Tag Archive | Czech

A billionaire populist derails the Czech Social Democrats

On 26 October after two terms in opposition the Social Democrats (ČSSD) emerged as the largest party in early elections in the Czech Republic with the near certainty of the forming the next government. Their political opponents on centre-right whose tottering three-year coalition government finally collapsed amid personal and political scandal in June were routed.

The once dominant Civic Democrats (ODS) founded in 1991 by Václav Klaus to bring British-style Thatcherite conservative to post-communist transformation, was cut down to minor party status with mere 7 per cent of the vote. Its one time partner in government, TOP09, which had championed fiscal austerity slipped to 11 per cent.  The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) – staged a modest recovery edging back into parliament with 6 per cent support, but remained – as they had always been in the Czech lands – a niche party.  ‘Heads Up!’, the newly formed conservative eurosceptic bloc endorsed by former president Václav Klaus, scraped a humiliating 0.42 per cent

 But far from prompting celebration on the centre-left, the result provoked only despondency and dissension. Within days the party was consumed by infighting between supporters of party leader Bohuslav Sobotka and internal opponents allied with the Czech president Miloš Zeman.

The gloom and factionalism are easily explicable. Despite ‘winning’ the election, the Social Democrats’ 20.45 per cent was its lowest in the history of the independent Czech Republic, falling disastrously short of its 25 per cent target vote – let alone the 30 per cent that seemed had attainable at the start of the campaign.  Ominously, for the party, this was the second successive election fought in opposition in which the Social Democrat vote has declined. The Social Democrats’ ‘victory’ was very largely an optical illusion caused by the still heavier punishment meted out by voters to its traditional opponents on the centre-right.

 The result has left the Social Democrats having to come to terms – and quite possibly to govern – with new and unusual political force:  the ANO anti-corruption movement led by agro-food billionaire Andrej Babiš, which in the course of the election campaign moved from extra-parliamentary obscurity to centre-stage, taking 18.65 per cent of the vote to become overnight the Czech Republic’s second biggest party.

 The Social Democrats’ poor showing and the success of Babiš’s movement – as well as the more modest breakthrough of the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy (UPD) group – were not only embarrassing for a party, which had hoped to emulate the sweeping victories won centre-parties in Slovakia and Romania last year. They also drastically curtailed its governmental options.

Having finally decided after years of agonising that a pact (but not a coalition) with the Czech Republic’s hardline Communist Party (KSČM) was a price worth paying for a government of the left with a strong parliamentary majority, the Social Democrats now find that this prospect has disappeared. Together the two parties command a mere 83 seats in the 200 member lower house. Although the Christian Democrats are a biddable potential partner, unlike in previous elections the Social Democrats have few coalition-making options in the political centre.  Except to turn to Andrej Babiš. Read More…

Czech Republic: Turning left or melting down?

What do you want ?

Photo: Ondra Soukup [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Czech voters go to the polls in early parliamentary elections on 25-26 October. The elections follow the collapse, amid personal and political scandal, of the centre-right government of Petr Nečas in June, and the subsequent failure of President Zeman’s handpicked caretaker administration to win a vote of confidence.

At one level the election seems set to deliver a simple and straightforward verdict,: established opposition parties on the left will win, while governing right-wing parties will be heavily rejected by an electorate frustrated with austerity, stagnating living standards and sleaze. The main opposition Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD), most polls have suggested, will emerge as the clear winners with around 25-30 per cent of the vote, although the final polls published before voting have suggested that the party’s support is starting to slide. Meanwhile the hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) is likely to pull in 15-20 per cent.

 The polls also point to a defeat of historic proportions for the right-wing parties of the former coalition. The Civic Democrats (ODS) (formerly led by Nečas) have proved surprisingly deft in trying to pull back from the brink: the party picked Miroslava Němcová, one of its few leaders untainted by corruption – and the first woman to head a major Czech party – as the party’s new public face and have run an inventive (and occasionally witty) Twitter-led election campaign.

