„Confessions of a Czechophile.“ Kritický text Edwarda Lucase | Reportér Magazín

„Confessions of a Czechophile.“ Kritický text Edwarda Lucase

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Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas 25 / 09 / 2014

Přinášíme anglický originál článku známého novináře Edwarda Lucase, v němž kriticky hodnotí Českou republiku. / We publish an opinion by Edward Lucas written exclusively for The Reporter Magazine.

Václav Havel, symbol listopadu 1989. Foto: ČTK

Přinášíme anglický originál článku známého novináře Edwarda Lucase, v němž kriticky hodnotí Českou republiku. / We publish an opinion by Edward Lucas written exclusively for The Reporter Magazine.

I arrived in Czechoslovakia in January 1989 to collect my accreditation, bursting with optimism and ignorance. I was one of only four Western journalists living permanently in Prague – the others were a jovial West German TV correspondent, an incomprehensible Japanese, and a gloomy Frenchman from AFP.

My friend at the British embassy was discouraging. ‘There’s nothing going on here. You’ll starve”. Almost the first news story I wrote was about her expulsion for espionage. But she was right — the pickings were indeed thin at the beginning. I wrote about jazz – the Emil Viklicky Quartet – and a daring Kafka festival. But the political situation seemed as unmoving and unmovable as the Central Committee building.

As I tried to scrape a living, I struggled to find the right framework to understand the puzzling passivity and hopelessness that surrounded me. Was it anaesthesia? Castration? Realism? At any rate, it was disappointing.

I had been reared on heroic tales of the anti-communist resistance. At the age of nine I read ‘All aboard for Freedom’, an American children’s book based on the real-life ‘Vlak Svobody’ (Freedom Train) which crashed across the Iron Curtain in 1951. My father, an Oxford philosopher, travelled secretly to Prague to give underground lectures to other philosophers who were working as stokers and window cleaners. We raised money to buy Vaclav Havel a word processor. When the StB confiscated it, we raised money to buy another one.

I had lived in Poland, and was bewitched by the Poles’ overt contempt for their rulers. I had been a correspondent in East Germany and was fascinated, if repelled, by the number of people there who genuinely believed that their kind of Germany was better.

But it was hard to make sense of the Czechs and Slovaks. They did not like the regime. Barely anyone actually believed in it. But they did not dislike it enough to do anything. Everyone seemed so tired. The gentle struggle to maintain a quiet and comfortable existence – with a Skoda, a chata, an annual holiday, keeping the children out of trouble and hunting down scarce consumer goods – seemed to exhaust their energies. I was cautious about raising controversial political topics with people whom I met casually (and I was aware that all my movements were watched by the StB, so anyone I did become friendly with would be under scrutiny too). Most people I met seemed barely to have heard of the dissidents. I could recite Charter 77 from memory, Most Czechs and Slovaks I met thought that was weird.

As the rest of the region began to stir, the Czechoslovak apathy became more anomalous. Even the East Germans were fed up – streaming through Prague to seek asylum in the West German embassy, leaving their cherished Trabbis and Wartburgs in the streets, keys in the ignition, and notes telling the Czechs that they were welcome to keep them.

It seemed inevitable that Communist rule would topple sooner or later. The big puzzle was what would come after. I was gloomy – I could not see any reformists lurking in the grey ranks of the Communist Party. There was no counterpart to Hungary’s Imre Poszgay, or East Germany’s Hans Modrow, and certainly no Czechoslovak Gorbachev. It seemed more likely that the Communist Party would implode completely than that it would change.

Nor could I see the dissidents, exhausted, fractious, eccentric, forming a new political class. There were too few solid characters with the moral and intellectual depth of Adam Michnik, Bronislaw Geremek, Jacek Kuron or Tadeusz Mazowiecki. When a building collapses, weeds grow on the rubble, I mused. What would be the political brambles, nettles, bindweed and buddleia that would take root once the existing system collapsed.

