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Return of the Czech Communists

Vaclav Havel is turning over in his grave.

Return of the Czech Communists


12th October 2012 - Foreign Policy

The massive, red-stone headquarters of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) -- named after the two main regions of the Czech Republic -- is located on Prague's Street of Political Prisoners, just across from the capital's decayed art nouveau train station. The road was named in 1946 -- the very year that the Communists won a plurality in a democratic election -- in honor of resistance fighters imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. The Gestapo had located its headquarters on this same street, in a massive building once owned by a prominent Jewish family. So it is that the twin horrors of Nazi and communist oppression continue to haunt this corner of the Czech capital.

When I suggest to Jiri Dolejs, KSCM vice chairman and member of Parliament, that the location of the party's headquarters on a street named after political prisoners is a grim irony, he chuckles and admits that there is an "obvious paradox." The communist regime that ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 until the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution interned more than 250,000 political prisoners. The most famous, playwright Vaclav Havel, was elected the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. When Havel passed away last December at age 75, a spontaneous crowd descended upon Prague's central Wenceslas Square to erect an impromptu vigil; the candles would remain there for an entire month. For a brief moment, the world's attention focused on the heroic philosopher king and his legacy of nonviolent resistance to communist totalitarianism.

So it's strange that less than a year after Havel's death, communism in the Czech Republic is making a comeback. A series of recent surveys show that the party -- which has never fully apologized for its four decades of authoritarian rule -- is the second-most popular in the country, its support hovering slightly above 20 percent. The next parliamentary elections, which may be called sometime in upcoming weeks as the current center-right government hangs by a thread, could see the Communists return to power in coalition with the opposition Social Democrats. This would make the Czech Republic the first post-communist European country in which a communist party returned to government.

To those Czechs who still recite Havel's 1989 campaign slogan "Love and truth conquer lies and hatred" without irony, this should be nothing short of a national crisis. Some have argued that the KSCM ought to have been proscribed after the transition to democracy, as a far-right party was in 2010. Writing in the Czech liberal weekly Respekt, journalist Katerina Safarikova calls the conundrum over the Communist Party "a debate our fathers should have settled in the early 1990s," back when a ban would have been most popular. Political commentator Petr Novacek warns that, if the Social Democrats enter into coalition with the Communists, they would risk "becoming the black sheep of the Socialist International."

To Dolejs, however, this is all overreaction. He doesn't look or sound like the spokesman for a "hard-core Stalinist" party, which is how Safarikova describes the KSCM. With his cheery demeanor, mullet haircut, and ill-fitting sport coat, he resembles a Soviet-era used-car salesman, though the product he's selling -- state control of the economy -- is admittedly more dangerous than an old Skoda. Dolejs is an ardent science-fiction fan: Posters from various sci-fi conventions claim space on his office walls alongside those of Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, as well as campaign advertisements featuring Dolejs's smiling mug. This motley assortment may speak as much to my interlocutor's vanity as it does to the KSCM's lack of a serviceable history.

Dolejs joined the party in January 1989, at age 28. This was historically inopportune, as less than a year later the communist regime would be swept out of power. At a mere 51, Dolejs is significantly younger than most of the party's voters, whose average age is 75. A leader of the KSCM's reformist wing, he's one of the country's most well-known Communists, writing a blog for a popular Czech Internet news portal. In 2006, he was the target of a violent attack by far-right thugs, who beat his face to a bloody pulp while shouting anti-communist epithets. The Czech Parliament unanimously condemned the attack, and Dolejs earned widespread sympathy.

Today, Dolejs is all smiles. For years, Czech Communists seemed confined to the fringe: They were preoccupied with opposing the European Union, an unpopular mission in a country generally delighted to have been accepted into that club and appreciative of the funds that flowed from Brussels. But the European economic crisis has shaken confidence in the EU, despite the fact the Czech Republic has maintained its own currency, which has remained strong.

In the midst of the crisis, the current Czech government -- a coalition of three center-right parties that came to power in 2010 -- has passed stringent austerity measures that have contributed to its unpopularity. The package includes spending cuts of slightly over $3 billion for the upcoming year, as well as significant increases to personal-income and value-added taxes. The economy is shrinking and the country recently entered its third quarter of recession. In April, some 90,000 people took to Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the reforms, in what amounted to the largest protest since the ones that toppled the communist regime in 1989. But now, 23 years later, anti-government anger is benefiting the Communists.

