Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999


The Land Where
Heroes Wear Dunce Caps

Tomas Pecina

Last week, the otherwise stagnant waters of Czech politics were disturbed by an event which would hardly be regarded as political in most other places. Jan Ruml, chairman of the renegade Freedom Union party, was not admitted to Plzen University's Law School, though he fared relatively well at the entrance exams. The Czech media gave the whole event unusually wide coverage, and the reactions of the general public ranged from mild astonishment to open contempt. "Stupid Jack," as Ruml is now regularly referred to, has become an object of countless jokes, and Czechs speculate wildly on his failure and its likely causes.

Should Jan Ruml be embarrassed? Well, given the toughness of the competition and the fact that most other applicants were thirty years his junior and had just finished secondary school, he should have every reason to be proud of himself. However, this is not what counts in the eye of the Czech common man or Ruml's political colleagues. Ruml has become a man who compromised himself by showing a weakness, who gave himself away, who showed that he did not know how to do things, or, as a pertinent Czech phrase goes, "ze si to neumi zaridit."

A few weeks ago, another telling event took place on the outskirts of Prague. Jan Koukal, former mayor of the city and a high-ranking figure of Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS), was arrested by the police for drunk driving. The two policemen who carried out the arrest later said that Koukal treated them with unusual arrogance, ordering them to call the police president immediately, and when they refused to do so, he started to shout and threaten them.

Although the routine breathalyser test on alcohol was clearly positive, the analysis of Koukal's blood carried out later that day showed that ex-mayor's blood was clear, without any trace of alcohol in it. And this was the end of the story. Koukal got back his driving license, the media had no scandal, and the only thing left to speculation was the fate of the two policemen who had the guts to arrest a drunken politician. Koukal proved himself a man who knows how to do things, and the public surely did not fail to notice.

The practice of special treatment for public figures by the authorities has a long tradition in this country. Under Communism, members of the nomenklatura were seldom exposed to the public embarrassment of court hearings or, for that matter, entrance examinations. The Party watched over their lives, granting them the coveted status of "men-above-the-law."

For a short time after 1989, it seemed that the preferential treatment of the political class in this country would become history. However, with the arrival in 1992 of Klaus's "realistic" post-Communist politics and a crushing defeat of Pithart and Havel's "idealistic" flank of the former Civic Forum, the phenomenon was back again in its former glory. From the psychological point of view, it is very understandable and universal: it takes a long time to become a politician, and after all that effort, the political newcomer finds his daily life unrewarding, painfully devoid of status symbols of any kind. Every little privilege helps, from the right to free travel on the public transport system (which the beneficiary usually never uses), to virtually free meals at the Parliament's canteen, to the generous immunity of Czech deputies and senators covering everything from speeding tickets to murder.

Besides the official perks and privileges, there are unofficial ones, and Koukal's miraculous sobering up was obviously of the latter kind. Policing has been traditionally connected and intertwined with politics in this country, and several years ago, when the ODS reigned supreme, the party even attempted to make the municipal (especially the metropolitan) police corps a sort of party militia, with police officers adding glamour to party officials by serving them as unofficial bodyguards.

Another visible symbol of this silent arrangement is the fancy number plates which grant their owners preferential treatment by road patrols: all policemen know that an owner of a special type of number plate is a person on very good terms with the police (a politician, an influential businessmen or, as the case may be, a local Mafia boss), and they will seldom stop a car bearing a plate, say, AHV 00-01.

One of the rare opportunities when a common Czech can meet the Man-Above-the-Law of the 1990s in flesh and blood is in the jammed streets of Czech cities. Politicians have small blue beacon lights attached to the roofs of their cars, which give them the right of way. It is widely known that not all beacon-holders are duly authorised by the Interior Ministry as they should be, and the design of the side-mounted beacons contradicts the regulations: they either ought to be twin, placed symmetrically, or one along the centre line. Moreover, the lights have no power when used without an acoustic siren, and these cars either do not have a siren installed or choose not to use it. However, Czech drivers know better than put up a fight with the privileged ones over a few technicalities, and the police keep their eyes shut.

Thus, here comes a piece of useful advice for you, dear Western reader: if you happen to come across a car with a small blue beacon driving recklessly though the traffic, give way as quickly as you can. If you should let that car crash into yours (or, God forbid, the other way around), one thing is certain: the police investigating the accident would be all but an impartial judge. This is how things are in the Czech Republic, and those who try to change it, in the streets or on the university campus, are scorned and treated like fools.

Tomas Pecina, 6 July 1999
























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