Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 21
15 February 1999

Kazi Stastna S L O V A K O - C Z E C H I A :
Spa Snooze-fest

Kazi Stastna

Last weekend, a group of about 50 Czech and Slovak academics, politicians, artists, activists and journalists gathered in the Moravian spa town of Luhacovice for the fifth annual Vlado Cech Meeting, sponsored by the Czecho-Slovak weekly publication Mosty (Bridges). It was a weekend of snobbish, Czechoslovak merriment to be sure, and the plebes were kept strictly on their side of the moat. Once again, the Czech and Slovak intellectual elites met and discussed the issues - and got just about everything hopelessly wrong. But perhaps the torch of dynamic social change was passed from the Czechs, who are now stuck in a rut, to the Slovaks, whose society is now blossoming.

The event was initiated by the current editor-in-chief of Mosty, Sona Cechova, in February 1995, one year after her 44-year-old son Vlado died under as yet unclear circumstances in a car accident. More than a memorial to Vlado himself, the three-day conference is intended to follow in his footsteps and endorse the ideas this former Slovak dissident and Charter 77 signatory promoted while alive, mainly through his activities as founder of Mosty and the Hnutie ceskoslovenskeho porozumenia (The Movement for Czechoslovak Understanding). Although the exact guest list varies slightly from year to year, all participants are united in their sentimental pangs of nostalgia and efforts to keep the home fires of the former federal republic, and Czecho-Slovak relations in general, burning.

For an observer such as me, the tone for the entire event was set at I P Pavlova Metro station in Prague, where I met my fellow minivan passengers. On of them greeted me with a cry of: "Well you know it is going to be an intellectual affair when everyone arrives on time." And it sure was that.

"Those uncultured plebes"

In fact, a distinct and highly palpable elitism hung over the entire weekend like a wet blanket. Underneath this blanket a group of Czech and Slovak intellectuals struggled to salvage some antiquated notion of higher ideals, ethical standards and refined taste. Throughout the three days of discussions, which were aimed at examining the current state of media, politics, culture, economics, environment and human rights in the two republics, the prevailing consensus among the predominantly fifty-and-up crowd was that, in all of these areas, higher ideals and standards are under threat. Under attack, in fact, from the base, contemptible plebes, the masses, the Volk.

For all the recent talk about "civil society" (obcanska spolecnost) within Czech and Slovak intellectual circles and the launching of February's "30 days for a Civil Sector" across the Czech Republic, most of the participants in Luhacovice displayed a strong and bitter contempt for the "obcan," that is the average citizen. A spattering of patronising, "anti-plebe" rhetoric was heard both in the official speeches and in the discussions which took place afterward in the lecture hall and across the supper table.

One contributor, the Czech historian Jan Rychlik, smugly pronounced that he did not have faith in the credo that the voice of the people is synonymous with the voice of God and rejected the naive notion that the simple citizen understands everything. In fact, declared Rychlik, the exact opposite is true: the simple citizen does not understand anything.

Similarly, during the conference's cultural segment, Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal condescendingly pronounced that people may know how to distinguish a bad carrot from a good one, but with literature it is a little more complicated. Hence in this area, according to Dostal, they need a helping hand, in the form of set standards and regulations concerning printed matter.

The political segment also had its patronising pearls, such as that of government aide Albert Cerny, who stressed that, unless the simple citizen learns the basics of politics, he will not be able to distinguish between what is good for him and what just looks good on paper, and hence, he will not be able to vote "correctly."

By far the most ardent railings against the common man came in the media portion of the conference. Here Dostal and Cerny's "confused customer" theory seemed to find its niche quite nicely, as panelists pronounced that with the current-day "banalization" of media and with the average citizen's low level of media literacy, he is not able to make the distinction between the tabloid and the serious press. Doomsday pronouncements were made, such as that of theologian and former dissident Jan Simsa who, speaking about radio broadcasting, pronounced that the way things were heading, the media really would soon end up being for the average listener. The horror indeed!

In a similar vein, Deputy Chairman of the Czech Senate Petr Pithart expressed disheartenment at the reforms currently going on in regional radio broadcasting, and when he met with the argument that the changes are necessary because, after all, in the provinces it is not possible to have broadcasting which addresses only 4% of the population he retorted with: "Yes, but isn't it more important who that 4% are?"

Empty moralizing, nothing practical

Such statements were symptomatic for the conference, which remained largely removed from reality on many levels. The first night's discussion on media ethics, for example, demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of real media issues. Instead of engaging in actual substance-based criticism of current Czech and Slovak broadcast and print media, most of the discussion revolved around vague outcries of the lowering of standards and crude "marketization" of media. As is customary for many intellectuals and journalists in the two countries, many of whom have been pushed out of larger daily publications into marginal ones by the downsizing and face-lifting initiatives of the new, predominantly foreign owners, TV Nova was again declared the symbol of all that is evil about the new consumer-oriented media. Its owner Vladimir Zelezny was alternately ridiculed and demonized as the man who was single-handedly leading the country's blind and obedient plebes down the road to one big, banal, sensationalistic "media variety show."

