introduce rigorous checks on the spending of hospitals and on the working of health insurances, attempting to eliminate corruption. At the same time, the minister ruled out the possibility of raising doctors' pay to three times the Czech national average. By demanding transparency and by taking a firm stand against corruption, the health minister became the target of an irrational and emotional campaign in the media in the autumn of 1999, which went on for several weeks, creating the impression that the "minister is impossible". As a result, David was forced to resign his post.

The government anti-corruption drive

The former head of the National Property Fund Roman Ceska has been charged with serious irregularities and is under police investigation. A similar investigation was started against Barbara Snopkova, adviser to former social democratic Finance Secretary Ivo Svoboda. Svoboda was forced to resign due to financial irregularities in the summer of 1999 and could be sentenced to eight years imprisonment. Interior Secretary Vaclav Grulich discovered a number of financial scandals at his ministry in July 1999, but said that only those ministry employees who had not left can be punished. In July 1999, Health Secretary David started legal proceedings against former Civic Democratic Party Health Secretary Strasky for financial irregularities. In November 1999 it transpired that the former People's Party Culture Secretary Jindrich Kabat lost the state between 350 million and 500 million crowns by his incompetent handling of the Czech Lottery project. Legal proceedings were started against him by the current social democratic Culture Secretary Pavel Dostal.

How the Czech media reported the political scene in the Czech Republic in 1999

One of the major problems in Czech politics in 1999 was the problem of relations between the Roma and the majority Czech population. This was highlighted in particular by the attempt by the local authority in the town of Usti nad Labem to erect a wall in Maticni Street, which would separate some anti-social, noisy and dirty families, who refused to pay rent, from the regular inhabitants of the street. While there undoubtedly is racism in the Czech Republic, this incident was blown out of all proportion and turned into a stereotyped international symbol of all that is wrong in racial relations in the Czech Republic. There is some evidence that even the press coverage in this cause was masterminded in the Czech media by a pressure group. (One particular individual, a former journalist working for the weekly journal Respekt, admitted that he "organised pro-Roma publicity". He said that he had at least one journalist in the editorial office of all newspapers and gave them advance information, sometimes complete articles. According to unconfirmed reports, the person worked for Vladimir Mlynar from the Freedom Union party, which, according to some, tried to used the Roma cause in an attempt to return to mainstream politics.)

The problem of Maticni street eventually disappeared towards the end of 1999 when the Czech government agreed to buy up the houses of those inhabitants of the street affected by the noise and the smell of the unsociable neighbours.

The sustained media campain against the "bad Health Secretary" David in the autumn of 1999, as a result of which he was forced to resign, has already been noted.

Further incompetence and scandal

In January and February 1999, Czech and British intelligence services clashed. The head of the Czech intelligence service apparently mishandled the situation concerning an Iraqi diplomat who was supposed to blow up the Prague-based Radio Free Europe in order to prevent its broadcasts to Iraq. The diplomat decided to defect, but due to the alleged incompetence of the Czechs he defected to Germany and not to Britain. British intelligence complained to the Czech government and the Czech government sacked the head of the Czech secret service Karel Vulterin. It was apparently he who revenged himself on the British secret service by betraying the British agent in Prague, Christopher Hurran, to the media. Hurran's address and identity was broadcast by TV Nova.

Early in June 1999, Jaroslav Spurny a journalist working for Respekt tried to revive a media campaign against Foreign Secretary Jan Kavan (who had been repeatedly attacked in the press for allegedly working for the secret police under the Communists) by publishing an article saying that Kavan once tried to smuggle hard drugs across a European frontier. Spurny later apologised for this article.

In June 1999, Premier Zeman said in public that former Civic Democratic Party Foreign Secretary Zieleniec had had a number of agreements with journalists and PR agencies and that he had paid them for good publicity. Zeman has never been able to substantiate this unwise accusation. According to internal sources, after Zeman went public on this, somebody stole the relevant information at the Foreign Ministry in Prague and erased the relevant data from the computer network. The unsubstantiated Zeman accusation against Zieleniec was a major theme of the media in the Czech Republic in the second half of 1999.

