After the Velvet Revolution, comes the next generation

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — It’s been 20 years since Czechoslovakia’s young people initiated the overthrow of their communist government.

Now, a sizable slice of the next generation isn’t happy with the political culture that their parents helped bring about. One group of young Czechs has petitioned government officials for change with specific demands that echo strains of 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

Inventura Demokracie, a student group made up of 15 core members with an additional 1,700 Facebook fans, wants to reform the political system, which it sees as beset by public apathy, corruption and cronyism, according to the group’s spokesperson, Silvie Mitlenerova, a 21-year-old political science student.

It does not, however, want to bring about a revolution, said Mitlenerova.

“We would like to improve communication between politicians and the public,” she said. “We don’t only blame the politicians, but the public too.”

Silvie Mitlenerova
Silvie Mitlenerova
(Bruce Konviser/GlobalPost)

Having been born within a year or so of the Velvet Revolution, which brought about the collapse of communism here in 1989, Mitlenerova’s generation is the first to grow up in a democracy. And they are savvy enough to see the flaws in the current system, but smart enough to seek advice from older political hands in order to maximize their ability to bring about successful reforms. Today’s students are more about persuading politicians behind closed doors.

In the run-up to last month’s anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Inventura Demokracie knocked on doors and pressed politicians on four specific areas, an initiative they dubbed: ‘Give us a present.’

On their list of grievances were liberal protections from prosecution under parliamentary immunity, legislative reform and reform of unregulated lobbying and media councils.

Almost all the political leaders they sought after agreed to meet with them — all, that is, except Mirek Topolanek, who was prime minister until his right-of-center coalition collapsed in a no-confidence vote this past spring. “Topolanek refused to meet us,” Mitlenerova said. “He told us we bore him.”

Jiri Paroubek, on the other hand, who is the leader of the social democrats, the largest left-of-center party in the country, not only met with the students but told them he agreed with everything on their list.

“Mr. Paroubek, [made] no sense,” Mitlenerova said. “He repeated, ‘when I’m prime minister I will pass all these but until then I can’t help you.’ He really stuck to that sentence.”

Ondrej Liska, the 32-year-old chairman of the Green Party was also open to the students’ reforms, but said he wasn’t in a position to offer much tangible help given that his party is struggling to maintain the 5 percent minimum public support they need to stay in parliament.

Count Karel Schwarzenburg, the former foreign minister who now leads the newly formed TOP ’09 party, wowed the students with his candidness.

“He spoke very clearly and plainly and he agreed with us,” Mitlenerova said.

He was so plain-spoken, in fact, that he aroused suspicion. “It can’t be a politician, something smells there — but maybe not,” Mitlenerova said. “I trust him that he’s not in politics for the money — he has money enough.”

(Indeed, that seems to be Schwarzenberg’s broader appeal — an aristocrat with considerable wealth, combined with a moral compass in-line with his friend Vaclav Havel, has created a public perception that he is above reproach. His TOP ’09 party regularly garners 10-15 percent support in opinion polls — an exceptionally high number for a start-up political entity.)

In the end, “[We] didn’t get very far,” Mitlenerova said, though she added that they were far from discouraged. The group had originally planned to phase out with the revolution’s 20th anniversary. But instead they’ve decided to try to keep the flame burning.

Inventura Demokracie member Jiri Boudal said he’d like to focus on pressing the public to become more engaged like they are in other European countries. “My aim is to help found a center for civic education,” he said. “In Germany, there are public service announcements on television telling you how you can participate, and change your environment, instead of just sitting around and complaining.”

Vladimira Dvorakova, a political science professor at the Prague School of Economics, says political reform is urgently needed, and she’s heartened by the students’ enthusiasm.

“They can do a lot, or nothing,” she said, “If they try to change everything in a year they’ll be frustrated.”

She traced the low-grade political culture here to a prevailing arrogance and insecurity among politicians. The result is a lack of civil discourse, which leaves the public feeling alienated from the process and reluctant to criticize those in power.

“We don’t want this type of behavior from our politicians,” Dvorakova said. “We need to make changes towards a liberal democracy based on the rule-of-law.”

Jaroslava Gajdosova, a sociology professor at the Anglo-American University in Prague, said it could be the dawning of a new era.

“Every generation has its horizon,” she said. “For the generation that brought down communism their horizon is fading.”