>Tabloid Transitions: How not to draw lessons from Czech politics


For a long time now, colleagues have been quietly complaining that the online newsmagazine covering post-communist Europe Transitions Online just aint’ what it used to be. These days it coverage of post-communist politics and society seems increasingly bitty and insubstantial translations of sometimes rather lightweight articles from the Czech press do not help, and some of the op-ed pieces have also seemed rather flimsy. The recent columns of Fredo Arias-King, however, takes us to a new level of confused tabloidy democratization writing, made worse by the fact that his basic argument – that tough decommunization measures (in the Czech Republic and Estonia) underpinned reform success – is worth looking at. Unfortunately, for any mildly thoughtful or knowledgable reader, his two pieces will probably achieve the exact opposite of that intended.

I reproduce the second of these with some commentary added in:

“The Czechs’ Secret

14 September 2007

The Czech Republic is the only country of the former East bloc (besides Estonia) where the ex–Communist Party has not governed as a caste since the fall of the Iron Curtain. This may explain why the Czechs have escaped many of the pathologies of their eastern and southern neighbors. When you see the rankings made by international organizations on the economic and political health of the post-communist countries, what comes across is how negatively correlated these rankings are with the staying power of the ex-communist nomenklatura.

So, far a reasonable generalization although naturally need to know which ‘eastern and southern neightbours’ we are talking about. Serbia? Russia? Or pretty much all other countries apart from Estonia. ‘governing as a caste’ is a pretty elastic term: presumably it is meant to cover a case like Romania, where the link between the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party of Romania runs loosely through National Salvation Front, rather than direct continuity as a successor party.

While former dissidents throughout the bloc mostly have the blues at seeing their countries hijacked by their one-time jailers, the Czechs have a competitive political system characterized by the leftward and rightward swings that most healthy democracies experience.

Actually, as a quick reading of Arend Lijphart ( see any univesity’s political science course) would show, many democracies manage fine without such swings and – as younger American political scientists who are the staple of much grad school reading (Milada Anna Vachudova, Anna Grzymala-Busse etc)have shown what matters for such democratic quality are less ;swings’ than the alternation of left and right in office. More damningly, for this piece, it is Hungary and Poland, with, yes, those bad old commies making up the left, that managed alternation rather better than the Czechs, where the centre-left can make a majority because of the electoral size of the uncoalitionable, hardline Communist Party

How did the Czechs manage this?

Well, as just pointed out, they didn’t …

It essentially involved three ingredients: Lustration, leftist parties and liberal reforms. Dismissing the former communist networks of the old regime from government and the banks is perhaps the most essential reform any new government can make. Of course, this has to be done tactfully: temporarily ally with some of the moderate, less noxious ones to get to the rest, as the United States did in occupied Germany to discover the vestigial Nazi networks. This also can be done legislatively, as the Czechs did with their lustration law and Estonians through their administrative act (which, unlike with the Czech law, also included the banks).

Can you ‘dismiss’ an informal structure like a network? I think not. The Czech lustration law in, in fact, barred a range of former top nomenklatura officeholders, secret police officers and informersfrom a ranges of public offices. Interestingly, this didn’t include elective offices such as members of parliament, local councillers or even the Presidency. It did cover top mnagagement positions in state-owned companies but was easily circumvenyed by those managers unluckly enough to be caught out (through strategies like job swapping) and when companies were privatized lustration requirements ceased to apply. Only a handful of officals – Kieran Williams estimated perhaps 100 – were ever forced to step down from top posts. In short, lustration was a manifestation of Czech society’s anti-communism, rather than a tool for beating ‘the ‘old structures’ of the nomenklatura. As much as they could be they were already beaten as a distinct social force in November 1989.

The leftist party is also quite important in the medium run to frustrate the attempts of the communists to come back through the same electoral vehicle they had long suppressed. It involves founding a party from among the democratic ranks, and not leaving that space open for the communists to occupy it. This way, the anti-communist forces took over not only the right wing (as the Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Albanians and numerous others did to their detriment), but also the left.

This rather shifts the supposed nature of the communist threat to an electoral return by hardline Communists. There is little real risk of an electoral comeback by this route. Certainly, the Czech Communists never managed it in the early 1990s when the Social Democrats were tiny, fragmented and in disarray.