The Zeman-Zieleniec scandal was revived with renewed vigor in September 1999 when Vaclav Hruby, the manager of a castle owned by the Czech Foreign Ministry and used as a conference centre, accused a Zeman adviser of allegedly blackmailing him to manufacture anti-Zieleniec evidence. Hruby had been sacked from the conference centre by the Foreign Secretary a few days before for alleged gross financial irregularities.

At the end of July 1999, a group of pro Freedom Union activists published a manifesto called Impulse 99, demanding a return to ethical politics. CER has analysed this document elsewhere (article "No Pulse 99" from 9 August). Impulse 99 became another important running theme for the media in the second half of 1999, but from November 1999 it was superseded by another, similar petition written by former student leaders from the 1989 revolution: "Thank you, Leave Now".(see my earlier article on this subject)

In August 1999 it transpired that Vice-Premier Egon Lansky received the sum of 290 000 dollars from the Finance Ministry some years ago as a remuneration from a Western firm owned by one of his friends. Lansky transferred the money to his bank account abroad without disclosing this to the Czech banking authorities. Under law, Czech citizens are not allowed to have bank accounts abroad. After a sustained media campaign, Lansky was forced to leave the government in October 1999.

In September 1999, some members of the social democratic government were accused of having accepted mobile telephones from private businesses; in October 1999 social democratic officials were accused of having accepted free petrol from the Chemapol business conglomerate several years ago.

In December 1999, the Czech Parliament refused to approve the state budget for the year 2000, arguing that the current government is incompetent. Many right wing deputies wish to bring it down, but the Civic Democratic Party is not ready to renounce the opposition agreement.

The Czech economic situation in 1999...

was constantly bordering on crisis. Large business conglomerates like Chemapol, Poldi Steelworks and Skoda Plzen got into serious difficulties. Many areas in the Czech Republic, especially in the north of the country, have been afflicted with double figure unemployment. The Kohinoor coal mine in the Most region is currently on strike, trying to prevent the sacking of some employees. In the first quarter of 1999, the Czech GDP dropped by 4.5%. After concerted effort by the social democratic government the economy recorded a small growth towards the end of 1999.

Problems with the principles of democracy

The Czech media hailed the acceptance of the Czech Republic into NATO on 12 March 1999 as a major historical event. The problem was that the Czech population was not allowed to vote in a referendum about the accession to NATO; according to opinion polls Czech support for NATO entry was lukewarm (56% of Czechs supported entry into NATO in February 1999) and very soon after the Czech Republic joined NATO, NATO went to war against Yugoslavia. In spite of sustained support of the war in the Czech media, the Czech population remained sceptical about the war. Only 35% of Czechs approved of the bombing campaign against Milosevic in March 1999. When Jan Krecek, a young Czech anarchist blew a whistle and burned a little NATO flag before the television cameras during a NATO accession ceremony, attended by Vaclav Havel at the Prague Castle at the end of February 1999, the Czech media had a series of apoplectic fits. Krecek was charged with hooliganism, although charges against him were later dropped. President Vaclav Havel continued to refuse to meet the representatives of the Czech Communist party, in spite of the fact that it became the second largest popular party in the country. Czech public service TV continues to ostracise the Communists in its political programmes.

What did the people think about all this?

Throughout 1999, public opinion polls showed ever increasing disaffection among the Czech population. In January 1999, it transpired that Czechs think that current Czech politicians are not more honest than politicians in the Communist era. Another poll in January 1999 showed that Czechs think the opposition agreement is a fraud. In February 1999, a significant percentage of people believed that Czech politics was in a serious crisis. In March 1999, independent candidates achieved great success in local authority elections. Also in March 1999, Czechs expressed the view that "Czech political developments are not leading anywhere". In April 1999, 74% of Czech citizens were dissatisfied with Czech politics. In June 1999 only 25% of Czechs approved of Prime Minister Zeman. In October 1999, only 34% of Czechs thought that the current Czech regime is better than Communism.

Jan Culik, 12 December 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.

Archive of Jan Culik's articles in CER


This article can be found [in Czech], with complete references, in Britske listy.

An extensive overview of Czech political developments between 1992 and 1999 was published in CER 12.



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