Adding to the center-right coalition's woes is a series of corruption scandals. In July, it barely survived a confidence vote, the fourth since it came to power. A poll conducted last December found that only 26 percent of Czechs are satisfied with their democracy, while a survey this year reported that most Czechs actually preferred the communist system to the present one. The Communists, sensing an opening after two decades in the political wilderness, have adroitly shifted their focus to attacks on corruption: A poster in the stairwell of the party offices depicts a vampire bat bearing the ruling parties' acronyms digging its fangs into the country. "How much more can our land take?" it asks. "This 'vampire' government must leave."

***

After 41 years of bloody, authoritarian rule, how can Communists be making a comeback? One answer lies in Czechoslovakia's unique political history. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was founded in 1921 and, unlike other communist parties in the region -- which would eventually develop reformist elements that could later transform the parties from within along social democratic lines -- it retained an orthodox mentality following the end of the Cold War. After the 1968 Prague Spring -- the brief era of reform that came to a violent end with a Soviet invasion -- the party expelled about a third of its members, about half a million people. To ensure that no trace of liberalization returned, the limited press freedoms that the erstwhile party leadership had permitted were retracted, state control over the economy was extended and deepened, and a whole new wave of Czechs and Slovaks went into exile.

So when 1989 arrived, there were few in the Communist Party who supported wide-scale reform; those who did were sidelined. Bowing to the peaceful uprising, Czech Communists nonetheless held fast to their Marxist creed. And while communist parties in the other countries of the former Eastern Bloc dissolved (Poland), transformed into social democratic parties (Hungary), or merged with pre-existing ones (Slovakia), the Czech Communists did no such thing. Rather, immediately following the transition to democracy, the party divided into its constituent parts -- one each for the Czech and Slovak republics -- and at least in what is now the Czech Republic, it has maintained its doctrinaire Marxist outlook ever since.

The KSCM's refusal to temper its communist dogma or adequately atone for its past rendered a merger with the Social Democratic Party, the country's oldest political movement, impossible. Keeping the Communist Party running, with its perennial 10 to 20 percent support, made sense. And the Communists have been successful at keeping the loyalty of their core members: According to a 2009 study by Mary Stegmaier, now at the University of Missouri, and Klara Plecita of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, two-thirds of KSCM members have been members for more than 40 years. 60 percent of Communist voters report having "always voted" Communist, a far higher rate of allegiance than any other party in the country can claim. By contrast, in neighboring Slovakia, the rump Communist Party earned less than 2 percent of the vote. In 2004, it merged with the country's Social Democrats.

The KSCM's rising popularity today, therefore, is partly due to accident and partly due to circumstance. By refusing to reform after the Soviet Union's collapse, it maintained its reason to exist -- and much of its appeal among a portion of the population nostalgic for the days of a government-guaranteed job, housing, and pension. At the same time, the Communists' comeback is also the result of events beyond their control -- namely, the country's current faltering economic situation and a nearly endless series of government corruption scandals.

The latter-day Communist attack on the austerity-enforcers has won over those who have gained least from democratic capitalism. As Stegmaier and Plecita found in their study of party supporters, "people with more negative assessments of the national economic situation or of democracy in the Czech Republic are also more likely to support the KSCM." A recent poll found that 70 percent of Czechs view the country's economic situation as "bad" or "very bad" and only 6 percent view it positively, meaning that the electorate is ripe for communist promises. As Czechs' attitudes toward their economy and democracy deteriorate, support for the radical, "anti-system" party will surely grow.

The recent austerity measures will only exacerbate this trend: They include cuts to the retirement system that may mean pensions for the elderly -- the communists' most loyal supporters -- will not keep up with inflation. "There is one group that could be severely affected, and that is old people," business analyst David Marek told Czech Radio earlier this year. In May, the country witnessed its first mass protest by pensioners. 

Dolejs insists that the communists have modernized and are capable of meeting today's challenges. "We lived through the 20th century, and we know the problems of an absolute, non-market economy," he tells me, echoing the party's stance that it has sufficiently accounted for its past. That claim hinges upon a congress in December 1989, one month after the Velvet Revolution ousted it from power, when the party expelled the leaders installed after the 1968 Soviet crackdown and issued a blanket apology "for the events following 1968 and for expelling and harassing the innocent."

Yet, for many Czechs, this "apology" was purely opportunistic. In just the month before the statement was issued, the party had already lost some 70,000 of its 1.7 million members and declared bankruptcy. And the party's behavior since the changes makes one doubt that it has learned anything about the past. Its 1996 campaign manifesto referred to the party's 40-year unchallenged rule as providing "one of the greatest periods of social and economic growth." Last December, when the Czech Parliament held a moment of silence to commemorate Havel, four Communist members exited in protest. (Dolejs points out that the majority of Communist deputies stayed in the room and that he signed Havel's condolence book.)