So when the pendulum inevitably swings and the right party loses an election to the left, as it does in every democracy, it is your hippie friend and former jail mate that occupies the executive office in government, and not the thug who jailed you both.

Very few ex-hippies I can think of in the Czech Social Democratic Party and not many ex-dissidents…


This key lesson seems obvious,

Not to me other than the key lesson that you should base your arguments on some real knowledge the countries you are writing about and not play fast and loose to tell the story you want…

but it essentially escaped the democrats who came to power in most countries across the region. Even today, almost two decades later, the most astute observers of transitions fail to appreciate this point. When Solidarity came to power in 1989 in Poland, some social-democratic elements in it attempted to form a leftist party.

I’m not entirely clear, which political initiative is being referred to here, but it’s perhaps worth noting that the historic Polish Socialist Party – possibly the best bet for a centre-left without direct links to elements of the former ruling apparatus – flunked disasterously. As indeed, did the Czech Social Democrats after 1989 until rescued by an influx of ex-social liberals, regionalists, Greens, ex-nomenklatura technocrats and all and sundry.

But they were not supported by the rest of Solidarity

…who were on the right and centre, so perhaps not entirely surprising. The failure was due to the weakness of social democrats without ties to the old ruling structures …

and the attempt failed, so the Communist Party renamed itself and won more than 60 percent of the seats in the Sejm in 1993 over the hopelessly divided post-Solidarity parties

A product of the electoral system, electoral thresholds and the disunity of the right, rather than a powerful electoral comeback per se. They were heavily defeated in 1997 with relative ease, so no great tragedy.

Same sad story in Lithuania, Albania, Hungary, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

Nothing very sad about Poland and certainly not Slovenia in terms of reform and democracy compared to the Czech Republic and very odd they are lumped in with less successful reformers like Bulgaria and (for God’s sake!) Albania. Hungary has severe budget problems, but this is due as much to the economic populism of the self-styled right as the turpitude of ex-communist nomenklatura capitalism.

In the Czech Republic, there is a much healthier social democratic party than in those countries where “social democrat” is a euphemism for corrupt, ex-communist networks.

It’s very to see in what sense the Czech Social Democrat are ‘healthier’ than their fellow socialists in Hungary or Poland, except perhaps in some moral sense looking back at the communist past. A number of the party’s leading figures are or were ex-CP members with technocratic ex-nomenklatura backgrounds in industrial managment etc Fundamentally, there seems to be a confusion between the patronage networks which developed in the nomenklatura and economic management structures of state socialist and the ex-communsit parrties. Sometimes these overlapped, sometimes as in the Czech Republic these networks reconfigured and found new friends on the right or (later) among the Czech Social Democrats

The Czech communists remained largely unreformed and a separate party, sometimes capturing the protest vote and making some trouble in parliament and elsewhere, but not forming a government.Czechoslovak history, probably even more than astute political will, largely explains this outcome. The Soviet invasion of 1968 and the subsequent “normalization” bitterly separated the more idealistic communists and some social democrats in Alexander Dubcek’s government from the more antisocial communist collaborators, who remained in power with Moscow’s patronage.

“Idealistic communists and some social democrats”? Here, rather oddly, we are asked to believe that reformed communiss in 1960s Czechoslovakia, who merely favoured market socialist experiments and a form of managed democracy not a mixed economy or open party competition were “social democrats”, whereas reformed ex-communists in Hungary and Poland, who favour both are not?

The most important of the former group was Jiri Hajek, the Prague Spring’s foreign minister and a social democrat (who essentially was compelled to join the Communist Party after World War II).

Hajek is a slightly odd figure to pick as the personifiaction of an unsulied Czech non-communist democratic left. Like many on the left of Czechoslovak Social Democracy he was compelled (“essentially” or otherwise) to join the Communist Party in June 1948, but chose to join it. Others did not. Arguably – at least if you are an anti-communist who belives in some kind of tough reckoning with the past – he might bear some moral and political responsibility for the crimes of regime that being an idealist might not excuse. (Indeed, arguably “idealistic communists” of the 1950s were the cause of the worst problems as Kundera’s The Joke brutally records).

