I got thinking about this again today after reading a rather disturbing report from a May press conference with Topolánek. The conference took place in west Bohemia on 4 May 2007. An insightful, and rather scathing, account of the conference was published by Jan Neoral in Britské listy, the online home of the Czech and English newspaper. Neoral is the mayor of Trokavec, a village near the town of Brdy. Brdy is close to the large military installation that will likely host the radar base and near Plzeň, home of the legendary Pilsner Urquell beer. Although the account of the conference was available in both English (slightly abridged) and Czech, I have retranslated some of the excerpts below to restore some detail and specificity.
The report's implication, that little public voice is being heard by politicians, is disturbing. First we learn that the location of the conference was probably chosen because it is in a village that is likely to agree with Topolánek. (Starting to remind you of any other politician?)
Also disturbing is the glib comparison that Topolánek drew between the current situation and the Soviet treatment of the Prague Spring in 1968. This was a reference to the crushing of the Prague Spring and the Soviet force that marched into Prague in August 1968. The invasion, at least that's how the Czechs perceived it, was meant to ensure that the government hewed to the hardline Communist policy then in sway in Moscow. The invasion force stayed for 20 years. After Václav Havel became president in 1989, he promised that the Soviets would be the last foreign power to occupy the Czech Republic. Now it looks like another foreign military presence—the United States—will be welcomed by the Czech government. In the press conference, Topolánek drew a direct comparison between 1968 and 2007:
Prime Minister Topolánek opened the debate by saying that he was glad that we now can freely meet and talk, unlike in 1968 when the Soviet military presence was forced upon the people. He asked the citizens: "Where were you in 1968 when we were being occupied by the Russians? Today, this hall is crowded!" This opening statement did not go down well with the public.
The discussion continued in this spirit: "Be glad that unlike in 1968, someone is even willing to talk to you. Anyway, I am not willing to debate with you whether the radar should be here. I am not interested in the fact that a public referendum would reject the radar. I will only talk to you on my own terms, responding to your questions in the way that suits me. You must accept my views."
Is it not odd that Topolánek essentially blames the citizenry for allowing the invasion? It seems indicative of a strange sentiment of Czech politicos: distrust the people because they should not make the decisions. I've always found it strange that many Czech politicians (or at least enough influential ones) oppose public referendums. They distrust the people at large. Recently (on 13 July), Czech President Václav Klaus warned of "cheap populism" in response to a call for a national referendum. The implication is that public opinion would be manipulated by crafty ideologists. In other words, those who oppose Mr. Klaus's unfettered free-market ideology might have a chance to pull the wool over the eyes of the public given the "well-known pacifist atmosphere in the Czech Republic and across Europe," which might mean that a decision might not go according to the plans of the politicians in power now, the center-right ODS party. (Both Klaus and Topolánek are associated with this party.)
In Czech politics, it is thought best to trust important decisions (that may ultimately have a great impact one everyone) to the educated few who have somehow proven themselves by being elected, honestly or otherwise. This is somewhat logical given the country's recent political history. In the Czech Republic, the majority are regarded as the "gray zone" (a term explicated by sociologist Jiřina Šiklová), the undifferentiated and, most importantly, unthinking (uneducated?) majority. It is suspected that they majority will be swayed more by mob mentality than by actual individual thinking and independent decision-making. Thus, in 1948, the Communists took over the government with the support of "the people" after having been elected in open elections. Distrust is born and has fomented ever since. In 1993, Czechoslovakia was split into two independent nations, not by popular referendum but by a handful of politicians (current Czech president Václav Klaus chief among them) acting on their own economic interests. According to opinion polls of the time, the majority of Czechoslovak citizens did not support the split. The Czechs and Slovaks, after all, have often considered themselves to be cultural "brothers," at least since T. G. Masaryk forged them into a political force in 1918.
Distrust of the people is reflected in the Czech parliamentary system, an "indirect democracy." For example, the president is not chosen by direct popular vote but instead selected from the 81-member Senate, the upper body of the parliament. These are politicians who have already "proven" their trustworthiness by being elected. Mr. Neoral was quick to point out this doctrine of the meek following the leaders,
People asked Topolánek why he does not want to run a national referendum on this issue. He answered that according to the Constitution, the Czech Republic is an indirect democracy. People are represented by their parliamentary deputy (MP) who has time to study the issue and who will bear responsibility for their decision. People asked what responsibility this is? Supposedly, "political responsibility." On account of the next elections.
But MPs and senators do not have greater qualifications, expertise, higher IQs, or even better judgment than citizens. They most likely have less knowledge than us, because the government tells only them its nonsense and lies. So they're not so trustworthy because from the bottom, from us, one hears different information.
None of the Czech political parties has had this important issue in its election program. So, the politicians do not have a popular mandate to make a decision on such an important issue. . . .
