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The Triumph of the Grey Zone: The Czech Intellectuals 12 years after the Velvet Revolution
- a paper presented at the conference The Intellectual Heritage of Authoritarian Regimes held in Istanbul March 21-23 2002.

The ghetto of the virtuous

On 17 November 1999, a great celebration was held at Prague Castle to mark the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, with president Havel playing host and Bush, Gorbachev, Kohl, Thatcher, Walesa and Madame Mitterand all in attendance. The numerous guests also included many of the 241 people who, like Havel, signed Charta 77. Otherwise, to cite one of the signers, sociologist Jirina Siklova, they nowadays meet mainly at funerals and if it occurs to any of them to organise a party for the old gang , she says, it's best to read the newspapers carefully first to see which of the former friends is at odds with whom about what.

There are several reasons why this is so. Charta 77, to cite the Moravian writer and dissident Ludvik Vaculik, was a revolt based on character, not on political conviction. From the very outset, the entire dissident movement was a kind of marriage of convenience between people with different backgrounds and widely divergent political views, ambitions and visions of the future, who were really only united in their determination to fight against a repressive regime. The differences of opinion that in fact existed were suppressed, since solidarity was a sine qua non for survival. They were few in number. In the autumn of 1989 the communist regime prepared an action with the code name of "Norbert", aimed at interning all those who might pose a threat in the event of a crisis. There were 9 000 names on the list, or 0.06 per cent of the population, 90 per cent of them from the Czech part of the country.

Three distinct principal groupings were discernible in this small band: Christians, reform communists and secular non-communist democrats. The first three spokesmen of Charta 77 may be said to have reflected these different currents, namely, the philosopher Jan Patocka, the former Foreign Minister Jiri Hajek and the writer Vaclav Havel.

The motives for signing the Charta also varied. Havel and many others who shared his views signed because they were committed anti-communists and wanted the existing regime replaced, without having any intention of taking over power themselves. The reform communists turned dissident for lack of an alternative. More than half a million people were expelled from the Communist Party after the 1968 invasion. Many lost their jobs and their children were barred from courses of study they desired to take or were well qualified for. These dissidents were thus the product of the Communist Party's policy of retaliation against its former members. In addition, there were those who were dissidents for reasons of psychological compulsion, who would have opposed any regime they lived under.

Jacques Rupnik has fittingly characterised the dissident community as a "ghetto of the virtuous". When virtue had triumphed and the repressive communist regime had collapsed, this ghetto underwent rapid secularisation, as it were, and split up. The unity that had been felt to go without saying was lost, as was the moral superiority over the communist enemy that the dissidents had previously enjoyed. The divisions between the three main currents emerged into the light of day and a new gap opened up between the survivors of the older generation who had been persecuted since 1948 and those who had been expelled from the Communist Party after August 1968. As dissidents these two groups had been on good terms, but when the pressure from the Communist Party disappeared the victims from 1948 began to reproach the men and women of 1968 for their communist background.

Jirina Siklova compares November 1989 with what happens when, after a great deal of pushing and shoving, one succeeds in opening a door that has been jammed. When it suddenly jerks open, one loses one's balance for a minute. This was what happened to the dissidents, who had no time to draw up a new strategy in response to a victory that was as sudden as it was unexpected. Men and women who had worked as boiler men, refuse collectors, shepherds and window cleaners were suddenly required to take responsibility for top political positions and lead government ministries. It now became apparent that the capacity to tear down was not automatically accompanied by a capacity to build up. The very people who had so recently demonstrated the power of the powerless now found themselves suddenly suffering from the powerlessness of the powerful. It soon emerged that being a dissident was not in itself enough to play a part in the new day that was dawning. Many of those who had taken leading roles in bringing about the revolution had - by their very struggle for this end - either neglected or been barred from acquiring the necessary, not to say indispensable, education without which they lacked the qualifications that were required when the collapse of the system eventually came.

Other dissidents who had played a major political role, such as the priest Vaclav Maly and the journalist Jan Urban, chose to leave politics and return to their true professions, which were more important to them. Maly is now Bishop of Prague. Others failed as politicians because the organisations and parties they formed did not succeed in winning adherents. When it was time to test their ideas on a free market, many were forced to realise that there were no takers.