Hajek certainly subsequently played a major and heroic role in Charter 77, but the former reform communists who later coalesced into the Obroda club hardly represent an unsullied non-nomenklatura left and did not quickly embrace Western-style social democracy even in 1970s, but hovered around vague ideas of a democratic socialism. This ambiguity – and their linger hope of reform coming from within the communist party state – made them of an object of suspicion for non-socialist dissent. Indeed, an account of the re-foundation of Czechoslovak Social Democracy by Jiří Loewy suggests that Hajek was opposed to the renewal of the party in 1989, seeing Hungarian or Polish style transformation of the ruling Communist Party as a better route to creating a powerful centre-left party than the nostalgic project of reviving the pre-1948 party promoted by exiles like Loewy.

A more knowledge observer of Czech politics might perhaps highlight less compromised figures such as New Left activist Petr Uhl or the group of ‘independent socialists’ around Rudolf Battěk., but the real question to raise is that if an ex-communist like Hajek can become a good social democratic, then why should the same not apply to reform communists of the 1980s in Poland and Hungary?

He was one of the key dissidents after denouncing the invasion, and one of the most hated figures by the Gustav Husak regime.Hajek was a founder and spokesman of Charter 77, along with two lesser-known figures, Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel.

Lesser known in 1977 perhaps. These days Hajek is , arguably, by far the most obscure of the three…

Patocka died after interrogation by the secret police and Havel spent many years in prison, leaving Hajek as the leading voice against the hated and deeply illegitimate communist regime.

An exaggeration to say he was the ‘leading voice’ beyond the fact that he was of the Charter’s three ‘speakers’

This trial by fire and separation

‘Fire and separation’? What on earth is this supposed to mean?

is what permitted the healthy left to consolidate away from the antisocial left in Czechoslovakia. Hajek died in 1993 when his party was in the doldrums,

Despite contacts with the exiles who refounded the party in late 1989, Hajek does not appear to actually to have (re)joined it after 1989, but worked with the Obroda club of ex-communists within Civic Forum.

but today the Social Democratic Party includes literally hundreds of ex–Charter 77 signatories and dissidents

A highly implausible claim – there were only 1883 Charter signatories in total between 1977 and 1990, not all of whom were politically active. It is hard, of course, to say whay being a dissident means exactly, but the number of dissidents actively engaged in independent oreganizations was at best a few hundred. Most, it is fair to say, did not incline to the (centre-)left, although some ex-dissidents like Jiří Dienstbier moved closer to the party in the course of 1990s.

who played a key role in dismantling tyranny and has produced four prime ministers so far.

Fighting tyranny and producing Prime Miniters are not the same thing. Only one Social Democratic PM (Vladimír Špidla) was engaged in any kind of overt opposition activity before 1989; one Miloš Zeman was briefly a Communist as a student in 1969 and engaged in covert opposition as a sociologist but until 1992 declared himself to be a liberal. Current Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek was a communist-era manager in the hotel industry and a member of the communist satellite Socialist Party under communist rule. This gives an accurate feel for the non-communist, but largely non-dissident origins of the Czech Social Democrats.

Despite its numerous scandals, the Social Democrats live on as the main leftist party.

Again, why is it possible to forgive the Czech Social Democrats “numerous scandals” but damn those of the Hungarian or Polish Socialists as the height of nomenklatura turpitude?


In retrospect and very ironically, then, the Soviet invasion turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the health of Czech democracy.In the other countries, a reformist “counter elite” remained in the Communist Party. In Lithuania, communist leader Algirdas Brazauskas shifted and sided with the independence movement against Moscow in early 1990. In Poland, the communists could also claim to have negotiated an orderly transfer of power through elections (though research suggests that they were heavily pressured by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev). In Hungary, these “nationalists” and “reformers” were key in its sudden transformation in 1989, resuscitating Imre Nagy and even attempting to appropriate him symbolically for themselves. In these three countries, the former communists took advantage of the tactical mistakes of the democratic governments of Vytautas Landsbergis, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Jozsef Antall, respectively, to make a comeback in 1992, 1993 and 1994.One can make the argument that “ghettoizing” the communists only makes them less prone to reform themselves, and there is an element of truth in this. Notice the “Europeanized” former communists in Lithuania, Poland and Hungary – even their enthusiasm for capitalism (or their corrupted brand of it), the European Union and NATO.