The premiere simply did not convince the citizens at the meeting. On the contrary, he convinced them beyond a doubt, that he is arrogant, does not listen to citizens, and only dishonestly carries out what he wants: his own pig-headed and ungrounded promotion of this dangerous monster that could be the source of great human suffering.
The Czech political elite generally believes that decisions should not be left to the majority to decide. Perhaps this was more justified when T.G. Masaryk & Co. were establishing the First Republic, although even then Czechs as a nation were surprisingly well educated as far as "peasants" are concerned. But it's strange that the attitude survives so strongly now despite all the rhetoric of an open society and a free market, politicians do not actually trust their own people. And it's true that not everyone among "the people" have the same opinions and values as the politicians currently in power, so they do face a potentially weakened political position if they abandon their hold. The danger of this situation is that they might (and often do, I suspect from my short time observing Czech politics) make decisions based more on their personal interests rather than what they consider to be objectively or morally right.
So the Senators and other deputees to Parliament "should" take the time to study these issues and work for the greater good of all, but what is to say that do? There do not seem to be any "Czechs and balances" (sorry, couldn't resist that pun). Senators have legal immunity. Where does the idea that politicians are somehow more enlightened than the rest come from? It's not a shepherd and his flock (note the masculine here), it's the blind leading the blind. Being elected is obviously an art of popularity not a guarantee of moral infallibility or intelligence. In the last election I voted in, it was obvious that the victorious candidate was neither smart, nor compassionate, nor a critical thinker, but he still became, arguably, the most powerful person in the world.
Yet another peculiarity of this ideology that only the privileged should make the decisions: the people in power oblige themselves to act autonomously with what they call "mandates." (This probably rings a chord for anyone paying even a little attention to recent American politics: "Let's act unilaterally and without consideration of anyone . . . because I can! . . . I was elected.") According to one questioner at the press conference (presumably the author of the Britské listy piece):
The mayor of Trokavec shared with Mr. Topolánek that he would like to inform him publicly that in all probability [the radar signal] would exceed the health limits set by government directive No. 480/2000 Coll. . . . The Mayor requested Mr. Topolánek to have this information further confirmed by specialists or to introduce clearer evidence.
Mr. Topolánek solved the problem as is his typical habit: He announced that this is simply not true.
That's it. Taken care of. Solved in any fashion. It could have occurred to us—as early as February—"we have nothing to worry about, it's not true, that this arrangement will 'irradiate' everything." The only specialists on the radar are the premiere of the Czech Republic and then [Defense Minister] Parkanová, no matter what statistics from the Americans or perspectives of experts indicate.
And even then the Minister of Foreign Affairs had said, regarding the construction of the radar, "no one will speak to us or influence us."
The quote of the day came when Topolánek justified possible health risks by noting that people die everywhere. No statistics or plans have been publicized, to my knowledge, that indicate the base will conform to legal standards. After all, say Topolánek and his gang, we should be able to trust the Americans, right?
One lady citizen asked: When new insulation was being tested on the space shuttle Columbia, the US crew was told that the shuttle's take-off and landing would be perfectly safe. Yet the shuttle burned and killed all those on board. You are telling us that the radar will be totally safe. What will happen if this is not true and there are harmful effects?
Topolánek answered: People die everywhere. Some of them die in the wars, others during car crashes, some just die.
So the Prime Minister accepts the fact that as a result of the stationing of the radar people will be dying here? Do we need a Prime Minister who is willing to expose his own citizens to health risk?
And the shuttle crew were American citizens. There are enough cases showing that, when non-citizens are concerned, the U.S. military may not be the best steward of local ecological and social issues. As sociologist Benjamin Vail writes in a recent op-ed for the Czech Business Weekly, "It is important also to consider the probable ecological problems that would be caused by the proposed base in Central Bohemia. Just like the Soviet occupiers of Czechoslovakia, the American military has a history of polluting the environment in and around its bases." He supplies more unsettling examples.
It was summed up by another questioner: Why trust a government that has a questionable human rights record? Why trust a nation that was an architect of the largest arms race in human history?
A citizen said to Minister of Defense Parkanová that he had expected her, as a woman, to defend world peace. Mrs. Parkanová explained that he [the questioner] really knew nothing about how difficult it is to fight for peace, that peace must be fought for with weapons, and that she is ready to do anything for it [peace]. . . .
But, minister, you did not answer the basic question. Who is defending the Czech Republic? Who is threatening world peace in Europe? Who is defending American interests?
Do you really think that the American radar will not do anything to us, that we will not become a target? Why don't you promote peace with peaceful methods? Why do you ignore the United Nations, NATO, and the unified defense policies of the European Union?
Why do you want to affiliate with the U.S.A. that withdrew from the treaty on ballistic missiles, abandoned its doctrine of non-aggression in favor of pre-emptive nuclear strike, ignores the UN and has already started one war with fabricated evidence?
Previously at NvB: Arms Race, What do you really think?, No Nukes, No Nukes II, Nukes or Ukes?
Tags: czech, us, military, europe, radar