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The Sad State of the Republic

Last November, the Czech government, led by Prime Minister Václav Klaus, was forced to resign in the wake of allegations that, among other things, the Civic Democratic Party, led by Klaus, had access to a slush fund held in an unauthorized Swiss bank account. In the period between those resignations and the appointment of an interim government, President Havel, who had recently been released from the hospital and was recuperating from pneumonia, delivered what is, in effect, a state of the union speech to the Parliament and Senate of the Czech Republic on December 9. His address, translated below, was interpreted in much of the Czech press as an attack on Klaus’s policies. But more than that, it presents an aspect of Havel rarely seen in his speeches abroad. It reaffirms, in the theater of domestic politics, his longstanding belief in the importance of the institutions of civil society.

—Paul Wilson,
February 4, 1998

Senators, Members of Parliament, Members of the Government:

With a certain degree of simplification it can be said that the life of our society—just as the life of any society under any circumstances—has two faces, one of which, in one way or another, is visible through the other.

The first face consists of the things people do: they go to work, with varying degrees of success, they engage in business, they marry or they divorce, they have children or remain childless, they associate in various ways, they go on holidays abroad, they read books or watch television and, if they’re younger than most of us, they go dancing in discotheques. All things considered, I think our everyday life is incomparably better and richer now than it was in times when almost everything was forbidden and almost everyone was afraid to say aloud what he or she really thought.

The life of our society, however, has another face, which we might describe as the relationship of citizens to their state, to the social system, to the climate of public life, to politics. It is our primary responsibility to concern ourselves with this second face, to try to understand why it is so gloomy and to think about ways to brighten it up—at least a little.

At present, this face is, in fact, quite glum. Many people—and public opinion polls confirm this—are upset, disappointed, or even disgusted with social conditions in our country. Many people believe that once again—democracy or not—there are people in power who cannot be trusted, who are concerned more with their own advantage than they are with the general interest. Many are convinced that honest business people operate at a disadvantage, while dishonest profiteers get the green light. The belief prevails that in this country it pays to lie and steal, that many politicians and civil servants are on the take, and that political parties—though they all, without exception, declare their intentions honorable—are secretly manipulated by shady financial cabals.

After eight years of trying to build a market economy, many people wonder why our economy is still doing so poorly that the government must frequently cobble together hastily arranged budget amendments to deal with shortfalls. They wonder why we are choking in smog when so much is apparently being spent on the environment, why prices, including rents and utilities, are rising faster than pensions and social benefits. They wonder why we should have to be afraid to walk at night in the centers of our cities and towns, why almost nothing but banks, hotels, and mansions for the rich are being built, and so on. In short, more and more people are disgusted with policies they understandably and rightly hold responsible for all these unfortunate things, and although they freely elected us, they regard us all with suspicion, if not outright repugnance.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to undertake a lengthy sociological analysis of these ominous realities. I will mention only two causes, or more precisely, two sets of causes.

The first set I would describe as “historical.” This is a Czech variation of a phenomenon which, in varying degrees and in similar ways, has occurred in all the countries that have rid themselves of communism. It could be described as a post-Communist form of debilitation. Every judicious person must have known that something like this would happen. Few of us, however, foresaw how profound and serious this debilitation would be, or how long it would last. For, along with communism, the structure of daily values held in place by the system for decades collapsed overnight, and along with it the way of life that evolved from those structures collapsed as well. The “time of certainties”—certainties that were, to be sure, small-minded, banal, and suicidal for society, but certainties none the less—gave way to a time of freedom. To many, given their previous experience, this freedom must have seemed boundless and therefore utterly seductive. With it, completely new demands were placed on individual responsibility, and many found this responsibility unbearable. I sometimes compare this odd state to the psychosis that follows imprisonment, when a prisoner used to living for years in a narrow corridor of carefully devised rules suddenly finds himself in the strange landscape of freedom, where he must feel that everything is permitted, and at the same time is overwhelmed by the immense need to make decisions each day and take responsibility for them.

I would like to believe that young people who have grown up after the collapse of communism are free of this terrible post-Communist syndrome and I look forward to the day when they take public affairs into their own hands. For the time being, however, this is not the case and we can only remain perplexed at how long society is taking to adapt to the new and more natural conditions of life, and how profoundly the era of totalitarianism has seeped into our souls.

