Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 30
19 April 1999

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
Czechs Seek Yet Another Model
Ireland is the new flavour of the month
Sean Hanley

Czechs are good at producing models. We all know Eva Herzigova of Wonderbra fame, of course. However, it is not so much Ms Herzigova and her contribution to the Czech Republic's foreign currency earnings that I am thinking of here, but the enduring illusion among some Czechs that the solution to their country's political and economic problems lies in copying someone else.

Over the years, the Czechs have had umpteen foreign models. In 1918, the newly independent Czechoslovak state would, it was claimed, avoid conflicts between its numerous national groups by becoming the 'Switzerland of Central Europe'. It didn't. Come the Communist regime, Czechoslovakia was to be, in the words of the first Communist President Klement Gottwald, 'With the The Soviet Union Forever'. Not only that, it was to follow a Law of Ever Closer Approximation to The USSR. Fortunately, 'Forever' meant a mere 41 and half years, and the approximation to the USSR was always approximate enough for there still to be some bread in Czechoslovakia's shops in 1989.

By 1990, the country was heading 'back to Europe'. However, needless to say, some more specific foreign model was called for. President Havel's 1991 vision of Czechoslovakia 'in 10 to 15 years time', for example, evoked the tidiness, prosperity and good citizenship of Denmark as an example. His great political rival, former Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus considered himself an 'Anglo-Saxon' liberal and convinced his supporters - and much of the outside world - for some time that he was a Czech Margaret Thatcher. However, both Mr Klaus's policies and the Czech Republic itself after his five-year reign, were no more 'Anglo-Saxon' than they were Chinese.

Many Czechs have preferred to see neighbouring Austria as a model, given its historical ties and geographical proximity to their country. In the early 1990s, pub bores up and down in the Czech Lands would inevitably tell you that 'in five years time, it'll be like Austria here'. The sad truth is that, cultural affinities and Julius Meinl supermarkets aside, the Czech Republic is as much like Austria in 1999 as it was in 1989.

Social Democratic bores, by contrast, would, tell you that the 'Swedish model' was the one to go for. However, so far, old ABBA records and the Prague branch of IKEA is as close as most Czechs have come to the Swedish experience.

The current flavour of the month among model-minded Czech politicians, economists and journalists, however, is Ireland. In the 1990s, Ireland unexpectedly became a 'Celtic Tiger'. In the four years after 1993, the Irish economy grew by an astonishing 40% and is still booming. For Czech politicians and economists, this makes it the latest model to copy.

Former Vice Governor of the Czech National Bank, Pavel Kysilka, for example, recently waxed lyrical in the news magazine Tyden about the superiority of the Irish Model to the Austrian Recipe. Tax breaks for foreign investors, the promotion of an export-led, service-based economy with high value-added products; political consensus and a National Renewal Plan; a small welfare system; tough fiscal policies and a willingness to run high levels of unemployment - where the Irish Republic had boldly gone, the Czech Republic, could follow! Apply the Irish Recipe, Mr Kysika reckoned, and 'in four or five years there could be huge economic growth of, say 10%, sustainable in the long-term without any problem'.

The comparison is an interesting one. Ireland is perhaps historically the closest thing to an East European country that Western Europe has to offer. A young state created only in 1920, whose politics were dominated by nationalism, culture and language, Ireland was both geographically peripheral and economically backward. Founded on traditions of revolutionary violence, nationalist kitsch and Catholic conservatism, the newly independent Irish state almost saw democracy go under altogether in the 1920s. After independence, Ireland remained for decades, a poor, isolated, inward-looking, protectionist state. Politics was dominated by nationalist politicians such as President Eamonn De Valera, who played the role of a kind of Celtic Vladimir Meciar.

By the time my father left Ireland for England in 1960, the gulf in living standards between the two countries was the same as that between East and West Germany.

Now, of course, all this is history. The East Germans may still look enviously Westwards, but the Irish are already better off than the Brits next door. Never mind Sweden and Austria, Mr Kysilka must be on to a good thing. A Law of Ever Closer Approximation to the Irish Republic, the right model at last.

In themselves, Mr Kysilka's policies are quite sensible. Were I a Czech, I would sign up to most, if not all, them. However, his idea that they constitute an Irish Model, which the Czech Republic can follow is just so much Central European blarney.

Ireland may be the land of leprechauns and Little People, but its politicians never waved a magic wand. The Irish economic miracle of the 1990s was rooted in a process of economic and social modernisation started in the 1960s under Prime Minister Sean Leamass, at the latest in Ireland's joining the European Community in 1973, not some political rabbit pulled out of a hat in the mid-1980's, as Mr Kysilka seems to think. The Czech Republic can, of course, like Ireland join the EU - but unfortunately not in 1973 as a small agricultural country (and the then poorest member) a when Brussels still had cash to distribute - but only in cash-strapped 2005-2010, when Poland, Hungary, Greece, Spain and Portugal will all be competing hard for whatever structural funds are going.

The backwardness of post-Communist states in Central Europe like the Czech Republic is, moreover, of a different order to that of Ireland. The Catholic Church may have been a dominant and authoritarian force in Irish society banning divorce, abortion and contraception, and much else. Its 'leading role' as the 'religion of most Irishmen and women' was even written into the Irish Republic's constitution. But it also sustained a civil society and an education system the predacious and destructive one-party states of Eastern Europe never could.

Secondly, Ireland has always had the great good fortune of being able to export its unemployment through emigration, mainly to England and the USA. The Irish also had the good luck to speak English rather than their own dying national language (except, occasionally for official purposes and displays of national identity). By contrast, there is no tradition of economic emigration - political emigration aside - in the Czech lands. Life has simply always been too comfortable there. No real rural poverty or famine as in Ireland either. No empty shelves under Communism as in Poland or post-Communist economic catastrophe as in Bulgaria. Sensibly enough, most Czechs have no desire to move even to the next district, let alone emigrate even when unemployed.

Thirdly, Czech nationalism has always been too liberal and peaceful for its own good. In both Ireland and the Czech lands the idea of 'consensus' that Mr Kysilka alludes to above is historically rooted in an unspoken desire for national unity. But transmuting old-fashioned nationalist thinking into the pure gold of a flexible modern social consensus is no easy job.

Some have it easier than others, though. Irish nationalism's characteristic mix of peasant values, romantic revolutionary nationalism, religion and Celtic myth was by the 1950s so utterly archaic, that re-thinking had to come. Even in the highly pressurised political atmosphere of Northern Ireland, in the long term a nationalism of sacrifice and struggle could not endure forever as a serious political idea. However, Czechs' continual self-absorbed speculation about themselves and their national character - a nationalistic self-preoccupation many Czechs are quite unaware of - seems destined to go on forever. Czechs have never needed to 'take the gun out of politics' like the Irish. But, if debate on political and economic problems is not to be reduced to an occasional search for a ready-to-wear foreign model, they do need to cut down on the narcissistic, provincial self-absorption, which still characterises the country's media and political and intellectual debate.

For a long time, the only model the Irish had was not to be like England. These days, however, England hardly features on the Irish mental map. Ireland is in Europe. However, the Irish have not implemented a 'European Model' or 'followed Europe'. Through good luck and good judgement they have become part of it.

As doubtless Ms Herzigova would tell Mr Kysilka, if they ever met, successful models invent themselves through imagination and hard graft, not by copying others. If the Czechs stop making models and, instead make a start, they might just been on course for an economic miracle in about 2030.

I wish them all the luck of the Irish in getting there!

Sean Hanley, 19 April 1999


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