Only a few voices attempted to steer the discussion toward the concrete examination of the media's existing problems and gross deficiencies. When one Moravian participant pointed out the fact that international news (including news of Slovakia) is virtually a non-entity on Czech television's nightly news, and when it does appear it, it does so several notches behind several irrelevant and amateurishly presented local items, his words disappeared into a black hole and the conversation returned to something more relevant, such as Nova's latest scandalous slashing of President Havel.

They speak but do not hear

Ironically, it was within the very speeches and contributions themselves that some of the real, acute problems of current Czech and Slovak media became painfully clear. When the moderator of the Media Ethics panel and editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper speaks of being a "guest" at a presidential press conference and sees her role as coming neatly dressed, behaving well "like mother taught you" and not asking too many nosy questions, it reveals more about the state of journalism and media ethics in the region than any of the long-winded talk of moral codes and ethical standards which sounded throughout the rest of the discussion.

Similarly, when the Czech Minister of Culture complains that Czech (public) Television is controlled politically and dismisses the current Council for Czech Television as a purely political, corrupt organ, and then is overheard at lunch saying that after seeing a cut version of an interview he gave, he called up the director of Czech Television to ask what the meaning of such an unfavorable edit was and what the director intends to do about it, enlightenment about political influence on media is not too far behind.

Equally telling was the discourse employed by the majority of participants, whose speeches remained seeped in antiquated terminology and concepts. Aside from perennial favorites such as "nasi Romove" (our Roma) and banal, sexist attempts at cheap laughs ("Slovakia's bad reputation, like that of a young girl, will be hard to get rid of."), certain cliche notions of culture and nation were also firmly adhered to.

On the last day of the conference, both Pithart, in his closing speech, and Dostal, in the context of his speech on culture in the market economy, appealed for more "self-reflection." (The one thing that this particular conference and Czech and Slovak intellectual communities in general do NOT need more of.) Aside from his plentiful feel-good rhetoric about finding a place in the cultural mosaic of the EU, during his speech, Dostal also insisted on defining culture in terms of national identity and the question which has been foremost on the minds of Czechoslovak intellectuals since the days of the First Republic: "Jaci jsme?" (Peroutka's tiresome "What are we like?"). Just the fact that Dostal and his fellow panelist, former Slovak Minister of Culture Ladislav Snopko, felt the need to define art and culture at all and attempted to use some outdated, elitist measuring stick to do it (in Snopko's words "the state has to support elite art") showed an acute ignorance of current notions of culture, in which concepts such as nation and "high art" have little relevance. Hence, as in the area of media, the participants proved to be removed from reality, both when it came to concepts and in the very language which they used to discuss topics like culture and national identity.

Slovak thought more dynamic

As much as this conference was intended to be about bridging the gap between Czechs and Slovaks, over the course of the three days, it became very clear that the two countries currently stand at very different points. As the Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kusy pointed out, Slovakia is currently experiencing an "in-between time" (mezicas) a transition period of tallying and cleaning up - both its own backyard and its bad reputation in the world beyond it. In Petr Pithart's words, Slovakia stands at the threshold of something new, it has a new chance, while the Czech Republic, in his opinion, passed up its chance during the June 1998 elections which didn't result in a true changing of the guard. It is perhaps precisely for this reason that Slovakia is currently succeeding in actively confronting some of the issues that the Czech Republic continues to sweep under the rug, such as minority rights and EU accession.

It is noteworthy that within the murky theoretical waters of the conference, it was the Slovak participants who repeatedly introduced concrete examples into the discussion. They reminded their Czech peers of simple realities such as the lack of teaching materials in Slovak elementary schools - Slovak teachers are still teaching out of Czech history textbooks which they often buy themselves, and from which they spend the majority of class time dictating to students; or existing discrepancies within Czecho-Slovak relations, such as the tuition waiver initiative between Czech and Slovak universities, which was thought up by then Minister of Education Jan Sokol at last year's Luhacovice conference, and was delayed by a year for Slovak students because Czech universities refused to extend their deadlines for Slovaks, although their Slovak counterparts did just that for Czech students.

Aside from some such concrete examples, however, few acute problems were confronted and no new ideas or initiatives emerged from the three days of panel discussions. The predominant mood at the conference was one of stagnation, and despite the crisp, healing air of their quaint surroundings, the 50 odd participants remained trapped beneath that wet blanket of out-dated, elitist theorizing.

Kazi Stastna, 15 February 1999


Back to the Kazi Stastna Archive main page

Return to the CER homepage


Find out more about our Virtual Internship Programme


Book Shop


Music Shop

your article
to Central Europe Review


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved