Introducing Viktor Milos

Will the Czech Republic follow Hungary toward a new form of authoritarianism?

Opinion | Katerina Safarikova | September 2013

For the first time in Austria’s post-war history, nine different parties are listed on the ballot (Illustration: Markus Szyszkowitz)

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is seen to be infecting Miloš Zeman’s politics.

It may be time to call it a day for the Czech Republic as we’ve known it for the last 20 years. Not to tire readers with the recent history of Czech internal affairs, but one thing is clear: If the country headed west after the revolution of 1989, and the destination was Brussels or Washington, that has changed. The Czechs have switched course and the next stop is – Budapest. Terminus, Moscow.

The years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall were marked, in the Czech Republic, by two men and their ideologies. Late President Vaclav Havel struggled for an outward-looking and unified society that would allow for the pursuit of private happiness but also refine and cultivate the people’s common interests. Vaclav Klaus, Havel’s successor, opted for a liberal-market economy and an atomised society, where privatisation is the exclusive mechanism for solving each of the nation’s problems. The public interest became secondary.

It was Klaus who won. The ideology of private democracy in which politics serves the oligarchy has triumphed. The population that isn’t involved in power networks has grown more indifferent to public life since they think there’s no point in trying.

But be it Havel or Klaus, both were addressing the "winners" of the transformation. The anticommunists and liberals in the case of Havel; wealthy, merciless, and often questionable businessmen in the case of Klaus. Both men, though, denounced the communist past as a malignant regime never to be revived.


It wasn’t all that bad

Now for the first time, it’s the transformation "losers" who are about to rule the country. These are people who feel betrayed by capitalism – people in their 60s and older, who spent most of their life under the commies and say it wasn’t all that bad. They dislike the Germans and the Americans more than the Russians and show no interest in the world beyond the Czech borders.

More importantly, these are the 2.7 million people who voted for Miloš Zeman, the president of the country and the first Czech head of state elected by direct ballot.

Sixty-three percent of Czechs older than 60 participated in the elections, the highest participation of all age groups, and two out of three voted for Zeman, as the Hospodarske noviny newspaper noted recently.

Zeman knows it. And he knows how to play the game, as in the symbolic gesture, to endorse Vladimir Remek for the job of ambassador to Russia. Remek happens to be a former cosmonaut – a Czech who spent most of his productive time in Soviet Russia as a space pioneer and holds the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

A communist of the old school 

Though not officially a member of the Czech Republic’s unreformed Communist Party, he ran on its party list to get into the European Parliament in 2004. Now he is about to become the first Communist-allied Czech politician to take up an ambassador’s post since 1989. And on top of that, in Moscow.

Zeman also proves himslef able to handle the problem when a government resigns – as happened in June – the president nominates a new premier who enjoys strong backing in the lower house, since we are a parliamentary democracy. Zeman ignored that, nominating instead an old friend, nonpartisan economist Jiri Rusnok, even though a majority of lawmakers backed another candidate.

As a result, the Czechs have a government without parliamentary legitimacy that is composed of friends and little-known allies of the president.


Clean up the mess and move on

Early elections in October should bring about a solid victory for the Social Democrats, Zeman’s former party, in which he still has many admirers; his current party, named SPOZ and composed of his comrades, ex-communists, and scary figures like the head of the Czech branch of Russian Lukoil; and the Communist Party. Combined, they should enjoy a comfortable if not a constitutional majority in the lower house.

Since the Social Democrats already control the Senate, the whole parliament may find itself under control of the president. The same goes for the government. After all, it’s the president who signs off on the premier and every minister. Then we have the Constitutional Court – again, it’s the president and the Senate who choose the judges. The central bank governing board, same story. And so on. With all this power in hand, one can twist, bend, and redirect the course of the state. And the will is there. Zeman has proved that many times.


Back to the future

Take the president’s backers, eager for a strong leader who will clean up Czech politics, add the almighty institutions and the indifference of the rest of the population and you have the Hungarian scenario. That country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has used his majority in parliament to pursue laws that are in breach of democratic principles – for example the neutering of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and its subsequent dependence on the executive. The authoritarian drift sparked fear and criticism and took the country off the highway to the West. But Orbán is still pursuing his way. And we could be next.

If this scenario comes to pass, it will reveal what has become of Czech civil society and its democrats since 1989. The stakes are high, the game is on.


Katerina Safarikova is a journalist with Czech Television.


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