Of course, it would be unfair to blame everything—in a way so familiar to Marxists—on blind historical inevitability. A role no less important, and in some senses even more important, is played by a second set of causes. I refer to what we ourselves have wrought. When I say “we,” I mean all of us who have served as elected representatives since November 1989, but chiefly those elected representatives of the independent Czech Republic. I mean all of us in a position to have had an influence on the course our country has taken over the past five years. At the same time I have no wish to single out anyone according to degree of responsibility or blame, however obvious it may be that some are more responsible than others. That’s not the point here. The point is, at the very least, to identify our own faults.

It seems to me that our main fault was vanity. Since November 1989, the transformation processes unfolded in the Czech Republic more or less uninterruptedly, undisturbed by major political upheavals. Thanks to this, we were genuinely further ahead in some things than other countries—or so it seemed at first. Very likely this went to our heads. We behaved like arrogant students at the top of their class or spoiled only children who feel superior to others and think they have the right to tell others what to do. This vanity combined in an odd way with petty bourgeois provincialism, an almost retrograde mentality. For example, we destroyed any pretense of close political cooperation with our closest neighbors—I have in mind what was called the Visegrad Group*—because we saw ourselves as better then they were. Today, when we have been invited to enter the emerging European Community with them, and they, on the contrary, are further ahead than we are in some things, we have had to struggle to renew that cooperation with them.

Many of us ridiculed anyone who spoke of global responsibility. They claimed that, as a small country, it was more appropriate for us to focus exclusively on our own small Czech problems. Today, we have to struggle to convince our people that we will only enjoy a guaranteed security if we are prepared to bear our share of the responsibility for Europe and the world, and we must persuade the North Atlantic alliance that we know this. We were hypnotized by our own macroeconomic indicators, heedless of the fact that sooner or later these indicators would also reveal what lay beyond the horizon of the macroeconomic or technocratic world view: that there are factors whose weight or significance no accountant can calculate, but which nevertheless create the only thinkable environment for any economic development—I mean the rules of the game, the rule of law, the moral order from which every system of governance derives and without which it cannot function, a climate of social concord.

The declared ideal of success and profit was defiled because we permitted a state of affairs in which the most immoral became the most successful and the greatest profits were made by thieves who stole with impunity. Under the cloak of an unqualified liberalism, which regarded any kind of economic controls or regulations as left-wing aberrations, the Marxist doctrine of the structure and the superstructure lived on, though paradoxically it was hidden from view. Morality, decency, humility before the order of nature, solidarity, concern for future generations, respect for the law, the culture of interpersonal relationships—all these and many similar things were trivialized as “superstructure,” as icing on the cake, until at last we realized that there was nothing left to put the icing on: the forces of economic production themselves had been undermined.

They were undermined because—with apologies to the atheists among you—they were not cultivated in the strict spirit of the divine commandments. Drunk with power and success, and spellbound by what a wonderful career move a political party was, many began—in an environment that made light of the law—to turn a blind eye to one thing and another, until at last they were confronted with scandals that brought into question our greatest reason for pride—the privatization process.

Man is a social being. He needs to associate with others in a variety of ways. He needs to participate in public affairs, be it only in his own small world. He needs to work for the general good. That, too, was somehow forgotten. The phrase “the citizen and the state” was bandied about, but it had the effect of isolating the citizen rather than engaging him. And so, to cheer him up, and also because it seemed appropriate, the word “family” was sometimes thrown in. Otherwise there was nothing between the citizen and the state but a great wasteland. All that remained was the Party, with a capital “P.” In the process, the necessary evil of local self-government was forced into the party yoke. Fortunately, it didn’t entirely submit, with the result that today, local self-government is one of the healthiest sectors of the state.

And the state as such? It should be small but strong, they say. Yet I’m afraid the exact opposite is true: the state is large and weak, clearly because we didn’t have the courage to confront its inherited form.

I could go on at some length, but I’ve come before you today not out of an obsessive need to lament, nor to pick masochistically at my wounds, nor even to flaunt the wisdom of hindsight, which in the end would only lend credence to the utterly false notion that we’ve lost everything and achieved nothing. I have come before you for another reason: to meditate briefly on what lies ahead and what we must do to transform the gloomy countenance of our common life to one with a sunnier disposition.

