Little To Cheer About

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When the police roughed up a peaceful student demonstration in Prague on Nov. 17, 10 years ago last week, the Czechs rose en masse. Under the slogan "Truth and love will win over lies and hatred" they toppled the police state which had oppressed them for more than 40 years. Vaclav Havel, a dissident who had spent nearly five years in communist prisons, was soon elected President, and when the Civic Forum pro-democracy movement took a majority of votes during parliamentary elections in June, 1990, the Czechs couldn't have been happier. But as George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher along with other cold warriors gathered in Prague to mark what has become known as the Velvet Revolution, few Czechs were in a mood to join that celebration. The legacies of the communist regime are hanging more heavily than ever over their small country in the heart of Europe.

Havel, the sickly hero of the revolution who had a near-fatal brush with lung cancer in 1996, has threatened to resign over proposed constitutional amendments limiting his powers. And the two politicians behind the changes, Prime Minister Milos Zeman and his predecessor Vaclav Klaus, are refusing to heed his warnings. Their increasingly cynical political manipulations have so disillusioned the electorate that a November survey by the Center for Empirical Research (STEM) indicated the little-reformed Communists are now the country's most popular political party at 22%, .3 of a percentage point ahead of Klaus' Civic Democrats and 7.1 points ahead of Zeman's Social Democrats. "People feel they are losing the ground from underneath their feet as their calls for clear leadership go unanswered," says Vera Haberlova, chief of research at stem. "And while the number of people who favor the current regime still outweighs those who are calling for the old regime to return, the gap is narrowing."

So deep is dissatisfaction with Zeman's government that only 17% of respondents when polled by stem in October agreed it was working "very well" or "relatively well," down from 51% in September 1998. Yet Zeman calls his minority government, which depends on Klaus for support, a "success," pointing to a slight pickup in GDP growth and foreign investment as well as unemployment decreasing by a fraction last month. "Until now I and the whole government were like the pilot of a falling plane. Now the pilot sees a blue sky again," he told a Czech newspaper in mid-September. But to Jonathan Stein, a political analyst with the EastWest Institute in Prague, "That sounds like the Egypt Air crash off Nantucket. It plunged some 15,000 feet, climbed 7,000 feet and then broke up and crashed, killing 217 people. You won't really be able to say that the economy is fixed until all the bank privatization is done, a lot of bankruptcies have gone and significant productivity gains have been made." Klaus blames everyone but himself for the lack of progress and reform, even though he held power for many years before Zeman. Neither he nor Zeman seems prepared to confront the serious challenges facing the country in the wake of a mid-October European Commission report which singled out the Czech Republic, once regarded as model for post-communist reforms, as the only fast-track applicant for E.U. membership which "needs to make serious progress." Says Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and a political adviser to Havel: "I have a feeling that the paralysis will continue, which will further benefit the Communists." With early elections ruled out by most parties owing to the urgency of E.U. preparations, that might well be the case. "We were dealt certain cards in 1998. Our view is to play with those cards and hope to get a better hand in 2002 based on how well we will have played," says Lukas Herold, spokesman for Klaus' Civic Democrats.

Many, including Stein, point to Klaus as the main obstacle. "He is completely unpalatable, completely unacceptable to too many people," Stein says. Klaus' byzantine maneuvering is one reason. After Zeman delivered his annual government report to the parliament on July 1, Klaus' Civic Democrats joined other opposition parties to declare that "the activities of the government are harmful to the Czech Republic." But when there was a call for a no-confidence vote, the Civic Democrats balked. "This is exactly what kills and blocks political life here, what steals courage from everybody, both in the opposition and in the government," Havel said at the time.

To be sure, some economic indicators suggest an economic upturn, but it is far from clear how sustainable it will be. The economy grew a minuscule but encouraging .3% in the second quarter after five consecutive quarters of contraction; direct foreign investment increased from $1.3 billion in 1997 to $2.5 billion last year and $1.3 billion in the first half of 1999. The Zeman government has also sold Ceskoslovenska obchodni banka, one of the three large state banks, for some $1.2 billion and is about to sell another, Ceská sporitelna.

Bank privatization is the basic requirement if there is to be a shake-out of the moribund, coddled industries in a country where 60% of the labor force hasn't had to change jobs once since 1989. But analysts fear the pre-privatization cleanup of the banks' sorry loan portfolios is resulting in the debts of hundreds of companies coming back under state control and delaying bankruptcies once again.

Zeman's problems stem not only from his government's tenuous minority position and its relative inexperience but also from his uneasy relationship with the media and the party's inability to steer clear of scandals similar to those that led to Klaus' humiliating fall from power in late 1997. "I have discovered that the number of idiots per square meter is highest in Czech journalism," Zeman said in June. "I consider a part of myself to be a journalist, and that is why I am so troubled by the scum and dung in which part of Czech journalism revels." But Zeman's pique does not explain an undeclared $176,000 loan from a private company to his party prior to the June 1998 parliamentary elections. Nor has he substantiated his claims that former Foreign Affairs Minister Josef Zieleniec bribed journalists in order to burnish his image.

Sick of what the established parties have to offer, many people are looking for alternatives. Vaclav Fischer, a wealthy 45-year-old owner of a travel agency and small airline, stood as an independent candidate in Prague and won by a landslide in the first round of voting for a vacant Senate seat this summer. Following his election, Fischer commented: "I did not win over Jirina Jiraskova (a Civic Democrat candidate) but over Vaclav Klaus, indecency and vulgarity."

While the frustration of the electorate has so far translated mostly into the declining popularity of the ruling Social Democrats, the voters could well turn on Klaus' Civic Democrats. Some Czechs are even looking to their communist past for their models. The resurgence of the former Communist Party is only one manifestation of public disillusionment with the politics of the past decade.

A more hopeful sign is the development of Impuls 99, a civic initiative modeled on the group Charter 77 which opposed the communist regime by provoking discussion about problems in politics and society. It has gathered more than 3,300 signatures since its formation in July, and Pehe thinks that it might even generate a new political party with values closer to those of the Velvet Revolution. That would be a far more appropriate 10th anniversary gift than the presence of aging foreign dignitaries at last week's celebrations.