In Moscow on December 24, 2011, 80,000 pro-democracy protesters observed a moment of silence in honor of Vaclav Havel. Though young Americans have almost no idea of what the Cold War was or who the heroes were, one imagines generations in Eastern Europe will have a longer memory. After all, the sacrifice of their nations was greater than that of Americans who mostly experienced the battle for the fate of freedom in the world as a matter of generalized anxiety. Families in the East endured repression and coercion on an everyday basis. Vaclav Havel was one of many great men and women in the Eastern Bloc who openly resisted the Soviet vision, knowing that they would likely earn only suffering and death in return for their efforts to purchase a freedom for the future. Playwright Havel was one of the few who lived to see his sacrifice redeemed and who had the opportunity to shape the new Eastern Europe.
Today, the Czech Republic is one of the success stories. It has navigated the transition toward capitalism and very clearly sees its destiny with the nations of the European Union rather than with its still dangerous former master state, Russia. One knowledgeable observer identifies three phases of the relationship since the end of the Cold War. First, there was a warm period of de-Sovietization in which the apparatus of the old Communist state was removed. Second, tensions re-emerged as the Czechs made it clear that they would join both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Third, and really the status quo for the last decade or more, the two countries have had a more pragmatic and normalized relationship. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the Czech Republic borders Germany and enjoys a degree of geographical separation from Russia.
Russia’s oil monopoly Transneft recently made radical reductions in the amount of oil it is shipping to the CR. Though the Czechs have 90 days worth of reserves and have previously managed to replace lost Russian oil through alternative sources, the event (which remains ill-explained at this writing) underscores the extreme importance the former Soviet satellites and republics must place on achieving energy security. The Czechs have been successful users of nuclear power. Though they rely significantly upon coal, the Czechs are one of the countries that have managed to exceed Kyoto targets. Nuclear power is the reason they can hit targets most nations find unreasonable.
Politically speaking, the CR exhibits all the signs of a healthy democracy. A center-right coalition narrowly controls the government and is working diligently toward balancing the budget by 2016. The government, headed by Petr Necas and the Civic Democratic Party has pushed through unpopular austerity measures. Despite its aggressive approach to taming budget problems, the CR has joined Britain in declining to approve the new European fiscal pact which would place strict limits on deficits and debt. Given that a major impetus behind the pact is to protect the integrity of the euro, the CR demonstrates a healthy regard for its own sovereignty in choosing not to sign on. It has also been noted that had the prime minister wanted to approve the pact, he would have needed to override the veto of the CR’s other famous Vaclav — the euroskeptic, climate skeptic, and otherwise just generally skeptical (probably a good quality in a leader) — President Vaclav Klaus.
At the same time, civil society appears to be alert to possible corruption as the country is currently working through a potential scandal. Wiretaps, the provenance of which is somewhat in question, reveal a potentially inappropriate relationship between the former mayor of Prague and an influential businessman. If the material is authentic, it would demonstrate an excessive degree of influence by a businessman on an elected official. Though the scandal presents an obvious crisis and a blow to the hopes of those who fear co-optation of the government by the corporate sector, the simple fact that the controversy is being litigated in the public eye is a sign of health for the body politic.
A recent column in The Economist noted that Kim Jong-il and Vaclav Havel died within a few days of each other. Kim had stewardship of his father’s revolutionary socialist government. Havel was the unexpected democratic leader of a people who rejected the repressive permanent revolution, the sort of man who would have rotted in prison (as he did in the old Czechoslovakia) or have been killed by the government in North Korea. As the failed, militaristic, socialist regime in North Korea blows another rocket launch and precious resources needed by its starving, unfree people, Havel’s Czech Republic is acting very much like a mature democratic republic in both its blessings and challenges. One of the two will soon follow its 20th century peers into what President Bush referred to as history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies. The other has a future.
Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism and the forthcoming Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.
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