The most serious problem for the dissidents proved to be their belief that politics could be pursued by non-political organisations and structures and that political parties were therefore no longer needed. With Havel leading the way, they had adopted the doctrine of the Hungarian György Konrad and the Pole Adam Michnik of "antipolitics", i.e. an attempt not just to resurrect civil society from its ashes but also to expand it in order to abolish the political realm politics. These ideas - "nonpolitical politics" according to Havel - proposed that after the fall of communism politics would be the domain of civil groupings and anti-political organisations guided by the ideal of a "life in truth" and the best interests of society instead of by narrow party interests. This attitude was understandable after 40 years of communism, but the concept didn't work when it faced the test of political reality. Broad organisations like Civic Forum were effective when the aim was purely and simply to fight against the communist regime. To reshape a society in crisis, however, required clear hierarchical structures governed by a coherent ideology.

After years of improvisation, the challenge of crossing this Rubicon and accepting that political life takes place within the framework of parties and bureaucratic structures proved too hard for many to accept, as did the insight that politics is based not on friendship and solidarity but on power. Many signers of Charta 77 viewed power with great ambivalence and as they did not seek it they never won it either.

The grey zone enters the political scene

Paradoxically enough, it was therefore the dissidents who in many respects were the losers in the Velvet Revolution. The major beneficiaries were instead people who had stood aside from the barricades and had not openly declared themselves. Having bided their time, they knew how to assert their interests now, at others' expense if need be - an ability the dissidents, with few exceptions, lacked.

This group, which came to be known as the "grey zone", consisted of people who, being well qualified in their areas of professional expertise, realised at an early stage that the communist system could not possibly work. Rather than opting to follow the party line for their own future benefit and that of their families, they knew that they could survive on the strength of their own competence. As their primary ambition was to advance their own professional qualifications, they were unwilling to sacrifice time and effort to meaningless work for the party, even if many of them were party members right up to the end. In formal terms they belonged to the communist apparatus and satisfied the demands of the totalitarian regime, but politically they supported the opposition, albeit passively, and saw the dissidents as their frame of reference.

With the collapse of communism, the expertise needed in many areas was to be found among them and the men and women in this gray zone constituted the strongest competition to dissidents with political ambitions for official posts in the new Czechoslovakia. These people were either not politically compromised at all or only slightly so, and in the communist era they had been able to pursue their specialisations and amass experience from day-to-day work in their particular areas, whereas the dissidents had often been completely cut off from their proper spheres of activity. Though the latter were at a moral advantage, for 20 years they had lived outside the structures they were now called upon to take over and they had been unable to keep their own professional skills up to date. Younger dissidents had lacked any involvement in society in their entire adult life. With the exception of purely political roles, political science and journalism, most dissidents were therefore less well qualified than competitors from the grey zone and their sons and daughters.

After the Velvet Revolution, attitudes towards the grey zone were divided among members of the Civic Forum. One faction argued that only the members of the forum were to be trusted, while another took the line that it was essential to draw on available expertise, even if those who possessed it had only taken an active part in the struggle against communism immediately before its collapse or indeed had remained passive to the very end.

Havel and his closest associates supported the latter line and during a meeting where the shortage of competent economists was discussed someone close to Havel suggested contacting an economist called Vaclav Klaus. This was a man who as late as the spring of 1989 had been unwilling to sign a petition in support of Havel, who was in prison at the time, a man, moreover, who saw with complete clarity that all notions of an anti-political politics were illusory and who was the first to draw the necessary conclusions. As early as the beginning of 1991 he founded his own party, ODS, and he was the big winner in the 1992 election, gaining nearly 30 per cent of the votes cast, while the Civic Forum failed even to obtain the five per cent that were required to get into parliament at all.

This election turned out to be a victory for the pragmatic technocrats over those who advocated an anti-political politics and a life in truth. Most of the dissidents who nurtured political ambitions have now abandoned them, sometimes, as in the case of Jiri Dienstbier, after repeated attempts to gain a new political foothold. Apart from Havel, only a handful of the instigators of the Velvet Revolution now hold central political posts, but they are now active members of political parties, such as Petr Pithart, who is now Speaker of the Senate, in which he represents the Christian Democrats. Leading politicians also include exiled dissidents like Jan Kavan and Egon Lansky.

With philosopher Havel as president and neo-liberal market economist Klaus as head of government, the Czechs appeared to have won it big. The two of them looked like an unbeatable team, each complementing the other's strengths. Havel took over Masaryk's role as the spiritual leader of the nation and its moral compass, a democrat and humanist who transcended party politics and had the capacity, on the moral plane, to restore the Czech Republic as a civil society after more than 40 years of communist dictatorship, while Klaus succeeded in convincing the western world that nowhere was the pure capitalist doctrine followed more faithfully than in Prague.