But voters have remained largely unimpressed and the ODS seems set to see the 20 per cent support it received in the 2010 elections – then its worst ever performance – halved, relegating it to minor party status. Some polls put the ODS as low as 6.5 per cent, close to the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation. The Chart below gives an indication of the latest polling.

ODS’s main centre-right rival TOP09 has, however, failed to capitalise on the troubles of its former coalition partner. Instead, it has waged a pedestrian election campaign and has no prospect of repeating its success in this year’s presidential election, when TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg united a broad swathe of liberal and centre-right voters against the left-wing challenge of Miloš Zeman. Most polls suggest the party will struggle to match the 16 per cent it polled in 2010

Many voters have turned to new parties and extra-parliamentary groupings. Niche parties such as the Greens and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), ‘personal parties’ such as the Civic Rights Party (SPOZ) of President Zeman or the Eurosceptic nationalist ‘Heads Up’ bloc endorsed by Václav Klaus have picked up sufficient support to put them within shouting distance of the five per cent hurdle.

So too has the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy movement of a businessman-turned-politician Tomio Okamura. Okamura, who first came to prominence as a judge on the Czech TV’s version of Dragon’s Den in 2010, has gained profile through his fierce attacks against the political class, socially populist rhetoric and baiting of the Roma minority using his unusual Czecho-Japanese background to deny accusations of racism

The most telling impact, however, has been made by ANO2011 the anti-corruption movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš, which has moved in a few weeks from relative obscurity to opinion ratings comfortably in excess of 10 per cent and is now regularly outpolling ODS and TOP09. Read More…

Václav Klaus live and unplugged

A few years ago I honestly told myself that I would spend less time academically on Czech right-wing politics and more time on other things. The world really did, after all, need some decent research about Central European interest groups and under-the-radar new parties threatening to break through into Czech politics. Inevitably, things didn’t work out like that.

As the Czech media have noticed rather than sit at home and write his memoirs the former Czech president is embarking on the political equivalent of a European and world tour and – as with 1980s electro pop or – when you’re got all the albums, but didn’t manage to catch the acts live, it’s hard to stay away.

And so it was that I found myself in Pembroke College (Cambridge) listening to Klaus giving the Adam Smith Lecture (transcript including asides faithfully posted by the Václav Klaus Institute here).

In recent years figures on the left, not least fellow Scot Gordon Brown, have tried to reclaim Smith from his totemic status as an icon of the free market right, but – following in the footsteps of previous lecturers Charles Moore and Nigel Lawson – this will be a strictly orthodox interpretation.

 Accordingly, Klaus tells us about the Smithsonian influence over his career, explaining to semi-approved of status of classical pre-Marxian economists in communist Czechoslovakia and his position as a junior researcher attracted to liberal market economics in the 1960s, critical of the market socialist plans of the Prague Spring.

 Adam Smith, the Adam Smith Institute and the politics of Thatcher and Thatcherism were also an inspiration after the fall of communism when he is – he says – promoting the idea of a fully fledged capitalist market economy against residual ideas of a Third Way on the liberal left. Anglo Saxon liberal ideas helped see off the threat of a French – or German inspired social market economy in the Czech Republic.

 This is the classic Klaus back story. Read More…

Václav Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   <a title="Licence" href=" http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en"

Photo: DerHuti Wikimedia Commons

In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? Read More…

Czech Republic: Four things you didn’t know about Miloš Zeman

Photo: Miloslav Hamřík via Wikimedia Commons

 Ever since Miloš Zeman won the Czech presidential elections on 26 January, analysts have been scrambling to say just what his political views actually are – especially his views on foreign policy and the EU.

 Never quite as prolific a speechifier or writer as Václav Klaus, on stepping down as Prime Minister in 2002, Zeman was semi-retired for the best part of a decade, resurfacing for occasional public appearances.

