A Century of the Czech Republic: A Fragile Democracy in the Heart of Europe

, by Angelique Truijens

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A Century of the Czech Republic: A Fragile Democracy in the Heart of Europe

As I am sitting in a café in downtown Amsterdam, I am thinking of my home country, the Czech Republic. On the 28th of October 1918; Czechoslovakia, previously a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was born. It was given independence in Articles 81 through 86 of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the other Treaties signed at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919-1920.

This was the first moment since 1526 that Czechoslovak territory was sovereign and the first time ever that it experimented with democratic principles of governance. Freedom and democracy have not been a very common part of Czechoslovak history as the freedom of the First Republic only lasted until the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the subsequent occupation of Czech lands by the Nazi’s from March 1939. Today seems like a perfect day for reflection on the past, present and the future of this small, but important region.

My feelings about this anniversary are twofold. On the one hand, I feel proud of my country, that we have come this far, and we have prevailed. It is a strong patriotic moment for me, similar to the feeling I had during 50th Anniversary of the Russian invasion of August 1968 just last summer. On the other, this anniversary, which celebrates the coming of true democracy to our country, fills me with the grief of the past and a fear for the future. The current political climate and the developments since the fall of the communist regime in November 1989 do not fill me with hope for the future of the region.

As a person that grew up between cultures, I am a strong believer that patriotism and nationalism are arbitrary feelings, which arise in people when they grow up in the region and its political system. Its arbitrary character does not make these feelings non-existent, it only suggests that the concept is relative and changeable. In the Czech Republic, the country of my birth and where I have lived the first twenty years of my life, my identity was largely formed. Yet, as a bilingually raised citizen of two European countries, I have always felt a bit of an outsider. In other words, there was always the “I’m also Dutch”-thing. Yet, this did not stop me from growing fond of the culture and history as well as getting frustrated with the mentality and the systemic problems such as blatant racism and sexism.

I was born in 1993; after communism had fallen and the Czech and Slovak republics amicably separated and formed distinct entities. This was the country I grew up in. I have never lived without freedom, yet my parents and my grandparents all have. They have shared their experiences with me and raised me to believe in democracy and personal freedom. I have listened to stories of my grandparents having to wait in line for banana’s once a year and acting as if they did not belong together just so that they could get two rations of bananas.

I have listened to the stories of not being allowed to leave the country. It fascinates me that every Monday the TV channel was in Slovak. I remember having to ask my grandmother multiple times and how she teared up with frustration when she told me about her experiences on the 21st August 1968, i.e. the day that the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. She was 25 years old at the time, the exact same age I am now. Despite that I heard these stories from my own family members; I know that every single person in the Czech Republic has heard similar, if not the same. So, what do these stories mean for today? What have we learned from them?

Currently, the Czech Prime Minister is Andrej Babis, who is registered as an agent of the state secret police (StB) in communist archives, who is alleged to have committed fraud with European Union subsidies and is a billionaire who previously owned Agrofert, a large conglomerate which owns many companies in the media, food production, oil, agriculture and chemical sectors. Though he keeps repeating that he is no longer connected to Agrofert, his relationship with the conglomerate is still being contested. Before ascending to the post of Prime Minister, he served as the Minister of Finance. During his tenure at the Ministry of Finance, he remained at the helm of Agrofert. And not to mention the fact that his current government only exists because of the support of the Communist Party.

Prime Minister Babis is openly hostile towards journalists, a recent example of this can be seen in his interview on television with Vaclav Moravec last week. Further, he has frequently labelled tapes of his discussions with the editors-in-chief of Agrofert-owned newspapers as fake news. Prime Minister Babis has also denounced the investigations of the Czech Public Prosecutor and OLAF into the allegations of fraud levelled against him and he provided Agrofert and the companies connected to it with tax cuts and other supportive measures. Even though Babis aims his populist rhetoric, which is in some ways similar to President Trump’s rhetoric in the United States, towards Czech citizens and does not necessarily ‘badmouth’ the EU in the same manner as Prime Minister Orban does, the fact remains that the above-mentioned facts show autocratic tendencies of the power-hungry Czech Prime Minister.

Yet, Prime Minister Babis’ government was democratically elected. This raises the question of whether there is a relationship between the country’s violent and repressive past and the election of a political leader with autocratic tendencies. As I am neither a political scientist nor a sociologist, I cannot speak from a scientific point of view, but I can speak as a Czech person lucky enough to live in a foreign country and see the world from my own personal perspective. If there is such a relationship, my hope is that at some point people like me or my siblings, who have not lived under a repressive regime, will be the majority of voters in the country. Then, if we learn to think critically and evaluate politicians based on fact and truth, I am sure that democracy will prevail.

That is my hope for the present and for the future: that a generation of young, educated, individuals come together and oppose the anti-democratic tendencies of the current government. I hope that these people together decide that the Czech Republic will not stand for hate, but for love and openness, even though the systemic discrimination and prejudices are now so strong. This does not mean that we forget communism and that we do not understand what the 28th October stands for. We remember, and we learn from these mistakes. As our world is becoming smaller as a result of increased rates of globalisation and technological progress; we learn that the world is not such a scary place, but it is a place with opportunities for our country and our people.

It is almost 7 pm right now and I have returned to my small Amsterdam apartment and I feel so lucky to have grown up in the Czech Republic. Though it is a small country, the Czech Republic is not just at the heart of Europe geographically, but also culturally, historically and politically. Let’s never forget that.

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