Thus, irrespective of their political background, all observers could find an idol and ideal in the new Czech Republic. Moreover, visitors were dazzled by the golden city and very few came into contact with the realities of the Bohemian and Moravian countryside.

Bolshevism of the right

The then Danish Ambassador therefore shocked the other guests at a "Czech myths" masked ball in the autumn of 1993 by appearing in a mask representing Prime Minister Klaus.

At the time he could hardly have come closer to blasphemy. The Czech Republic stood out as a model for managing the transition from a communist system to a democratic market economy. The future looked bright both politically and economically, without a cloud on the horizon. The Czech Republic had the most stable government in the former eastern bloc and, with the exception of the republicans on the extreme right and an ossified communist party that was soon expected to die out by natural attrition, political debate was free of the nationalism and xenophobia that were making themselves felt elsewhere.

One explanation that was often given was that the Czechs were distinguished by a democratic cultural heritage and that the communist era had been merely an unfortunate hiccup. Now, therefore, the Czechs could more or less automatically reconnect to the democratic system of the period between the wars, which was painted in rosy hues. The Czechs, under the spiritual leadership of their first president Tomas G. Masaryk, had, it was claimed, created a tolerant multicultural society, with the period's most progressive welfare state. The Czech part of the country, in particular Bohemia, was one of the industrial powerhouses of interwar Europe and its traditions would more or less automatically carry over to democratic Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution.

The economic transformation that became the main political objective of the men from the grey zone was however achieved at the expense of many of the values emphasised by the Civic Forum. The celebrated Czech economic miracle soon proved to be largely a Potemkin village concealing a reality made up of growing corruption, banking crises and a range of dubious affairs.

The origins of these problems could be traced back to the 1992 election, which made Klaus' ODS incontestably the largest party and gave him, in the absence of competition from an effective opposition, a free hand in setting the political course of the country. The arts of dialogue and compromise was not Klaus´ strong suits and during his first four years as head of government he was at liberty to do whatever he saw fit. Moreover, on issues on which the three parties in government were unable to agree, decisions were taken by a vote, a principle that the ODS, which enjoyed a majority, consistently made use of to compel the christian democrats and ODA to follow ODS policies - a practice that led to a build-up of resentment and a craving for revenge. The leader of the Christian Democrats, Lux, stated publicly that he used to thank God after almost every cabinet meeting that he had refrained from punching Klaus.

Thus, Klaus became an absolute ruler. His politics could be characterised by two quotations, in which we can discern the basic causes of the crisis that the Czech Republic was drawn into.

The first is Klaus's own statement that there is no such thing as dirty money, and the second the credo of the first Minister of Privatisation, Jezek, that privatisation could only succeed "if the lights are turned off for a few minutes when state enterprises are privatised and if we always keep one step ahead of the lawyers".

The various shortcomings in the Czech economy became more and more manifest, transforming at a stroke the hitherto rosy image of the exemplary Czech Republic.

In the 1996 parliamentary elections, the social democrats therefore enjoyed a great success, quadrupling their votes to 26.4 per cent and winning 45 more seats. Yet though this gave Klaus an opponent in his own class, which should have forced a rethink on his part, he proved incapable of change. At this point the Czech Republic and ODS could have done with a politician who commanded the art of compromise and was able to conduct a political dialogue. But Klaus didn't depart from his assumption of infallibility - not even vis-à-vis his coalition partners - and ignored all warning signals until the problems mounted up to such an extent that they went beyond his control. He found himself increasingly cornered and was unable to manage and extricate himself from this unaccustomed defensive position.

Over and above the position in parliament and the growing internal differences in the government, a number of other problems made 1997 an annus horribilis for Klaus.

In the spring of 1997 he was forced to impose first one and then a second rigorous austerity package, but in spite of this he still persisted in his arrogant rhetoric about the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, not to mention the other states in the former eastern bloc, having its change of system and process of transformation behind it.

