In the previous part of this post I discussed the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) and the reason it was created—in short, the history of Nazi occupation and communist rule left a complex moral legacy that needs investigation and thoughtful incorporation into the country’s political discourse and education.
I was prompted to that discussion by an event this past week, involving the institute, one of its historians, and the current prime minister, Andrej Babiš.
Babiš is, to put it mildly, a controversial figure.
His party, ANO, is dominant in the lower house of Parliament, having gotten 39% of the seats in last October’s elections, but he’s been unable to form a government that can win the votes of a majority of representatives.
In part, many people simply don’t trust him.
More concretely, he and his right-hand man have been indicted for fraudulently obtaining European Union subsidies.
The outsider parties, like the communists and the proto-fascist SPD, would be happy to form a government with Babiš, but he is reluctant to base his power on an explicit alliance with them.
Going the other direction, Babiš would be willing to form a coalition with various other “respectable” parties in parliament, but Babiš insists on occupying the prime minister’s chair himself, rather than leaving that position to someone else from his party, and the other parties are hesitant to enter a coalition government headed by a prime minister who’s under indictment.
The president has appointed him to govern in the interim, while he tries to form a cabinet that can get a majority of votes in parliament, but the whole situation is taking the country into constitutionally vague waters.
Part of the response to this has been a series of protests, and an ongoing movement that calls itself “Milion chvílek pro demokracii” (A million moments for democracy). https://milionchvilek.cz/ Their web page leads off with an opportunity for you to sign (Czech citizens only, presumably) in support of their statement, “We consider it unacceptable that, 70 years after the communist putsch and 29 years after the Velvet Revolution, the prime minister of our country is a person under indictment who is also listed as an agent of the StB. We won’t pretend that that’s normal. We want Andrej Babiš to resign!”
Which brings up the other issue with Babiš, which is that he shows up in the records of the communist-era secret police (the Státní bezpečnost [State Security] – StB).
He claims he had only a minor role, the minimum interaction that would have allowed him to continue his work as a foreign-trade representative for a Slovak chemical company. However, Slovakia’s Institute for the Nation’s Memory says he was a more active cooperator, and they’re the official keepers of the StB records for the Slovak part of the former Czechoslovakia.
The week before last there was yet another demonstration on Prague’s Wenceslaus Sq., calling for Babiš to step down. (Kate went by there with my cousin, who was visiting, and picked up the color of the event, though the content of the speeches and banners wasn’t meant to be easily accessible to non-Czechs.)
It turns out that one of the speakers was a man named Petr Blažek, a historian who works at the ÚSTR, and he had an interesting bit of recent history to share. Back when Babiš was the Minister of Finance, a colleague of Blažek’s testified in court, presenting evidence of Babiš’s communist past.
Two months later, there was a meeting at the Ministry of Finance at which Babiš informed the ÚSTR that he was adding 2 million crowns (about $100,000) to the institute’s budget.
Blažek describes the money from Babiš as payment for a purge, and indeed, shortly after the money was promised, the ÚSTR let go the historian who had testified against Babiš.
The institute itself says the dismissals were unrelated to the money provided by Babiš’s Finance Ministry, attributing them to the completion of a digitization project.
And they publically chastised Blažek for his appearance at the demonstration, saying he had not based his statement in provable facts as a historian should, but was acting instead as a “fanatical activist.”
To lay out the details of “he said / they said” would be going a bit into the weeds. The short version is that the ÚSTR leadership is telling a story that sounds a lot like ass-covering generalizations, while Blažek and others are countering with specific claims that could potentially be verified (though I don’t know if they have been verified).
Part I of this post was about the complexities of having a totalitarian legacy and the moral quandaries it forces people into. It was also about how a dictatorship—even one imposed from outside—is nonetheless part of a society, and not just some alien force ruling society from outside.
It makes sense, then, that the tools a society builds to deal with that legacy are themselves part of society, rather than being some deus ex machina that can come in and clean up the mess with divine objectivity.
The legacy of moral compromise remains in society itself. And there are plenty of people with pasts they want to hide, whether that’s private individuals not articulating to themselves their own choices under the old regime, or politicians working the levers to keep their histories out of the public eye.
In that setting, there’s always the risk that an institution created to understand the legacy of dictatorship will come under pressure to shade things, to prevent too much light from falling on uncomfortable truths.
The incident surrounding Blažek and his appearance at the anti-Babiš rally is a window into part of how that is done.
As I said in Part I, I don’t mean to be condemning every Czech who chose not to be a self-sacrificing dissident. Those of us who have never been citizens of a dictatorship have never faced the set of choices that was forced on everyone here, and so we can’t know how we would have acted.
But we can still learn from other people’s pasts, and we should.
If, like me, you’re from the U.S., you have an opportunity provided by the government’s current policy of separating children from parents at the border. We can speak out against the administration’s barbarous policy. We can contact your Senators and Representatives. We can write to your paper. We can organize to vote for people who will stop such horrors.
And unlike citizens of a fully-entrenched dictatorship, we can do those things without having to fear losing our jobs, our housing, our personal liberty, our children’s access to college.
If we’re not speaking out now, we’ll need an ÚSTR in the future.