Some uncontentious analysis here. But for the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 Czechoslovakia probably would have had a reform communist regime, which would have negotiated itself out of power Hungarian or Polish style? But the conclusion is a very odd one. There is simply no convincing evidenece that the capitalism of the Czech Republic has been consistently less corrupt than that of Hungary or Poland, or that the Czech Social Democrats are politically cleaner. Most published research suggests that corruption in the Czech Republic in 1990s under the right was possibly somewhat worse than under centre-left governments in Hungary or Poland. In truth, corruption levels depend on institutions, incentives and political priorities with membership or non-membership of the Communist nomenklatura a poor guide to moral probity of powerholders.

The idea of ‘normalization’ as a kind of preparation for better democracy is also a little odd: the crushing of (limited) freedom as necessary precondition for better democracy has a oddly Leninist logic to it, which I don’t really buy, although it is (intellectually) one of the more defensible arguments in the piece.

Compare them to the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which still advocates a Neanderthal form of leftism. However, this is only a second-best option, while the ideal option is indeed what we are advocating here: a non-communist, social democratic party that can co-govern with the right and the liberals.

As most observers of Czech politics will note, co-operation of the Czech Social Democrats with liberal and right-wing parties – the Opposition Agreement pact with Klaus’s ODS (1998-2002) and the Social Democrat/Christian Democratic/liberal coalition of 2002-6 – owes less to Blairite modernity and more to the unacceptability and hardline chracter of the Communists. Much Social Democrat strategy was oriented towards gaining the Communists’ tacit support in parliament for a Social Democratic minority government and/or (again as a minority adminstration) playing Communist votes offer against those of the right and centre

Moreover, in Hungary the post-communist Socialists have proved more than capable of working and government with the free market Free Democrats (now the Hungarian Liberal Party) on a pretty permanent basis. Poland’s new Left and Democracy coalition is a similar bloc of post-communist social democrats and ex-dissident liberals, I believe…

And even in the best cases, communists have a way of coming back.

You have to ask here what is meant by ‘communist’? Someone who was in the Party briefly (or not so briefly) in 1950s or 1960s? A member in 1989? The card-carrying economic nomenklatura, officials in the Party apparatus? It is an elastic category

Notice how the previous reluctance of the Czech Social Democrats to cooperate with the communists only had a 15-year life span. However, it is too late for the Czech transition to be derailed – 15 years is a very long time for a good transition to take root. One of the main errors of the democrats, in retrospect, was to occupy only the right of their political spectrum, and not promote their ex-dissident friends to form true social democratic parties.

Czech dissidents actually made only a minor contribution to the emergence of the Czech right, but even if we stretch the definition of ‘dissident’ it is bizarre to suggest, that non-social democratic should set up a social democratic party, or could somehow have magicked one out of the air…

That lesson should hopefully not escape the next wave of transition leaders.

I am confused as to what lesson we supposed to draw from this piece: democratic competition between moderate parties is important? Well, yeah we knew that, said several years ago and no always the case especially in ethnically divided societies. Ex-communists do not make good social democrats? Not really true, as example of Hajek illustrates. A fixation with ‘communism’ is a distraction from the real underlying causes of cleientelism and authoritarianism. The Czech Social Democrats have no links with communism and are a bit different from communist successor parties? Well, sort of, and obviously yes, but few broad strategic lessons here. The Czech case is to some extent exception, but the Social Democratic party has as many similarities as differences with the ex-communist social democratic elsewhere in Poland, Hungary or Lithuania.”

Mr Arias-King is, I was slightly alarmed to discover on googling him, the founder of the eminently respectable journal on post-Soviet democratization Demokratizatsiya, which has a high powered academic editorial board (of which he isn’t a member). His website also records and an MA from Harvard and a career of political consultancy. Despite this impressive CV, on this evidence future transition leaders – or Western foundations would probably – do better to spend their consultancy fees elsewhere or invest in a few more orange tents and T-shirts. No danger to Aleksandr Lukashenka or Vladimir Putin from this spirited but garbled, and occasionally nonsensical reading of the Czech experience, I suspect.

The real shame for me is that intellectually an alternative take on the usefulness of decommunization and more radical attempt to break with the past is perhaps in order, given the large amount of literature dismissing it in rather pat term as illiberal, anti-democratic and unnecessary…


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