Since I love order, I will, with your permission, number my points. I can tell you in advance that there will be ten of them.

1) From what I have already said it should be clear which of the many tasks that lie before us I consider the most important. It seems to me that the government, regardless of who forms it, and you—senators and members of parliament, and all elected representatives at all levels, and indeed everyone active in public life—should say clearly to our fellow citizens that real human community and real prosperity are thinkable only if clear, good, and widely understandable and respected rules govern the various areas of life. Respect for those rules may of course be reinforced by the swift and strict punishment of their violation. But that is, and will always be, only a secondary measure. The most important thing is that this respect take root in people’s minds so deeply that it becomes a matter of honor to observe the laws, not to flout or circumvent them.

To put it another way: without a broad cultivation of the moral order, which alone can be the source of respect for the rules of human community, and thus as well the mortar of our civil society, we will have no chance of achieving social peace, stability, contentment, and prosperity. Today more than ever before, I am convinced that all of us who influence what goes on in this country must accept this principle as our own and attempt each day to imbue our political work with it. The citizens and the media must monitor us carefully, to see if we are really doing that job, and should they determine we are not, they must use every means the democratic system affords to replace us with better people.

2) The entire system of technical rules that governs our life together, that is, our legal order, must be infused with a spirit of justice and decency. You, the members of our parliament who pass the legislation that is binding on all citizens, have a singular role to play. At present, because of unprecedented changes within it, our legal system is extremely tangled and complex. Very few know how many laws are actually in effect, how many have been amended or superseded by other laws, and what binding regulations follow from them. Ever narrower areas of the law require experts to interpret them, and many of us today cannot get by without a lawyer or a team of legal advisors. I am deeply convinced that the clearer, more transparent, and comprehensible our legal system is to citizens, the greater our hope that it will be respected. Therefore, in addition to the routine passing of new legislation or the amending of old statutes, I urge you to pay greater attention to bringing order into our legal system and to attend to its incremental simplification and clarification.

3) The network of local governments and the civil service is the nervous system of the state. I consider it a great and fundamental task of the period ahead of us to begin reforming this system with all necessary speed. Our country has suffered greatly because this reform has been put off for so long. You have recently passed the first piece of legislation preparing the way for such reform—that is, the constitutional law on the regions. Now you will have to pass a whole set of further legislation based on this constitutional law, as well as the long overdue legislation on the civil service.

Why is reform of the public administration so necessary? For many different reasons, which I’m afraid were never very clearly explained to the public. Therefore, in addition to passing the relevant legislation in the near future and implementing everything that follows from it, I consider it important as well to undertake a public education campaign to inform citizens about why these measures are important, to explain why many jurisdictions previously administered by the state must be devolved to local governments, and why some basic matters that transcend the municipality must be the responsibility of the regional governments, and why institutions until now dealt with from Prague should be handled by the regions. It is absurd that at the same time as we are building a market economy, many of us are untroubled by the fact that entire areas of social life—like the civil service—carry the birthmark of the Communist system of rule, including their high degree of politicization. It is not true that after reforming the public service there will be more civil servants and more bureaucracy. Unless the job is impossibly botched, the exact opposite should be true.

4)Today Europe has an opportunity unprecedented in its long and rich history. Europe has always been, in a sense, a single entity. We now have a chance to ensure that its internal organization as a political entity will not derive from the dictates of powerful nations, or from agreements concluded behind the backs of the others, but that it will be founded on the free and equal cooperation of all, a co-operation flowing from shared democratic values. It is proper that the main effort of Czech foreign policy is directed toward encouraging integrated European structures. As citizens of a small country in the very center of Europe, which has always been a crossroads for the most diverse geopolitical interests, we at long last have the hope that we will be firmly anchored in the European political environment. Our anchor will be primarily our future membership in the European Union, and in the North Atlantic alliance.

