Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A taste of November

Last night I stopped in at a demonstration on Wenceslaus Square, as one does on a Monday evening.

The crowd was protesting the fact that a member of parliament named Zdeněk Ondráček had been elected to chair the parliamentary committee overseeing the General for the Inspection of Security Agencies (Generální inspekce bezpečnostních sborů – GIBS).

There are two reasons that’s a problem.

First, his election to the committee chairmanship was supported by the prime minister’s party (ANO). The prime minister has been indicted for fraud in connection with subsidies for Čapí hnízdo (The Stork’s Nest) an organic farm and conference center he owns. As chair of the committee overseeing GIBS, Ondráček will have influence over the investigation of the case against the prime minister.

The second issue is that Ondráček is not merely a member of the communist party, but before November, 1989, was a policeman who took part in suppressing anti-communist protests.

Of course, all of us have done things we later look back on as having been, at best, unfortunate choices, right? But to this day Ondráček doesn’t regret his work with the communist police.

Now you have him in parliament, chosen to head an important committee, and you have thousands in the streets protesting him.

(The police estimate of the Prague demonstration was over 10,000, with 2,000 in Brno and correspondingly smaller numbers in other smaller Czech cities.)

Ondráček is an easy target, with his current membership in the communist party and his past involvement in the communist regime’s police, but he brings to a head many people’s objection to Andrej Babiš, the prime minister.

Babiš was apparently an agent of the StB, the communist-era secret police. He has sued against having been designated as such, but courts have found against him. Then the question is whether he was an active agent or merely someone the StB talked to, as they would talk with anyone in a position like his at the time, involved with foreign trade.

His connection to the StB combines with his current indictment for fraud to make him an unacceptable prime minister for many people.

As I was leaving the demonstration last night I picked up a small leaflet from a girl who was part of a family handing them out.

In the Czech Republic we don’t want a prime minster who is under criminal indictment.
We’re collecting a million signatures!
“70 years after the communist coup and 29 years after the velvet revolution we consider it unacceptable for the prime minister of our country to be a person under criminal indictment, listed as an agent of the StB. We won’t pretend that that’s fine. We want Andrej Babiš to resign from his post.!”
The website translates as “a million moments”

In the few minutes that I was at the protest, it had a bit of the flavor of the famous protests of 1989 that brought down the communist regime. As I came around the corner from the trolley stop onto the square itself, a wave of angry whistling was just building, and it sounded like the videos I've seen of the Velvet Revolution gatherings.

Except this was on a much smaller scale (those were on the order of 250,000 people).

And it didn’t have the prelude of people having been beaten by the communist police.

And then there’s the complicating factor that Babiš’s party was duly chosen by a strong plurality of Czech voters just last October.

When they went to the polls they knew he was under indictment. They knew he had most likely been an StB agent of some sort.

They still voted for his party.

Here’s one way of looking at it.

There’s a narrative about the end of communism that’s all about social unity. Czechs and Slovaks were being held down by the unelected, repressive communist regime, but in November, 1989, the society came together and (with an assist from favorable conditions in Moscow) overthrew the hated regime.

If you thought about it, that narrative was always problematic.

After all, who exactly were the people swinging truncheons at protestors? They were other Czechs and Slovaks.

And it wasn’t the whole society that came together in 1989. It was enough of the society that the regime could no longer keep order by force, particularly once they realized that they weren’t going to have the Soviet Union backing them up in continued repression.

From the West, the end of communism in Eastern Europe looks like a simple story of good triumphing over evil, with everyone understanding that that’s what happened.

But there were always people who thought the end of communism was a mistake.

And as the successor regime has had visible corruption and cases of pretty clear unfair enrichment, a greater number of people have decided that November, 1989 might not have been such a good idea.

It feels like we’re witnessing the hollowing-out of the consensus narrative about post-communism.

(I didn’t get any good pictures, but there’s a photo album here.

And one representative picture in particular: this pair is holding a sign that says, “A communist police thug with no regrets? Sorry not sorry. We’re really not having it.” The smaller signs hanging off their big poster say, “They slapped democracy in the face. It’s time to take to the streets,” and “We won’t let it stand. Let this be a place where one can live.” Everything rhymes, of course.)

I didn’t stay at the protest long, because I was on my way to the theater with my friend Ewan to catch what is seems to be the second-to-last performance of The Mouse-Paradise Experiment (Experiment myší ráj) by Jiří Havelka.

The play opens with footage about the work of John B. Calhoun and his Mouse Utopia experiments, then translates Calhoun’s observations into human terms.

Havelka’s treatment suggests that talking about the situation we’re in is a fruitless endeavor. At the same time, it leaves unexplored the question of whether we are the authors of our own experiment, or someone else is creating the conditions under which self-government seems increasingly futile.

On the way into the theater, audience members are given mouse masks. Here’s my surreptitious shot of some fellow audience members:

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