 His campaign programme and campaign performances offered little in the way of clear and concrete views. Indeed, they tended to highlight that he was inconsistent and liked to make policy on the hoof – saying, for example, he wanted to abolish the Czech Senate one moment, then that he wanted transform it into a Bundesrat-style chamber of the regions.

 Most analysts, including me, therefore settled for the default conclusion that Zeman was basically a kind of a social democrat with a pragmatic pro-European outlook, who was cautious but not hostile towards the EU. Big change – or no change – depending on your point of view.

 But delve a little more deeply and we can find plenty of Zeman views on record: two books of memoirs and various collections of interviews, including most recently Miloš Zeman – Zpověď informovaného optimisty which came out last year as a lead-in to the Zeman presidential campaign.

 In conversation with right-wing journalist Petr Žantovský, who clumsily (and unsuccessfully) tries to lure Zeman into agreeing with various Václav Klaus-like opinions, Zeman sets out his actual views.

 And very interesting views they are too – revealing a number of things that you probably didn’t know about the President elect. Read More…

Czech presidential elections: Schwarzenberg comeback sets up close run-off

Few observers, even a matter of weeks beforehand, would have predicted the success of the two candidates who will be contesting the second round run-off to choose the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president, which takes place on 25-26 January.

 Miloš Zeman, who topped the poll in the first round on 11-12 January with 24.2 per cent, is a former Prime Minister who led the Czech Social Democratic Party between 1993 and 2001. However, he acrimoniously split with the party he once led and his return from political retirement in 2009 to lead his own Citizens’ Right Party (SPOZ) was regarded by many as a vanity project. SPOZ failed to enter parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections and Zeman’s presidential bid, announced in June last year, seemed set to be similarly unsuccessful.

 Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic Czech foreign minister, who ran Zeman a close second with 23.4 per cent of the vote, was perhaps always a more plausible contender. A scion of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, diplomat and former chief of staff to Václav Havel, Schwarzenberg was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians.  The electoral success in 2010 of TOP09, the newly formed party he led, owed much to Schwarzenberg’s appeal as retro anti-politician. However, although one of the first to announce his candidacy, Schwarzenberg‘s campaign soon flagged badly, damaged by TOP09’s role in the governing centre-right coalition and unwavering commitment to austerity. At 75, Schwarzenberg was the oldest candidate and had not always appeared in robust good health. By December 2012 polls still put his support at under 10 per cent and – while I’d always fancied Zeman (politically I mean) most commentators including me had written Schwarzenberg’s challenge off. Indeed, I thought those who even mentioned him as outsider possibility were well off the mark. Read More…

Why Miloš Zeman is the Czech comeback kid

Milos Zeman

Photo: http://www.prezydent.pl via WikiMedia

 The political return of former Social Democrat leader and leading presidential hopeful Miloš Zeman has been one of the more surprising emerging-from-under-the -radar phenomena in Czech politics over the past couple of years.

 For most observers of Czech politics Zeman was something of a historical figure, linked with the early years of transiton and the political battles of 1990s. Having shifted the Czech Social Democrats from a minor party to one of the big players in early-mid 1990s by making them a robust party of opposition, Zeman won a notable election victory in 1998, did a deal with his erstwhile nemesis Vaclav Klaus to form a minority government and served one term as Prime Minister (1998-2002) and then retired to his cottage in the Vysočina highlands.

Retirement seems not to have suited him and still nursing political ambitions – and much to the horror of many former colleagues – he won a ‘primary’ among Social Democrat supporters to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2003. Alas as the Czech head of state was still indirectly elected by MPs and senators at the time, enough Social Democrat parliamentarians failed to vote for him that he was humiliatingly eliminated from this contest early on (Vaclav Klaus was finally elected and then re-elected for a second term in 2008).