A peaceful and cooperative Europe is unthinkable without a collective defense system, and the only institution capable today of providing this defense is NATO. The expansion and transformation of NATO is therefore vital to the successful political integration of Europe. I have no doubt that a decisive number of our elected representatives know that they have the honor of being in a historical position to take the appropriate steps to ensure a peaceful and satisfying life for the many generations that will follow them. It is all the more unfortunate, therefore, that to this day we have been unable to explain these things persuasively enough to our fellow citizens. Perhaps the fault lies once more with our regrettable focus on mere economics. It has relegated to the background a question as fundamental as the security of the state, without which no economy can flourish or perhaps even exist. The great task, not only of Czech foreign policy but of all our elected representatives, is not only to intensify efforts aiming at our acceptance into the European Union and NATO, but above all to make clear to our fellow citizens the historic importance of these efforts.

The Czech Republic has existed now for five years, and we can hope that within the next five years it will become a secure part of an integrated, democratic Europe. It would be our ultimate failure if we were to betray this hope. If we do not wish to betray it then we must—once again—begin with our own souls. By that I mean that we must declare a merciless war against Czech provincialism, isolationism, and egoism, against the illusion that some form of clever neutrality is possible. We must fight against our traditional shortsightedness, and against all forms of Czech chauvinism. In this day and age, those who refuse to assume their share of responsibility for the fate of this continent and the world as a whole will sign the death warrant, not only of the continent and of the world, but, above all, of themselves.

5)Given what I have just said, I shouldn’t have to emphasize how important it is to turn our attention today to our armed forces. It is high time to pass new legislation concerning our security, defense, and military service. This will never be done properly if everything is left up to the respective ministers. It’s a job for all of us, for all the elected representatives in the country. The same applies to the restructuring of the army, the proper education and training of its personnel, the modernization of its armaments and its fiscal arrangements, and for measures to enhance the prestige of the army in society. I could say more or less the same thing about the other security instruments of the state. If we intend to reduce crime in our country, we mustn’t delegate the war on crime to the chief of police or the minister of the interior alone. It’s a matter of concern for us all. If we don’t understand that, we have no right to call ourselves politicians.

6)So what, in fact, is the state of our economy? Why are we of all people, who saw ourselves as setting the pace for the others in economic transformation, suddenly experiencing difficulties? Why is our economy today growing more slowly than, for example, the Polish economy? I don’t share the opinion held by some that the entire transformation process was misconceived, badly thought out, and poorly directed. I would say rather that our problem is precisely the opposite. The transformation stopped halfway, which may well be the worst thing that could have happened to it. Yes, all manner of enterprises have been formally privatized, but which of them have clear and specific owners who are fully committed to enhancing their productivity and their long-range prospects? It is not exceptional for me to visit a company and discover that the managers are unable to tell me to whom it actually belongs, let alone provide its owner with a responsible account of how the company is doing. How, then, can we expect the desired restructuring of companies and entire branches of industry when there are so few transparent owners and when so many managers see their jobs, their missions, their commitments as no more than opportunities to cream off the money entrusted to them by someone else and then walk off the job?

The role our banks often play in this seems very strange to me. They indirectly own companies that lose money, and the more those companies lose, the more the banks lend them. A small businessman is unable to borrow half a million crowns for a sensible and specific investment, while some shady pseudo-entrepreneur can easily borrow half a billion without anyone taking a hard look at what he actually needs it for. The legal basis of the entire privatization process, as well as the capital market, is only now being worked out in detail. Isn’t it a little late? Do we really have to pay for the rapidity of our privatization process—a rapidity that was welcome and proper—with stolen billions, even tens of billions of crowns? If it was necessary, then someone should say so clearly. If it wasn’t necessary and was merely the result of slackly applied rules, then let’s clearly admit it.

Why, for example, was Hungary able to privatize a comparable part of its economy without this same vast undermining of it? And how exactly does the state participate in the ownership of enterprises? Do we have a clear conception of which enterprises are of such strategic or vital importance that the state must maintain its share of the ownership, and which can be privatized without further ado? And if such a conception does exist, why are companies already earmarked for privatization not being privatized?

I know in what ill repute words like “conception” or “strategy” or “industrial policy” were held in this country. To a certain extent I understand why: after all, enterprises or companies had to learn how to look after themselves without depending on the state. But perhaps we carried this too far, for there are some things about which the state must have a clear opinion of their importance to it. I am not speaking here just of matters that fall within the state budget, or of areas of public interest, or public institutions like the health care system, education, culture, and the like. I’m speaking directly about the economy. I mean things like housing construction and the real estate market, transportation, utilities, and the whole infrastructural network. I’m speaking about what underpins a prospering economy and a prosperous state. It hardly seems possible that in this very sphere the state would not have its own clear position, policies, and strategies. But does it? And if it does, why isn’t this more generally known? If we don’t have a policy, why aren’t we developing one?