Economic growth stagnated. GDP grew by just 1.2 per cent in 1997 and fell 2.5 per cent in 1998, the development of the stock exchange failed to match that achieved by neighbouring countries, unemployment rose, albeit from a low level, imports climbed steeply and the current payments deficit remained high. The Czech krona, which had been a mainstay of reform policies, was floated and in practice underwent a 20 per cent depreciation. The process of reform came to a standstill in the armed forces and judiciary, and indeed in the economic sphere, where the capital market continued to lack transparency. Foreign direct investments declined, not least because of this lack of transparency and growing corruption. The ownership of many of the larger enterprises was unclear, and their prospects, moreover, were far from encouraging. The reality behind all the market economy rhetoric was that enterprises that had formerly been owned by the state were now controlled by state-owned banks that continued to make unsecured loans to unprofitable enterprises.

The negative consequences of Klaus's dictum that there was no such thing as dirty money became more and more obvious. "Tunelovat" became a kind of word of the year in 1997, referring to the way in which shares from the much discussed coupon privatisation process, which had been praised by foreign economists, ended up in the hands of dubious investment companies, after which enterprises were plundered and the proceeds moved via "tunnels" to accounts in foreign tax havens.

In the end, a series of dubious points relating to the party's finances became the straw that broke the camel's back and in November 1997 a group of Klaus's closest associates broke away from ODS and formed a new party, the freedom union (US). Pending new elections, a technocratic government took over under the leadership of the head of the central bank, Tosovsky.

Klaus's political career seemed to be over. People talked about him now as a "bolshevik of the right". "A fatal combination of academic liberalism, de facto economic semisocialism and lack of respect for the rule of law", to quote one of his most caustic critics, the writer Jiri Pehe, who then was Havel's political adviser. The criticisms often attributed Klaus's political failure to his inability to ever escape from a fundamentally communist mindset, which, in fact, had set its stamp on his so-called transformation of the Czech economy.

In making these charges, the critics drew attention to his activities prior to the velvet revolution at the Institute of Forecasting at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. This institute was established as a Czech response to perestroika and was intended to develop market mechanisms that did not disrupt the totalitarian political system. According to the critics, nearly all the misfortunes that hit the Czech Republic were attributable to the ideological baggage that Klaus carried with him from the institute, where the social democratic leader Zeman, incidentally, was also actively involved.

Particular stress was been placed on the following characteristics:

- An unwillingness to regard dirty money as a danger to the economy. Under communism, the party decided what was clean and what was dirty, and so did Klaus.

- An underestimation of the destructive influence of corruption in a democratic state. The communist system was based on corruption; corruption was not a threat to the system. It's said that if you throw an ODS politician into the Moldau, what floats up to the surface is first dirty money and then a pure communist.

- An undisguised contempt for the environment. For the communists, nature and the environment were an object that could be treated just anyhow. For Klaus, environmental investments were (and still are) unproductive and therefore unnecessary.

- A similar disregard for the rule of law as the backbone of a democratic state. The communist system operated under rules of its own and didn't care about written laws; Klaus has always been moved by the same spirit.

- A complete lack of understanding for the concept of a civil society

- An insatiable desire to show that the Klaus way was the only possible way of going about the reform of the Czech Republic. Klaus' view of his own policies was a mirror image of messianic socialism according to his critics.

In practice, the European politician who has paid most lip service to the ideology of the market - "an unqualified market economy" - had actually chosen an extreme variant of his own of the very "third way" between the market and the planned economy that he himself has rejected as the worst of all possible solutions - "the third way leads to the third world".

It was now generally believed that Klaus's political story was at an end but by turning the extraordinary parliamentary elections in June 1998 into a "red scare" election, warning that a social democratic government would mean an automatic relapse into the morass of communism, Klaus managed to pull off an unexpected comeback, leading his party in a few months from the 10 per cent support it had rated after the breakaway of the freedom union to nearly 28 per cent in the election.

Although this resulted in a weak centre-right majority (102 of the 200 seats), the animosity between the three party leaders - or rather between Klaus on the one hand and his own Brutus, the leader of the newly founded Freedom Union, Ruml, and the christian democrat leader Lux on the other hand - was so strong that a centre-right government was out of the question.

Cooperation between the two latter parties and the social democrats - who won the election with 32.3 per cent of the vote - would have yielded a stable majority, with 113 of the 200 seats, but the stumbling block here ultimately proved to be Ruml's personal aversion to the social democratic leader Zeman, whose well-sweetened offer was rejected.

A grand coalition between the social democrats and ODS was also inconceivable. Cooperation in government with this alleged red menace would have been impossible for ODS to explain to its voters and would have reeked of election fraud after the inflammatory election campaign.

The ultimate victory of the grey zone?