Zeman then finally parted company with his former party, wrote some splenetic, best-selling memoirs attacking ex-colleagues – memorably described by one academic reviewer as a ‘foul fart of a book’ – and it seemed that that was the last we would hear of him. The cigarette-smoking, beer- and becherovka drinking Zeman, known for his ponderous quotes, not very funny bonmoty and bruisingly effective political personality was set to become just another memory of 1990s.

But come 2013, if the latest and last polls are to be believed, Zeman is the front runner in the Czech Republic’s first direct presidential elections, edging ahead of one-time favourite Jan Fischer, the former prime minister in the 2009-10 technocratic caretaker government. As Klaus steps down, Zeman steps up. We seem set for Fischer-Zeman second round run-off on 25-26 January. And even if Zeman unites a huge swathe of right-wing voters behind Fischer, given the left-leaning inclination of the Czech electorate he must surely be in with a shouting chance of taking over at Prague Castle on 7 March.

How has this happened when so many other would-be comebacks and political vanity projects fail? Just think of the stillborn LEV21 party of Zeman’s one time rival and fellow semi-detached ex-Social Democrat Jiří Paroubek.

Several factors seem to have combined in Zeman’s favour:

1. He is well known

For many voters. as well as being a known quantity. Zeman’s big political personality and experience as Prime Minister makes him a reasonably credible figure for high office. His flaws – the embarrassing off the cuff remarks, off jokes and occasional lack of political energy – are also well known and may therefore be discounted in advance by voters.

Notwithstanding the Opposition Agreement deal with Klaus, from a left-wing point of the point of view Zeman’s time in front-line politics can be seen reasonably  successful. Zeman also left office at a time of his own choosing, rather than because of crisis, scandal or electoral defeat. Almost the only Czech prime minister to do so (caretakers excepted).

2.He is a reasonably plausible outsider

At the same time, having been out of national politics for the best part of a decade and broken his links with the Social Democrats, Zeman can credibly position himself as something of anti-establishment outsider.

His presidential run comes at a time when Czechs are generally disillusioned with established parties and when the Social Democrats could no find no experienced, high profile politician to stand for head of state (or at least none who were acceptable across the party and willing to run – former EU Commissioner Vladimír Špidla might have been an option). (Indeed, the Social Democrats seem rather short of big charismatic leaders generally just now. The current party leader Bohumil Sobotka is articulate and intelligent, but as someone acidly commented at a recent conference I went to comes across more as a spokesman than a leader.)

Lukewarm semi-endorsement by old rival Václav Klaus might even pull in a few voters from the right – although like Klaus such ‘naughty right-wingers’ will probably be expressing their dislike for the various centre-right and centrists candidates more than wanting to propel Zeman to office.

3. His support is well organised and well financed

Although there are questions over where Zeman’s political money comes from, with widely reported links to the Russian oil company Lukoil (denied by Zeman) and other Russian donors (not denied). Whatever the truth, the Zeman campaign has sufficient resources and organisation to be effective – and it started organising early. The Citizen’s Rights Party – Zemanites (of which Zeman is oddly only the honorary leader) was formed in October 2009 and contested the May 2010 parliamentary elections, pulling in a not negligible 4.33% – seemingly all at the expense of the Social Democrats – which was almost enough to cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament.  SPOZ’s origins, in fact, go back some years earlier to the curiously named, Friends of Miloš Zeman association, run by Zeman’s former right-hand man and the ex-communist apparatchik Miroslav Šlouf.

Despite clearly having cash to splash, SPOZ – as its reasonably solid performance in the October 2012 regional elections showed – also has organisation on the ground.  The collection of 50,000 signature petition to nominate Zeman was also a notably quick and efficient operation. Šlouf and various other ex-Social Democrats in SPOZ are not political amateurs.