In other words, it’s high time our economic transformation got its second wind. It’s high time for politicians to draw up an inventory of what remains to be done, and to tell citizens, without delay, how they intend to complete the process. The more clearly this is explained, the more easily citizens will come to terms with temporary sacrifices. Given the bizarre and almost cryptic silence that now prevails, we can expect that when the first blow to their standard of living comes, whether it be a deregulation of rents or utility costs, people may well revolt in some real way, not just symbolically, as they have done for the most part so far.

7)Two years ago the legislative assembly finally passed the long-awaited law governing charitable and non-profit organizations. Many placed high hopes in this legislation. Many, including myself, were delighted by the prospect. We hoped that many of those relics of communism, whether funded from the state budget or from compulsory contributions, would finally become modern, nonprofit organizations, unencumbered by a web of silly proclamations and regulations, and essentially freer and, for that very reason, incomparably more economical and more socially beneficial. I looked forward to seeing a range of schools, hospitals, social amenities, and cultural institutions attain this new status, and gradually move to a system of multisourced financing.

In other words, I hoped they would not only receive support from the state, through the municipalities or the regions, but also enjoy large contributions from a wide variety of legal entities and individuals who would, as a result of their generosity, receive progressively increasing tax benefits. I hoped that this method of decentralized funding would meet a wide range of local and regional needs in infinitely more inventive and imaginative ways than a civil servant at the center could have done. At the same time I looked forward to the savings to be made because the funding would no longer have to travel from its source in tax revenues, be routed through the appropriate ministry and its capital budget, to arrive finally at the organization for which it was originally intended. I hoped that this system would give confidence to citizens and entrepreneurs, who would see for themselves how their money could be transformed into something for the general good.

I looked forward to all this in vain. How many charitable and nonprofit organizations have come into being over the past year? One? Two? And how many government-funded organizations have become nonprofit organizations? I haven’t heard of a single one. Some say it can’t be done without a special law. Some say it can be done according to existing privatization laws, but no one is attempting to do so because they’ve found that it’s more comfortable to live in the good old socialist conditions after all. All the more so because the tax benefits to those who donated money to the charitable and nonprofit sector never materialized. However it was, I see here an enormous obligation to the future and a large job to do. The innumerable confusions that plague the sphere of government-funded organizations could be made essentially simpler if the nonprofit sector could be made to work, at least in small ways, as it does in advanced Western democracies.

8)Many reforms have been carried out in social policy, and more legislation is being prepared. I would like to make note of one thing here: I welcomed the government’s intention to progressively separate the pension fund from the state budget and put it under separate management. For various reasons, this seems to me an essentially better system and I believe it can even bring financial advantages, because pension funds can manage their money better than governments. At the same time, it goes without saying that the guaranteed right of everyone to a pension will not be affected. Yet, since the government announced its intentions, nothing more has been heard of the matter. I would like to believe it has not forgotten about pensions, and that there is a team of specialists somewhere working quietly and intensively on this matter.

9)No reasonable person could accuse the current government, or the government that came before it, of ignoring the environment. On the contrary, the many billions of crowns spent on various environmental projects are beginning to bear fruit in the form of mild improvements in the state of the air, the soil, and the water. Even so I am still not persuaded that there is a genuinely clear conception behind such investments. Take, for example, the very simple principle that cleaning up an environment already polluted by industry is not enough; nonpolluting industries have to be established as well. This means that, in one way or other, we have to reward those who demonstrate that they can conserve energy, or who introduce environmentally friendly technology. Yes, let the laws of the marketplace apply in this area as well. But the most fundamental of those laws is one which says that it’s always cheaper to pollute less from the outset than to clean up an already polluted environment or pay the appropriate fines.

