Illusions regarding the Soviet type of socialism were followed by certain illusions regarding the solidity of the normative, institutional and cultural pillars of liberal democracy in the Czech Republic. Today, the possibility to engage in a peaceful protest opens a new chapter in the development of Czech society.
When I was asked to reflect on 1989 in Prague, I first declined as I felt it was inappropriate: indeed, I was a member of the Communist Party at that time and one who genuinely believed there was a chance to reform the Soviet type of state socialist system (implemented also in Czechoslovakia) in the context of the Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Nonetheless, as there was an explicit interest to have a view “from the other side of the aisle”, here are my very personal notes on the events of 1989 and the following transition in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
A great sense of relief
First of all, as indicated above, my colleagues, family, friends and I believed the Soviet type of state socialism could be transformed into a democratic socialist society. We had witnessed and shared the growing discontent with the totalitarian system, the dire state of the national economy, environment, we had seen the moral decay of the society (and the Communist Party itself).
Nonetheless, unable to think outside of the box of traditional leftist beliefs (such as state/collective ownership of means of production), we failed to think and act productively before November 1989. Inevitably, when the mass demonstrations in November 1989 brought down the whole political and economic system, it represented a defeat of our hopes for democratic socialism.
At the same time, I experienced a great sense of relief: the totalitarian or post-totalitarian political system was based on a communist monopoly on political power and we felt directly responsible for the distortions and wrongdoings of the regime and its lack of efficiency in dealing with the most routine issues. Being swept away by the public rebellion represented a kind of liberation (personally, I remember that I started to sleep well after a long time).
Sure, we were side-lined by the history – but at least we were not on its wrong side any more. Fukuyama’s thesis about the universalisation of Western liberal democracy combined with European-style social market economy seemed to offer a plausible direction of the transition.
Actually, a number of people, who went to the streets, fed up with the regime and the party, hoped a new society could combine some attributes of the state socialist system (full employment, social security etc.) with democratic rule and opening to the outside world. For a very short time, a discussion about a third way was a part of the broader public discourse. It was linked with the return of a number of former communists, who had been purged from the party and from their jobs after the Soviet invasion against the Prague Spring in 1968.
However, the fast track transition chosen by the new political leadership was driven by well-educated and prepared (neo)liberal economists, who pushed such ideas (and their promoters) aside: it was the Thatcherite TINA (“There is no alternative”) principle which dominated the transition policies for most of the 1990s. In fact, the EU accession helped to correct some of the mistakes of the transition period later.
Fragility of the party political system
As much as I had had illusions regarding the Soviet type of socialism and its potential before 1989, I also sustained certain illusions regarding the solidity of the normative, institutional and cultural pillars of liberal democracy in the Czech Republic after 1990. I did observe with scepticism the process and results of the privatisation but did not foresee the fragility of the party political system which has been in deep trouble throughout the last decade.
Most of the parties created after 1989 are rather weak and/or lack deeper roots in the society – except perhaps the Christian KDU-ČSL and, paradoxically, the Communist successor party, the KSČM, with its disciplined but constantly shrinking basis.
As a result, populist parties have been on the rise led by the ANO of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. An oligarch and tycoon, Babiš has become a symbol of attempted privatisation of the state, of weakening of its institutions. Populism has emptied the political space of any forward-looking ideas.
Czech politics has been transformed into a mode of distribution of power and resources as well as pragmatic management of the day-to-day agenda. This was best demonstrated by the xenophobic reaction of nearly all of the Czech political class when the refugee crisis erupted.
We should not be surprised – both President Zeman and Prime Minister Babiš declared themselves to be the ‘Czech Tumps’ after all.
Before 1989, Zeman used to be a neo-Keynesian economist, critical of the communist rule; Babiš gained his economic skills as a foreign trade salesman and worked allegedly with the secret police. Currently, they work together as a team in a political symbiosis: Zeman needs Babiš in order to extend his influence and indirect control over Czech politics, Babiš depends on Zeman in order to maintain his position of Prime Minister.
They both tend to transactional policy-making with little regard to moral issues and norms; so, they integrate the unreformed Communist Party into policy-making on the national level (the Babiš’s minority government depends on the support of the KSČM). When opportune, both emphasise the national element in policymaking. As such, Zeman and Babiš divide the society into two similarly strong camps of supporters and vehement critics.
A new chapter
30 years since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, a criminal investigation into whether Andrej Babiš had abused EU subsidies, his alleged massive conflict of interest and the urge to defend liberal democratic values has again brought people into the streets of Prague and other cities across the republic.
Obviously, Czech liberal democracy has its defenders in broad circles of society. After all, Václav Havel remains to be the most important personality of the developments since 1989 in the eyes and minds of the majority of Czech public. For me personally, the mobilisation of broad circles of the society, the possibility to engage in a peaceful protest in the public space (the first I also attended since 1989), is the best demonstration of the fact that the 1989 revolution has indeed opened a new chapter in the development of the Czech society.
The question remains: what effect might such mobilisation have either on the currently inert parliamentary opposition or on the party system in general: will it lead to larger degree of engagement in public affairs? May it help us deal with the Europe-wide threat of populism?
Today, at least, we can say that the possibilities remain open – and hope it is a sign of a period of public apathy coming to an end.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.