4. He has potentially broad appeal

While disliked and dismissed on the right, Zeman is acceptable to a range of left-wing voters, including Communist voters who might be put off by a candidate with closer links to the Social Democrats or with associations to Havel or the dissident movement.  The Social Democrats official candidate Jirí Dienstbier jr. – son of the late dissident of the same name – has fought a shrewd campaign positioning himself a moderate, modern politician and actively solicited the support of the Communist Party (KSČM – which for once is not running its own candidate). Despite, this Dienstbier is off the pace and you wonder how many Communist voters might hold his family background against him.

Zeman is less difficult for the party and   has rather cleverly tacked towards some KSČM positions, for example his critical sounding remarks about the EU – he is he says a Euro federalist but against an EU superstate (work that one out) – and demands for additional funding if he flies the EU flag at Prague Castle.

5. He has been underestimated

Finally, that most telling of political assets: Zeman has been underestimated by opponents. Despite the low key but obvious momentum he has had since 2010.  He has been viewed a something of a political has-been or a buffoon. Somehow despite everything, for many it is hard to believe that he could really actually win.

Despite a slow build up media scrutiny about funding and Lukoil connections – Zeman has faced little scrunitny or critical opposition in the campaign. Certainly few questions have been as to one what kind of a president he would be. Until the recent efforts of civic initiatives to boost the campaign of Foreign Minister and TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg, the main political parties (ODS, CSSD, TOP09) seem have written off their chances of their candidates and to be saving their real time, energy and money for parliamentary elections.

What kind of President would Zeman be?

His website offers only a selection of bland, somewhat fence-sitting views. His statements suggest he is still broadly on the mainstream pro-European centre-left and would be considerably less toxic to many abroad than Klaus. He was even one of only three presidential candidates to accept an invitation to a debate organised by Prague Gay Pride (two refused). On the other hand his denouncing of Islam as an ‘anti-civilization’ could have come straight from Geert Wilders.

 Perhaps we will have to wait for 7 March to find out…

What will Klaus do next?

Photo: DerHuti via WikiMedia Commons

What will Václav Klaus do next? This has been a pertinent question in Czech politics pretty much any time over the last twenty years and, of course, no more so than now: VK steps down from his second and final term as President of the Czech Republic on 7 March with nowhere very obvious to go  politically. Klaus himself has been typically sphinx-like about his future plans, telling the Prague news magazine Euro shortly before Christmas that following the end of his presidential term he could

see no reason to signal any immediate political ambitions, but I don’t think it’s the end of the road (nemyslím, že je všem dnům konec) so we’ll se what happens. But I don’t think I’ll be announcing a return to Czech politics tomorrow. I don’t think that’s realistic. But I wouldn’t rule out some kind of attempt to go into European politics (pokus o politiku evropskou).

As the interview was ending he also lobbed in the (not very plausible sounding) revelation that in 2002 – in the wake of a bad defeat in national parliamentary elections which had seen his Civic Democrat party (ODS) finally stir into life and contemplate throwing him out – he had considered running for the European Parliament. They would, he explained, happily have given him the top spot on the party list to get him out of the way. And – if you believe the rest of this rather unlikely sounding story -  no doubt they would. Read More…

A spectre of … something is haunting Europe

Occupy London - occupy sign
Photo: Tom Morris, via Wikicommons

 At 8.30am I am sitting in a thinktank seminar on ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe.  At 8pm I am sitting in launch event for a book about populism in Europe and the America. It is a long day framed with big questions and incomplete answers.

At one of the regular European Council for Foreign Affairs regular Black Coffee Mornings Mary Kaldor of the LSE launches her project team’s new report on Subterranean Politics  in conversation with Mike Richmond of the Occupied Times.  ‘Subterranean politics’ is an appealing term, but a vague (and undefined) one intended to capture a plethora of alternative and protest phenomena: new anti-capitalist social movements (like the much feted Occupy), successful far-right parties like Hungary’s Jobbik or the True Finns; sundry less easily categorisable new parties like the German Pirates or Italy’s Five Star movement and broader, more subtle – perhaps truly subterranean – changes wrought on citizens and politics by the internet and below-the-radar reactions to the crisis.

