Friday, September 1, 2017

This week in Prague

My family and I are spending my sabbatical in Prague for the 2017-18 academic year, as we did in 2010-11. I’ll be based for the year at Czech University of Life Sciences (in Czech, Česká zemědělská univerzita, or Czech Agricultural University).

Part of what I do when I’m here is sample from the local media to try to build a sense of what’s going on in the society. The picture that develops is, like any, incomplete and shaped not just by what I’m observing but by the biases I bring, as well as my substantial but imperfect background knowledge.

The Czech Republic, or Czechia, to use the term that the country has adopted as the official short form of its name in English, is in some sense an unimportant place: 10 million people speaking a language that few foreigners bother to learn, a country outside the “core” of the European Union, a place unfamiliar enough to Americans that after the Boston Marathon bombing, Fox News put up a map that showed the Czech Republic but labeled it “Chechnya”. (Well, that’s Fox News, so I guess that last point doesn’t prove much.)

And yet, like almost anything in the world, we can learn from it if we pay attention, and the contrasts with the U.S. can help us see our own society in a new light. The U.S. has been largely the master of its own fate for a couple of centuries; the Czech lands have been part of others’ imperia for most of the last five centuries. The U.S. has continued under the same written constitution since 1789; the Czech lands experienced seven different regimes just in the 20th century. In the 20th century U.S. culture outgrew its inferiority complex relative to Europe and became the world’s dominant cultural force, first with jazz, but then with movies, rock, rap, etc.; Czechs have a proud cultural heritage, but it’s more of a specialty taste than a mass phenomenon.

The title of this post is aspirational, expressing a hope that I will follow through on writing regularly about the political and economic scene around me. I will necessarily be writing from my own particular areas of concern, but I aim to catch the interest of an open-minded American reader.

Driving in from the airport, I noticed that the trees in the median of Europe Ave. were numbered: 23, 22, 21, … I asked the cab driver what they were for. “Just identification, maybe for gathering data. Maybe some company wants to sponsor them. Maybe it’s the EU.”

There is a high degree of euroskepticism here, and this off-hand remark by the cabby seemed part of that. Anything that has an aroma of senseless bureaucratic meddling is probably the fault of “Europe.”

This is an unavoidable topic in the run-up to October’s parliamentary elections. One of the larger parties here, ODS (Civil Democratic Party) has toyed with euroskepticism for years. Now they’re playing this interesting game of declaring themselves to be pro-EU while undercutting that by making demands about negotiating a permanent option for the Czech Republic to not join the euro currency that circulates in most of the EU countries. (Marek Švehla, “Useful idiots and Protectorate scribblers”, Respekt, 21-27 August, 2017, p. 11)

Getting along within the EU is legitimately tricky. You’ve got the western members’ requests/demands that eastern members accept significant numbers of the refugees that continue coming into Greece and Italy via the Mediterranean, a request/demand that Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary have no interest in meeting.

At the same time, you have the governments of Poland and Hungary moving away from democracy, with the trend in Poland being particularly alarming of late. For instance, the governing Truth and Justice party (PiS in the Polish acronym) has given new powers to the Minister of Justice, allowing the person in that position to dismiss judges, thus destroying the independence of the juidiciary.

A letter-writer argues, “The main argument against a hard stance on Poland isn’t that I’m super excited about what PiS is doing their, but rather is strategic: Poland is Europe’s eastern bastion. Russia is a threat … and Poland is the only regional power that has the will and ability to restrain Russian expansionism.” (Letters, Respekt, 14-20 August, 2017, p. 9)

It’s true that Poland is the largest EU member east of Germany, and the centuries-old antagonism between Poles and Russians makes Poland an obvious choice for resisting Putin’s efforts to reassemble the old Soviet imperium.

But you have to ask just what it is that Poland is defending? Is Putin angling for fairly direct domination of the old realm, or merely compatible regimes? And if it’s the latter, isn’t a dictatorship in Poland already a victory for Putin?

Closer to “home,” and all too reminiscent of home after Charlottesville, there was the action of Roman Sedlačík, former vice-mayor of the town of Hodonín and now a representative of the political party Order of the Nation. He had an encounter with a couple of tourists from Germany who had dark skin. His own account on his Facebook page was as follows:
I went after them and I asked the brawny black guy what they were doing here, where they were from, and whether they were Muslims; his wife was terrified. I don’t understand why, but at the same time I don’t understand people who don’t notice them and are gradually getting used to them.
Their dark skin made him suspicious, so he called the police.

That part of the incident is horrific, but I do appreciate the response of the Hodonín police chief:
We sent a patrol to the location, but the officers didn’t find the relevant parties, and even if they had found them, we’re only allowed to check someone’s identity for serious reasons, which does not include the fact that someone is walking around the town. (“Last week”, Respekt, 14-20 August, 2017, p. 66)
The bigger local story involves the candidate most likely to emerge from October’s elections as the country’s prime minister.

Andrej Babiš is something like Silvio Berlusconi, minus the never-ending stream of scantily clad young women. Like Berlusconi, Babiš is a media magnate, with a holding company that owns two of the country’s large newspapers and an important news web portal. Outside of that, he owns a radio station and a TV channel. Forbes Magazine has called him the most influential person in the world of Czech media.

His wealth comes more broadly from his ownership of Agrofert, “which is one of the biggest firms in post-communist Europe and which brings together more than 250 firms from the branches of chemistry, agriculture, food processing, forestry, wood processing”, etc.

A few years ago Babiš got himself into politics by creating a new political party. It’s called the Campaign of Dissatisfied Citizens, and when you write that in Czech, the acronym is “ANO,” which is also the Czech word for “Yes”. Nicely done.

According to ANO’s own website, “The initiative ANO arose spontaneously in the fall of 2011 after Andrej Babiš spoke in the media about systemic corruption that had permeated the state administration.”

According to Czech Wikipedia, Babiš founded the party in 2012, building off of the “ANO” initiative. Their stated program is to create better business conditions for entrepreneurs and the self-employed, and to fight partisanship and state corruption.

Funny story: the Czech police have asked the parliament to strip Andrej Babiš of his immunity so that he can be prosecuted for corruption.

South of Prague there’s an organic farm and resort area called The Stork’s Nest (Čapí hnízdo). In the 2013 election campaign, Babiš claimed he didn’t have anything to do with it and that he didn’t know who owned it. Now the police think they can prove that it was in reality a part of Babiš’s Agrofert the whole time, and that clever accounting was used to make it look like an independent company so as to receive an EU subsidy meant for small, independent firms.

The Stork’s Nest got the subsidy, for 50 million Czech crowns (about US $2.5 million). (“I don't know whose it is”, Respekt, 14-20 August, 2017, p. 22-23)

And now Andrej Babiš, the billionaire, one of the richest men in post-communist Europe, the heir presumptive to the prime minister’s office, running on a platform of fighting corruption, faces the fall election under a cloud of possible criminal prosecution for defrauding the EU.

It should be an interesting fall.


  1. Should you have the inclination - what does the Czech press think of Russia right now?

    1. I'm far from a comprehensive view, but there's a touch of it at the end of this:

  2. eToro is the #1 forex broker for novice and full-time traders.