Contrast that behavior with the party's reaction to the death, just a day earlier, of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il: Party head Vojtech Filip sent a letter of condolence to his son and heir, Kim Jong Un, stating that the Communist Party "highly respected" the elder Kim, lauding him as a leader who "devoted himself to bringing happiness to the Korean people." When I ask Dolejs about this, he insists that the letter was a diplomatic formality. (The letter prompted the Czech justice minister to call for a police investigation into whether the communist leader had violated the country's constitution, which states that the "political system" must consist of "political parties respecting the basic democratic principles and rejecting violence as a means of asserting their interests.")

In the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, important democratic figures like Havel resisted calls to ban the Communists, hoping to avoid the acrimony that marked Yugoslavia's breakup. In the Czech Republic's first post-communist election, the Communists won 13.2 percent of the vote, a healthy show of support that made any new attempts to ban the party politically perilous. Some who opposed a ban pointed to demographics as a reason not to worry about a future communist resurgence: Although the KSCM boasts more than twice as many paid-up members as any other political party, it is losing them at a rate of about 5,000 per year, presumably due to natural causes.

Contrary to Havel's hopes, however, the KSCM is not teetering on the edge of oblivion. It perpetually manages to attract some poorer members of society -- only 14 percent of KSCM voters have a secondary education -- and, crucially, those most disenchanted with the Czech political system. Sometimes, however, the party's fitful attempts to moderate its public face means that it must distance itself from what has historically been a natural constituency for communist parties -- radical youth. The biggest story to shake Czech politics in recent months was a 26-year old man's shooting President Vaclav Klaus with an air gun at a bridge-opening ceremony. A communist party supporter, the assailant told the media his mock assassination attempt was aimed at a man "blind and deaf to the laments of the people."

Europe's economic crisis has been manna from heaven for out-of-power left-wing parties, and the Czech Communists have taken advantage by abandoning their ideological condemnations of capitalism in favor of practical attacks on corruption, oligarchs, and biting austerity measures. Under communism, Dolejs says, "the shadow economy" accounted for about 6 to 7 percent of the total economy, whereas now it comprises about 20 percent. "We're not connected at all with the rich and these powerful circles, so even for that reason the people can trust us," he says. This talk sounds ironically reminiscent of the post-communism critiques registered by Havel, who often complained about the "mafia capitalism" and consumerism that besieged the country after 1989.

So, paradoxically, the very party that ruled the country with an iron fist for over four decades is positioning itself as the anti-establishment option. A recent KSCM resolution attacking the coalition government declared that "the measures for limiting both democracy and citizens' free speech have been carried, the actions of the authorities in criminal proceedings is openly influenced in favour of either members or supporters of right-wing parties, the security of citizens is not guaranteed." This is remarkably tone-deaf coming from a party that eliminated democracy and free speech, staged show trials, and routinely violated the most basic rights of the citizenry for 41 years.

Nevertheless, there's a risk that the Communists just may get away with it. Widespread dissatisfaction with the coalition government continues to grow. Meanwhile, the Communists' attacks on Czech oligarchs and political profiteers may be winning over those who have gained least from the transition to democratic capitalism, particularly at this moment of continentwide economic crisis. For some Czechs, it's enough to make them nostalgic for the old days of (at least, imagined) equality.

But the party's schizophrenic messaging -- lauding Kim Jong Il while making sweeping statements of having turned away from the bad old days -- can make deciphering its motives difficult. Dolejs says there are only negligible difference between the programs of the Communists and Social Democrats, going out of his way to disassociate his party with its historical record. "There is no real difference between the KSCM and [the Social Democratic Party], and there cannot be a political or economic monopoly on the order of the last regime," he tells me. But if the Communists are not altogether different from the more popular Social Democrats, why not simply join them?

***

The KSCM's failure to merge with the Social Democrats has undoubtedly hampered the cause of left-wing politics in the Czech Republic. All the main parties refuse to work with the Communists at the national level: The Social Democrats, cognizant of communism's century-long history of fatally undermining democratic socialists, have gone so far as to enshrine this principle in their party's governing documents via the so-called "Bohumin Resolution," which forbids "political cooperation with extremist political parties," including the KSCM.

Prohibiting cooperation with the only other major party on the left, however, severely inhibits the Social Democrats' ability to govern. Although the Social Democrats received more votes than any other party in the 2010 parliamentary elections, its failure to form a coalition -- which it could easily have done were it not for the Bohumin Resolution -- led to the formation of today's widely unpopular center-right government. Unsurprisingly, then, some Social Democrats support a coalition with the KSCM on pragmatic grounds.

Former Social Democratic Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek summed up this view in 2005, arguing, "The communists will never again control this country. I think they have been unnecessarily turned into a bête noire. Stalin is no longer in the Kremlin; there is no Comintern or Soviet Union; the international situation is completely different.… The KSCM will have to be integrated into the democratic spectrum whether it wishes so or not."