Other questions were pressing too. What would happen to the StB, and their network of informants, and to the hideous secrets of their files. Who would get the money after the revolution? What would happen to the Russians? And what about the relations between Czechs and Slovaks – a problem that had been disguised by Communism, but not solved?

The Velvet Revolution blew my pessimism away, briefly. All the other correspondents, almost without exception, were convinced that they were witnessing a fairytale. Who could not thrill to the idea that Dubcek was addressing a huge crowd in Wenceslas Square, or that Marta Kubisova was singing to it? My Polish friends were so enthused that they came to Prague and put up posters saying “Havel na Wawel” – if the Czechoslovaks did not want the playwright as president, then he would be welcome in Poland.

In January 1990 I was already fed up. It was clear that the revolutionary magic was ebbing as fast as it had flowed. The new political class was visibly over-taxed by the tasks ahead of it. I found Vaclav Klaus sinister. There were some bright spots – especially in foreign policy. My friend Vaclav Havel negotiated a stunning rapprochement with Germany. But far too little was changing. The toxic legacy of the StB remained undigested: there was no Czech or Slovak counterpart to Germany’s Joachim Gauck, to help the country deal with the torments of past compromise and betrayal.

I headed east, to cover the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I have returned to the Czech Republic and Slovakia frequently, as well as to other countries in the region, ever since. Mostly I feel gloom. The contrast with Poland’s exhilarating economic and diplomatic ascent is painful. The innovative talents of the Baltic states, especially Estonia, bring life-changing insights into how a society can and should be run.

There is not much to find exhilarating in the former Czechoslovakia. Prague, which should be the jewel of Central Europe, is tatty and sleazy. The role of Russian and other organised crime in the tourist trade, the proliferation of souvenir shops, the appallingly bad city planning, and the corruption of the property industry are shameful.

The big curse is the role of money in both politics and the media, closely followed by the Russian influence. The failure to protect the fugitive businessman Alexei Torubarov from deportation in 2013 marked a particular low point. Russia’s role in the Slovak gas industry is another. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia have fallen away from the Atlanticist camp, spending deplorably little on defence, and seemingly apathetic about the plight of the frontline states of Europe: Poland and its Baltic neighbours.

The once-stellar Czech concern for human rights, exemplified by Vaclav Havel, and continued by Karel Schwarzenberg, has shrivelled to insignificance. One of the proudest moments of my time in Prague was meeting the Dalai Lama, received with high honours in 1990. His cause, and that of Cuban dissidents, was once cherished.

Within the European Union, the Czech profile has shrunk to near insignificance. A dire choice of commissioner, plus the fiasco of the Czech Presidency (marked by a government collapse half-way through) have pushed the country to the sidelines. Estonia, with a population similar to Prague, makes more impact.

The bright spots are a handful of brave and sometimes brilliant journalists, and a their counterparts in civil society, plus some parts of Czech culture – notably in film and music.  Some bad things have not happened: there is no Czech or Slovak counterpart to Viktor Orban or Jobbik.

But the apathy and passivity of many Czechs and Slovaks I meet reminds me poignantly of 1989. They do not actively like the way their country is run. The ruling elite survives on inertia and its control of resources; true believers in its virtues are non-existent. But for most people the daily struggle to maintain a decent life is exhausting. People do not have the energy to try to change the country. And if you are really unhappy – and this is a big change from 1989 – you can always leave.

Will it change? I fear that the anti-corruption movement has discredited itself. The best hope may be individual honest politicians in local government showing that it is possible to make changes, plus – perhaps – an end to the culture of absolute impunity for the most egregiously corrupt. Or possibly a dose of fear.

 

Edward Lucas is a senior editor at The Economist, broadcaster, public speaker, moderator and panelist, He worked as The Independent´s correspondent in Prague in 1989.

Published in Czech translation in the first issue of a new media outlet – The Reporter Magazine. More about The Reporter Magazine here.

Text v češtině si můžete v placené části přečíst zde.

 

— Edward Lucas

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