10)I have left culture to the end not because I consider it to be some superstructural “icing on the cake,” but for precisely the opposite reason. I consider it the most important of all, something that deserves to be mentioned at the very conclusion of my remarks. I am not thinking of culture as a separate sphere of human activity, such as caring for heritage sites, producing films, or writing poetry. I mean culture in the broadest sense of the word—that is, the culture of human relationships, of human existence, of human work, of human enterprise, of public and political life. I refer to the general level of our culture. I am afraid it is here that we have our greatest debt to pay and therefore have the most work ahead of us.

Culture cannot be measured by the number of splendid rock stars who visit our country, or by the beauty of fashions created by world-class designers and modeled for us by world-famous models, but by something else. It can be measured, for example, by what skinheads shout in the bar U Zabránsk å«ych, by how many Roma have been lynched or murdered, by how terribly some of us behave to our fellow human beings simply because they have a different color of skin.

This lack of culture in the broadest sense can probably, once again, be blamed on both sets of causes I spoke about in the beginning. It is a typical expression of the post-Communist syndrome and, at the same time, a consequence of how little attention we have paid to the state of our souls. Once again I repeat: it is not true that culture is a superstructure that somehow lives a parasitic existence on a flourishing economic base. On the contrary, economic prosperity is directly dependent on the cultural environment in which a given economy operates.

This is not the first time I have spoken to the members of parliament about the nonprofit sector, the reform of the civil service, and other such matters, but if I do it now, you must know I am talking about what is called a civil society. That means a society that makes room for the richest possible self-structuring and the richest possible participation in public life. In this sense, civil society is important for two reasons: in the first place it enables people to be themselves in all their dimensions, which includes being social creatures who desire, in thousands of ways, to participate in the life of the community in which they live.

In the second place, it functions as a genuine guarantee of political stability. The more developed all the organs, institutions, and instruments of civil society are, the more resistant that society will be to political upheavals or reversals. It was no accident that communism’s most brutal attack was aimed precisely against this civil society. It knew very well that its greatest enemy was not an individual non-Communist politician, but a society that was open, structured independently from the bottom up, and therefore very difficult to manipulate.

As you know, our country today is going through a political crisis. In democratic circumstances or conditions the essence of our crisis is a more or less banal event—the resignation of the government. A democratic system anticipates such events and has the means to deal with them.

And yet this very same crisis appears to many as the collapse of a regime, the collapse of democracy, or even of the world. In my opinion this can only happen because we have not yet created the foundations of a genuinely evolved civil society, which lives on a thousand different levels and thus need not feel that its existence depends on one government or another or on one political party or another.

If I criticize those who have resigned, it is not so much for any particular sin they may have committed, but far more for their indifference and outright hostility to everything that may even slightly resemble a civil society or contribute to its creation. In the final analysis, this indifference is precisely why so common a democratic event as the fall of one government appears nothing short of a Greek tragedy, and to some extent may even have become such a tragedy. Many people understandably feel that they are facing the collapse of a particular view of the state, a particular world view, a particular set of ideals.

However unpleasant and stressful, and even dangerous, what we are going through may be, it can also be instructive and a force for good, because it can call forth a catharsis, the intended outcome of ancient Greek tragedy. That means a feeling of profound purification and redemption. A feeling of new-born hope. A feeling of liberation.

If, then, the present crisis forces us to think seriously again about the nature of our state, about the idea behind it, about its identity, and if it leads us to imbue our work with the result of such thinking, then this crisis will have been anything but meaningless, and all the setbacks it has caused will be compensated for many times over.

We often talk about the identity of a state or a nation or a society, and more than one opponent of European integration has ranted on about national identity and tried to engender fear of its loss. Most who speak this way subconsciously understand identity as something predestined, something genetic, almost an identity of blood—that is, something over which we have no influence or control. This notion of identity is thoroughly discredited. Identity is, above all, an accomplishment, a particular work, a particular act. Identity is not something separate from responsibility, but on the contrary, is its very expression.

If the current crisis is to be an invitation to action, if it once more gives substance to our identity, then we have no reason to regret it. Let us therefore understand it as a lesson, a schooling, a test, a challenge which may well have come just in time to warn us of our vanity and save us from something far worse.

Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

  1. *

    The Visegrad Group was an association of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, formed in 1990 at the instigation of President Havel. After Czechoslovakia split up in January 1993, the Visegrad Group was allowed to languish.