Vol 1, No 4, 19 July 1999


When Czech Fights Czech

Tomas Pecina

"If you leave me, you shall perish," says Mother Country in a poem by Viktor Dyk, one of the last century's poets actively involved in the Czech National Revival. Back then, emigration was regarded as treason, an apostasy, a desertion of the sacred nationalistic cause. This may have been a justifiable approach for a relatively small nation hanging on to an enclave in an overwhelmingly German environment. However, when the same rhetoric - including Dyk's verse, repeated over and over - was exploited by the Communists in their attempts to dissuade the Czechoslovak population from mass emigration, such nineteenth-century propaganda could hardly work.

Indeed, over the forty years of Communist rule, hundreds of thousands left the country. They were mainly intellectuals, artists, university lecturers, architects, doctors, former entrepreneurs and public servants - all those who were branded as second-rate citizens by the country's new rulers.

One would almost automatically assume that after the fall of Communism in 1989, the now free people would embrace their emigrants, taking advantage of their experience of living in democratic and prosperous parts of the world.

No such luck.

In 1999, ten years after the fall of Communism, an undeclared war is being waged. Czech emigrants are organising against their former country. For example, in the US congressional debate on NATO expansion, Czech emigrants living in the States vociferously sided against the Czech Republic's entry. On the other side of the battlefield, the Czech Parliament is in the process of enacting another piece of discriminatory, anti-emigrant legislation. Emotions are high on both sides.

While all the other countries in the region, including Slovakia, have managed to establish good and friendly relations with their emigrants, Czechs, both emigrants and non-emigrants, seem to be enjoying the animosity, feeling no urge to call an end to what is a unique phenomenon not only in the region, but probably world-wide.

He started it

One might conjecture that it was the Czech establishment who initiated the enmity because of fear that the emigrants might be the first to blow the whistle, and call the Czech economic miracle what it really was, namely, a hoax. Well, yes and no.

When the Internet made communication between non-emigrants and emigrants simpler and more accessible in mid-1990s, both sides were surprised how wide the gap between them was. The rift is hardly attributable to one single cause, and this makes any progress painfully slow-paced.

While the Communists could expect little impact from their nineteenth-century rhetoric, the practical action they undertook was significantly more efficient. First of all, they decided to consistently persecute the emigrants' relatives. There were no official penalties, just denial of what the Communist system regarded as privileges: the right to education (in some cases even secondary-school), the right to travel abroad, the right to career advancement. They also insisted that all emigrants' outstanding loans must be repaid by the guarantors. Thus the relatives and friends of emigrants effectively became hostages left in the hands of the Communist authorities. This created a serious ethical problem for everyone who was considering leaving the country, although few emigrants are willing to admit or even discuss that today.

Further, while communication between the emigrants and their friends and relatives back home was hampered, serious misunderstandings arose. If there were a million emigrants, there were a million success stories. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, many a millionaire suddenly moved into the lower middle class and numerous prosperous businessmen with operations world-wide turned out to be living on state benefits. Czech emigrants were generally successful in their new countries, but their success was seldom fabulous, and those who really made a fortune had no need to boast of it ad nauseam.

It worked the other way round, as well: Czechs were often persecuted because of the emigres in their families, but the persecution was seldom as crushing and unlimited as depicted in the letters abroad trying to solicit sympathy or material benefits. Yes, the Czech Republic has traditionally been a country where lying is not an uncommon phenomenon.

Missionary work

Another problem has been the missionary attitude assumed by many returning emigrants after 1989. They have failed to realise that a significant, perhaps a decisive part of their success was a factor of the environment into which they had been integrated and of which they had taken advantage. If they happened to wake up in the Czech Republic the next morning with no possibility of returning to their new homes and were supposed to start a new life there, they would face the same problems as the rest of the community. Despite all the "know-how" they now possessed, they would end up much less successful than they might imagine.

The number of returning emigrants who established successful ventures in the Czech Republic is surprisingly low, with the single most famous emigre businessman being Viktor Kozeny, the man behind the infamous Harvard Funds, an enterprise that "tunnelled" [asset stripped, ed.] about a billion dollars out of the country in exchange for nothing but an experience dearly paid for by tens of thousands of hapless investors.

There are several psychological factors behind the missionary type of emigrant. First, there is the trauma of the first years of emigration, seeking its re-compensation or reward. Secondly, there is a genuine wish to help. Last but not least, there is the naivety common to all Westerners who wonder how such simple things as a phone or a lawsuit might not function properly in the Czech Republic, and jump to easy conclusions without properly studying the often sophisticated mechanics of why these things do not work.

Who speaks for those outside?

A serious problem for the emigrant community is a lack of leadership acceptable to the other party. Instead of neat gentlemen and ladies knowledgeable in the ways of the world, the community is represented by an elderly lady whose histrionics resemble more of a travesty than effective international lobbying (including a hunger strike in front of Strakova Akademie, the seat of the Czech Government, wound up the very first night when this lady felt cold and got hungry).

On the other hand, the current legal situation of the emigrant community for the Czech Republic is outrageous and hardly resembles a civilised status quo. The first post-1989 Parliament of Czechoslovakia ruled that emigrants, unlike those living in Czechoslovakia, had no right to the restitution of the property seized by the Communists and thus sanctioned the original act of confiscation. Additionally, a significant percentage of emigrants have been denied Czech citizenship, and even those emigrants who have been issued a Czech passport still cannot vote in general elections, as current legislation does not provide for polling stations at Czech embassies or consulates.

While the former government of Vaclav Klaus was clearly anti-emigrant and did very little to resolve the situation, the current Social Democratic cabinet under the Premier Milos Zeman promised to prepare a new citizenship law, which is currently being processed by Parliament. However, the bill has been a bitter disappointment to those who were taken in by Zeman's pre-election promises. Although virtually all emigrants would be granted Czech citizenship, the restitution issue, as Deputy Premier Pavel Rychetsky has said, would not be re-opened. Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Kavan made it clear last autumn that his government did not perceive this issue as a priority, in view of the relatively small number of the emigrants.

One thing is certain: if there is to be any improvement in relations between Czechs in the Czech Republic and Czechs abroad, there will need to be a completely new government in Prague with a completely new set of priorities. As Czech politics is currently made immovable by the so-called "Opposition Agreement" between Klaus and Zeman's parties, probably only a strong spark, such as a firm rejection of the Czech Republic by the European Union, could give rise to such development.

Until then, the absurd show will go on, to the detriment of both the non-emigrant and emigrant communities.

Tomas Pecina, 10 July 1999





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