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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.

  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.

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