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Czech democracy — the next generation

I first met Silvie Mitlenerova last month during a panel discussion on the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The panel was set-up generationally. It included a former dissident who lived through the Prague Spring — the reform movement of 1968 — a couple of student protesters from 1989, and Silvie, a university student today, whose Inventura Demokracie group seeks further political reforms.

When the Q&A session rolled-around I asked the panel what tangible change was needed to advance the country’s still fledgling democracy. I was hoping at least one of them would say something about the need to implement the-rule-of-law — because the judicial process is still something of a kangaroo court — and that reverberates beyond the legal system and into the political realm. Alas, none of the panelists hit on judicial reform, and most responded with something more theoretical than tangible, but Silvie blurted out, something to the effect that, "my generation needs to take power." She recognizes, of course, that that is an oversimplification, but there is much to be said for her declaration because the truth is that Communists weren’t the only ones tainted by Communism, but rather society as a whole was stained by a morally bankrupt regime.

That "taint" manifests itself in countless ways, but in short it has much to do with how things are done — politically, commercially and socially. A shortage of basic goods — as basic as toilet paper — spontaneously gave rise to a barter system under communism. The barter-reflex persists for those who lived under the old regime, but the abundance of everyday goods in the post-communist era has changed the dynamic . Barter and bribery still persist, but as a whole the new generation isn’t thinking in such a way, in part because of the abundance of goods all-around them.

Many have suggested the country’s democracy  — civil society, rule-of-law, etc. — will not mature further until the next generation, those born and raised in the post-communist era, grow into positions of power. But Vladimira Dvorakova, the political science professor at the Prague School of Economics rejects such assertions as a cop-out. The current generation of political leaders must — and can, she insists — do more to advance the country’s democratic development.

The challenge, in part, for ensuing generations is to be aware of their country’s past. Indeed it was a bald display of ignorance — on Nov. 17, 2007 — that ignited the Inventura Demokracie movement. A political science student was shopping that day, but lamenting that the teen-aged shop assistant had to work on a national holiday. The student expressed her regrets to the young worker but was struck-dumb when she discovered that the teen had no idea it was a holiday, and knew nothing about why the day was an important one in Czech history. (The day’s significance extends beyond the Velvet Revolution date of 1989, and goes back to a Nazi atrocity in 1939.)

This is not the first attempt to advance the country’s political culture. A little more than 10 years ago, a "Thank you now get out," campaign was aimed at the country’s political leaders. The idea was the leaders of each political party, as well as President Vaclav Havel, should leave politics, paving the way for a younger generation, though one that still grew up under communism. Havel was included in the group mainly so the appeal would appear non-partisan, though Havel was, clearly, not part of the problem. Predictably Havel — who never aspired to a career in politics and has little, if any, lust for the limelight — was the only one willing to consider the request. But with the question of the country’s entrance into NATO hanging in the balance, and its prospects for eventual membership in the European Union still uncertain, he wasn’t about to leave the stage by himself.

And former Prague Mayor Jan Kasl, 1998-2002, had plenty of reform ideas — like tape-recording city council meetings for the record and — gasp — actually opening the council meetings to the public! Virtually no one in the city government, including those in his own party supported such reforms. Kasl also drove his brethren mad by handing out his cell phone number to journalists — giving them direct access to the city’s leader, and prompting the reporters to expect similar access from other city representatives. But in the end the lack of political support for his broader reforms, a sense that the system was rife with corruption, as well as growing enmity towards him, prompted Kasl to resign in frustration.

Can the new generation lead, or cajole, the country towards a truly liberal-democracy? Yes, they can, but it will take plenty of hard-work, determination and time.