The more interesting argument is that what has changed is such fringe, anti-establishment phenomena are bleeding into the political mainstream and what they all have in common is demands for new forms of politics, rather than simply demands for economic redress – economic crisis triggering political crisis. It isn’t entirely clear how these impacts are supposed to happen (or indeed if there was a common impact). The clearest answer offered –referencing some rather well established academic ideas about social movements- was that we were in a new cycle of protest and that the generational change would bring this about change in the mainstream, perhaps in the similar way that the demands and leaders of 1968 were gradually incorporated into academic, political and cultural establishments of 1980s and 1990s.

 (The more conventional party-political far left, oddly, didn’t get a mention, although Greece’s Syriza perhaps illustrates margins-to-mainstream transition of the most direct and immediate kind under conditions of acute crisis).

 Europe, needless to say, was absent from the idea of various practitioners ‘subterranean politics’ as it is from much conventional political discourse, regarded as distant, technocratic and neo-liberal and generally part of the problem. Perhaps the focus on the national level, someone suggested, would in time gradually further stoke xenophobia.

Demonstrators on Army Truck in Tahrir Square, Cairo

Tahir Square. Photo: Ramy Raoof via Wikicommons

 Overall, the impression is of discussion feeling its way uncertainly along, sensing political and social change – of ‘something kicking off’ to borrow Paul Mason’s phrase, but unable adequately to name more than a few of its parts or move beyond a rather flakey zeitgeistish rhetoric of a ‘global revolutions’ linking Tahir Square to Westminster and Wall Street . Instead it seems to collapse in on itself, recycling familiar debates about national and European democratic deficits, the rise of the far right and citizen distrust of politicians. Ideas floated to remedy the malaise – localism, new institutions to meet a (supposed) public yearning for participation, the use of social movements as a space for deliberation and reconfiguring, Tobin taxes – seemed well worn and oddly moderate.

 Pretty much the stuff that establishment politicians and journalists are already taking about surely? Have the margins already shaped the mainstream? Or are the new politics of crisis and uncertainly less a product of the woes of capitalism and the Eurozone than a continuation of much longer term democratic deficits?

By evening I have  moved to home ground – and moved on to drinking black sugary tea –  for the launch at UCL of a new book on Populism in Europe and the Americas.  Although co-sponsored by the Counterpoint thinktank the discussion at this Populism in Europe and the Americassecond event was resolutely more academic: the book is a new collection which – as co-editor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and co-discussant Paul Taggart made clear - ambitiously tries to combine inter-regional comparison (European populism mainly radical right, Latin American radical left(ish) – reflections on whether populism was a boon or bane for democracy (an overview of the argument can be found here )

 I had mixed feelings about this. Despite having written a case study chapter in the book  (on the Czech radical right)– and liking the sweep of the comparision  I sensed that events were rushing ahead: as the  Subterranean Politics briefing flagged up, European populist phenomena, are far from confined to the far-right. Indeed, oppositional, anti-establishment, anti-elite mobilisation appears so diverse and fragmentary that much debtated, well honed concepts of populism and populist parties  almost appears something of straitjacket. Perhaps it always was.

Pussy Riot: Russia’s Plastic People?

The widely criticised detention and trial of the three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, now awaiting verdicts in Moscow on charges of ‘hooliganism’ for an anti-Putin protest happening at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour has been widely – and rightly – reported as a litmus test of the nature of power and opposition in contemporary Russia.

But for anyone with a slightly longer historical  memory – and an interest in East European affairs -  it also has echoes of earlier trial of a group of muscians in a politically constructed trial  four decades ago: that of the Plastic People of the Universe in communist Czechoslovakia in 1976 on a charge of ‘organised disturbance of the peace’.