In the years since Paroubek's remark, the Social Democrats have formed coalitions with the Communists on the municipal and regional levels. For this reason, Dolejs says, the subject of the Communists re-entering government federally is "losing its taboo as a topic for conversation."

The Czech political leader doing more than any other to ensure that the topic ceases being taboo is an unlikely one: the scion of a family with a long history of anti-communist agitation. Jiri Dienstbier Jr. -- a Social Democratic Party senator and a candidate for the Czech presidency -- is the son of one of the initial signatories of Charter 77, the dissident-drafted plea calling upon the Czechoslovak communist regime to respect human rights. Following the collapse of communism, Jiri Dienstbier Sr. became the country's first post-communist foreign minister.

The younger Dienstbier meets with me in his office at the base of fairy tale–esque Prague Castle complex. He learned politics at the feet of his father and was an anti-communist student leader at the time of the Velvet Revolution. Along with his surname, his reputation for plain-spokenness has made him the country's most popular politician. "I would feel like a mafia member if I tried to negotiate with these people," Dienstbier told the Prague Post two years ago when, as the Social Democrats' candidate for Prague mayor, he was asked how he could consider a coalition with those from the leading conservative party.

According to Dienstbier, the debate over whether the KSCM is a democratic one is hypocritical. "If it is a democratic party, we should treat it as any other democratic party, including coalition potential," he says. "The second possibility -- it's not a democratic party -- and then such party is not allowed to be active, should be banned, according to our constitution and laws."

Dienstbier's view is that the KSCM would be a legitimate governing partner. "There are some speeches of some Communist politicians which are not acceptable from a moral point of view," he acknowledges, "but it's not like they pose a threat to the democratic system in the country."

Some have attributed Dienstbier's position to political calculation, and there's no doubt that opening the cordon around the Communists would markedly improve the Social Democrats' chances of governing. But Dienstbier's family history also gives weight to his position: His father, who worked as an underground journalist after being fired from state radio and stripped of his Communist Party membership following the Prague Spring, was sentenced to prison, alongside Havel, for three years in 1979. After his release, he was relegated to work as a boiler man, menial labor being the only available employment for regime opponents (Havel worked in a beer factory). In other words, Dienstbier would have more reason than most to see the Czech Communists permanently relegated to the dustbin of history. "It's nonsense" that he has any illusions about Communists, he says. (Dienstbier's call for cooperation with the communists has been endorsed by fellow presidential candidate and former Social Democratic Prime Minister Milos Zeman).

What the current debate over the role of the Czech Communists reveals is a country that has avoided an honest assessment of its recent history for the purposes of a hasty conversion to market capitalism. In the minds of most Czechs, communism is frequently lumped in with fascism as a twin legacy of the Czech past. Yet, this is simplistic -- fascism came to Czechoslovakia on the back of Adolf Hitler's tanks, while communism arrived through the ballot box.

To make matters worse, the process of removing Communist officials from power avoided grappling with uncomfortable questions regarding many Czechs' collaboration with the regime. The process of lustration -- meaning "shedding of light" -- excluded senior Communist officials from high-level government positions, while those working below them had to undergo a classified screening process in which their histories were evaluated for evidence of collaboration. But there were no trials of former Communist officials and, as lustration hearings and appeals were all confidential, little opportunity for the country to process the role that individual citizens played in the communist regime. This reinforced the tendency of most Czechs to imagine communism as something imposed from abroad, rather than a system that was voted into power and to which a majority of Czechs, at least initially, assented.

"By removing the discussion of collaboration and responsibility from public settings such as the Parliament and turning it into a bureaucratic process, the lustration law may, in fact, have helped to inhibit discussion of the past in general," Kieran Williams, then a lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, wrote in 1999.

Dolejs insists that the Communists have no interest in monopolizing power again, that they are merely a "party that guarantees the basic elementary well-being of every citizen." Regardless of how Communists present themselves, however, most Czechs seem to understand that the party is disguising its real intention to sidle back into power. The return to government of communists in a former Soviet-bloc country would be a jolt for Europe, a blow to the project of improving democracy and free markets -- and, in its way, a reflection of the cost of Europe's current turmoil.

For the Czechs, whose recent history is full of sorrow, it would be a huge reverse. I can't but stop and wonder what the late Havel would think as I leave the Communist Party's headquarters, beneath a giant sign looming inside the entryway reading "WE HAVE A SOLUTION" and make my way back onto the Street of Political Prisoners.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor with the New Republic.

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cold-war, communism, czech-republic, europe, european-union, soviet-union