The solution reached was unconventional, to put it mildly. The social democrats entered into an "opposition agreement" with their main opponents, in which ODS pledged not to support a vote of no confidence against a minority social democratic government, receiving in exchange, inter alia, the position of speaker in both chambers and chairmanship of several key committees. The agreement also contains undertakings not to enter into coalitions with third parties. In addition, the two major parties committed themselves to present proposals for constitutional amendments. Envisaged were, in the first instance, changes in the electoral system to the disadvantage of smaller parties and restrictions to the powers of the president and the independence of the central bank.

The agreement did not cover support to the government on specific issues, such as the budget, but Klaus and Zeman in concert neutralised the smaller parties, which had acted with presumption in the coalition negotiations and overplayed their hands. Moreover, they now established a political base for tackling their joint antagonist President Havel and reducing his political influence. The opposition agreement, or "stability pact" as it was also known, was thus based on the ancient principle that "my enemy's enemy is my friend".

This power cartel gave both parties other advantages too. The social democrats were spared the humiliation of finding the doors of government still closed in their face, in spite of a great electoral success - an outcome that could have cost Zeman his position as party leader. The big winner, however, was ODS, which was able to occupy important positions and influence policy without needing to take any political responsibility. Klaus included in his calculations the fact that political responsibility would shift to the social democrats, who would now be forced to take the unpopular decisions that were needed to lead the country out of the economic crisis for which he himself was mainly to blame. Klaus would then return to power as the saviour of the nation.

In opinion polls made after the conclusion of the "stability pact" , more than three quarters of those asked stated that they had no confidence in the politicians. At the end of July 1999 a proclamation was published, signed by 2 000 leading intellectuals, protesting against conditions in the Czech Republic, which were said to be characterised by provincial thinking and indifference towards social problems.

The criticisms in this manifesto - "Impulse 99" - were directed both at the political parties and at the unwillingness of the people to involve themselves in the task of transforming the former communist society into a civil society for free and engaged citizens.

The men behind this initiative were President Havel's former political adviser Jiri Pehe and the theologist and sociologist Tomas Halik, another of Havel's inner circle who had been mentioned by the president himself as a fitting successor.

According to Pehe, the aim of the initiative was not to create parallel political structures but to shake people up and get them to understand that their future is in their own hands and cannot be left to politicians who, in conceptual terms, continue to live in the communist system. In many respects the manifesto reflected Havel's ideas of a "partyless politics", though according to Pehe the president was not involved in drawing it up. In common with a number of other leading politicians, he had, however, been informed of the initiative several days before the manifesto was published.

The manifesto did however not arouse any great response and attempts to form a new political party based on the ideas of the velvet revolution proved to be futile. Instead, the unreformed communist party profited from the fact that the Czechs, as Havel puts it, "were in a bad mood". The party that prouds itself of not having changed and proudly keeps the C for communist in its party name now gets between 15-20 per cent in the opinion polls. Three months before the parliamentary elections in June 2002 the ODS of Klaus and Zeman´s social democrats both have the support of about 20 per cent of the electorate while the unreformed communists reach 15 per cent. Since a coalition with the latter is out of the question this probably means that none of two can form a majority government. The only option would then be a coalition between the two big parties or a new version of the stability pact but now perhaps with a ODS´ government "tolerated" by the social democrats.

This triumph of the grey zone will culminate when Havel in January 2003 leaves the presidency to be replaced either by a politician who is part of this zone or a weak and apolitical person who would be easily controlled by it.

The former dissident Valdimir Zelezny - who after the fall of communism founded the country's most popular private TV station and is now exploiting the moral vacuum left by communism with a broadcasting schedule crammed with Czech and foreign TV soaps and the worst kind of American police series - dismisses all thoughts of a renaissance for the ideas of the citizens' forums as nonsense. He claims that in the communist era, the myth flourished among the dissidents that all Czechs were closet readers of Proust. But his market surveys have come to very different conclusions. The average Czech is "a beer-drinking, working class Catholic. Quite like a Belgian, but not as cultured."

As a heritage of the communist period the Czech political scene will remain corrupt and corporatist. It will perhaps take a generation for a civil society to grow strong enough to serve as mediator between society and the politicians and to make the political class accountable to their voters. The immediate prospects of Czech society and politics may thus appear bleak but when Czech civil society finally awakens it will hopefully be able to rediscover its roots in Havel´s ideas of a "life in truth".

Ingmar Karlsson

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