Having stemmed popular protest following the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 that had terminated the Prague Spring reforms  and then a variety of organised political groups in the early 1970s, Czechoslovakia’s hardline communist rulers wished to complete the ‘normalisation’ of the country by sending a powerful and intimdating signal to artists, intellectuals and young people with unconventional tastes.

Plastic People 1976 from Charta77 on Vimeo.

Subsequent jail sentences for the long-haired Plastici ranged from eight to 18 months. Outrage over the trial provided the key impetus for the   diverse groups to coalesce into the Charter 77 movement, creating the peaceful civic dissent that eventually provided the political leadership for the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

In some ways Pussy Riot trial seems to offer direct parallels. An authoritarian regime with no real ideology which has emerged in the wake of a failed democratic experiment seeks to reassert its potentially fragile social control  itself by making an example of a rebellious non-conformist musicians with an English name.

A trial with a veneer of legality -  and large doses of bathos and farce – ensures and proceeds to a predictable, politically fixed conclusion. Custododial sentences for loosely framed public offence seem a distinct possibility. But in seeking to dish out exemplary punishment and send a signal to sectors of society inclined towards protest and opposition, the regime miscalculates. The trial creates a focus for a diverse national and international coalition

But the Pussy Riot trial also underlines how authoritarianism and opposition have moved on.  Czechoslovakia’s Plastici were alternative, avant-garde and  deeply at odds with their cultural and artistic values of the regime, but were in no sense a political opposition. Left alone they would probably have eked out an existence as part of a marginal underground sub-culture. But while happy to see people  retreat into private and family life, Czechoslovakia’s communist ‘normalisers’ were determined to monopolise public space and seek and  crush pockets of organised cultural and social non-conformity.

Putin’s more modernised post-Soviet regime wouldn’t have bothered.

Photo: Игорь Мухин at ru.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

It has learned the lesson that, provided the commanding heights of media and economy are securely under control, society can be kept on a much looser leash.

As various  in-the-field projects written by SSEES students about St Petersburg punks and Moscow football hooligans attest, marginal sub-cultures happily flourish on the fringes of contemporary Russian society.

It is independent political activity and political protest that brings a sharp, brutal tug on the leash. For while they might share some of their avant-garde aethetics and style, unlike the Plastics, Pussy Riot are clearly in the business of overt, provocative political opposition – opposition intended to be seen and heard as widely as possible.

The two trials also highlights changes in the breadth, gender and social composition of those involved in anti-regime protest in Eastern Europe. While the Plastics of 1970s -  like the  later Czech dissident cultural and intellectual elites their trial helped give rise to- were exclusively male, with wives and female partners very much in the background. Pussy Riot’s identity, impact and elan, by contrast, stem from the fact that its members are young, female and feminist – although the Western media, well accustomed to kick-ass punk heroines, doesn’t dwell on the gender politics.

Where the two historical moments seem to touch, however, is in highlighting the underlying continuties of an over-powerful (post-)communist power apparatus accountable neither to law, nor society.

Pussy Riot’s commitment to

… horizontal political activity, self-organization and the capability to be aware of oneself as an equal participant in civil politics, to understand one’s rights and fight for them to develop…

would be immediately comprehensive to even the most non-hip, conservative Chartist of the 1970s or 80s, as well as to those like Havel  with more obviously Bohemian cultural leanings, although its feminism, anti-sexism and libertarian leftism and in-your-face political militancy would probably be less palatable. Also deeply familiar across the the gap of decades and countries is the absence of the rule of law, facade of independent legal process and the obvious  political pliability of judges and courts.

Whatever the sentences next week, the final unanswered question is if and how the Pussy Riot  trial will have the politically galavanising effect similar to that of the Plastics forty years ago. Putin’s Russia is not Communist Czechoslovakia whose apparent strength eventually proved so brittle, but a far more adaptable and multifaceted regime whose hard to grasp mix of concession, repression and regression may be altogether tougher to crack.

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