Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 34
17 May 1999

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
When West Isnít Best

Sean Hanley

The Kosovo crisis is a defining moment of the post-Cold War world. It has also thrown into sharp relief much that was previously unclear or unstated. NATO. The Balkans. International security. 'Global governance'. The relationship between Russia and the West. Relations between the US and China. Nothing will ever quite be the same again. But far from the diplomatic and military limelight and the human tragedy of Kosovo, the crisis has provided some illuminating insights into the Czech Republic.

Once set on the fast lane into NATO, Czech politicians and public have been distinctly lukewarm about the Alliance's action against Yugoslavia. In recent weeks, Czech public opinion has also swung decisively against the NATO action. Helicopter-gunship diplomacy, of course, comes more easily to the British and the Americans than to the small, post-Communist nations in Central Europe. In Hungary and Poland, however, the same scenario has not been played out. There is perhaps a special Czech distaste for military might, but is this the whole story?

Many, including former Czech Foreign Minister, Joseph Zieleniec, do not think so and see there is something deeper and more important at work in the Czech psyche. 'In a certain sense', says Zieleniec, Ďthe Kosovo crisis is more important than November 1989, which was to a considerable extent an automatic result of the collapse of Communism and didnít have such a fundamental influence on Czech national consciousnessí.

There are good reasons to think he is right. The Kosovo crisis has highlighted more than just Czech provincialism and political unpreparedness. It has also offered a snapshot of a growing, but previously inarticulate, mood of hostility and scepticism among Czechs towards integration with Western Europe generally.

As part of the leftward shift in Czech public opinion which saw the election of a minority Social Democratic government last year, opinion polls picked out a growing irritation with West European cultural and political models among many Czechs. Ten years after Czechoslovakia's 'Return To Europe' began, the enthusiasm, energy and willingness for change mobilised first by Civic Forum and then by Vaclav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party (ODS) are utterly drained.

Once tipped for an economic miracle, the Czech economy is belaboured by seemingly intractable structural and institutional problems and is badly underperforming. Unemployment is rising. There is, as President Havel famously put it, a 'foul mood' afoot in the country.

Czechs are fed up. They are tired of waiting for the market to yield up the West European living standards they had hoped for. They do not want to hear that the most difficult social consequences of economic transition are still ahead of them. They are annoyed at the risk, uncertainty and competition that the market brings. They are sick of hearing that their 'common sense' attitudes to the country's Roma are racist. They are fed up with smart-arse Western experts and analysts parading across screens. They are irritated with a non-stop diet of dubbed American films depicting a life-style utterly foreign to post-Communist Central Europe. They are fed up with reading in the paper that, yet again, their country has been found wanting by the European Union.

Once the preserve of minority parties like the Communists (KSCM) or the far-right Republicans (SPR-RSC), dislike of the West is increasingly finding its way into the Czech political mainstream. Some Social Democrats have, of course, been uncomfortable with the idea that there was a 'standard' West European model that could be more or less copied. Ironically, however, it is Vaclav Klaus and the Right, which is making all the running in responding to the mood of disillusion and frustration - a disillusion sown in largely by their own policies. Klaus and his ODS party have dropped much of their earlier free market rhetoric singing the praising of 'standard' Western institutions, in favour of biting criticism of NATO and the assertion of 'the Czech national interest'.

Some commentators have interpreted this sudden change in tone a shift from 'Czech Thatcherism' to 'Czech Gaullism': a move from an ideology of free markets and all things 'Anglo-Saxon', to a new robust, anti-American defence of national interests, centred a technocratic state and a charismatic Man of Destiny. After all, in practice, if not in theory, there was always a strong nationalistic, statist and technocratic thrust to Mr Klaus's policies when he was in government. Not for nothing was his dash for coupon privatisation - cutting out most foreign investors - called 'the Czech Way'. Like De Gaulle, Mr Klaus also has both a moustache and ill-concealed, long-held presidential ambitions. And, as friends and opponents all testify, his ego is sufficiently large that it could compete with the General's.

Claims for the emergence of a 'Czech Gaullism' are, however, misplaced. De Gaulle, it will be remembered, had une certaine idee de la France, projecting France and French culture firmly on the European and world stages. The 'new nationalism' of the Czech Right and Vaclav Klaus Mark II, by contrast, seems to be one of national self-interest narrowly defined as the Czech Republic retreating into itself. It seems based not so much on striking out on a distinct national course, as on doing one's own thing unnoticed and unaffected by the wider world.

Historically, however, Europe's big powers have usually not been fooled for long by Czech attempts to create their own provincial idyll, ignoring and evading the realities of whatever international organisation of which they were members. In 1968, Brezhnev sent in the tanks. How long will it be before EU Commissioner, Romano Prodi or NATO Secretary General, Javier Solana summon their own politburos, if the Czechs prove equally recalcitrant in their understandings of NATO, capitalism and democracy?

Sean Hanley, 17 May 1999


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