>You’ve never had it so good, Klaus tells Czechs


Václav Klaus’s New Year message sees the Czech President riffing away on some of his favourite themes with just a very few minor changes of mood and key for connoisseurs to enjoy. Rather dully, his speech takes the predictable form of a review of the milestones in the history of the Czech nation (Any speech on any anniversary by any Czech politician always requires a review of the nation story, it seems). The pretext this time was that years ending in 8 often bring momentous historical change in the Czech lands: 1918 (foundation of Czechoslovakia), 1938 (Munich Agreement and collapse of democracy), 1948 (communist takeover) and 1968 (Prague Spring and Soviet-led invasion). 1989 was a near miss and 1928, 1958 and 1978 exceptions, I hasten to add.

As so often before Klaus told his listeners that growing European integration and the blurring of borders – presumably an allusion to the CR’s entry to the Schengen zone – made it more important than ever for Czech to remember and cultivate their national identity in order to avoid losing their freedom ‘as so many times in the past’. This is a slightly odd juxtaposition, as the Czech experience like that of other CEE nations is very much that of maintaining national identity during periods of unfreedom. It seems to reflect the very distant intellectual influence of the dissident circle around Bohumil Doležel and Emanuel Mandler, which Klaus had links with in 1980s, which saw preservation of the Czechs’ liberal-national identity as a precondition for real liberal democracy.

Klaus then steers his by now customary middle way between anti-communism and communism – which might also be good for hooking the odd independent-minded Communist deputy come the presidential election in February – saying that ‘In evaluating of it [communism], we cannot content ourselves with easy proclamations, which are today so easy to defend, because they no longer cost anything. Fighting yesterday’s battles is neither very difficult nor very courageous’ before warning against nostalgia for totalitarian egalitarianism.

Klaus also opts for the argument that Czechs themselves are partly responsible for the failures of Czech history, an argument which (like many other Czech politicians and intellectuals) he alternates with the view that Czech history was shaped by defective elites, foreigners and Fate. This ties up with a more consistent motif: an appeal for Czechs, both individually and collectively, to energetic and active in politics and business and public and private life. ‘Active’ and ‘activity’ are favourite Klaus watchwords, often opposed to vacuous philosophizing, pessimism and various forms of dependency culture.

His other familiar theme is that transformation in the Czech Republic is a success: although they moan and complain, with prosperity, continuing economic growth and geo-political security Czechs have, in fact, historically never had it so good. The booming mortgage market, he thought, is the best indication that Czech do believe in the future of their country – or perhaps they just know a generous state subsidy when they see one. Another favourable indicator is that Czech have not emigrated to Western Europe en masse as young Poles, Slovaks and Lithuanians have done and that the CR is indeed increasing a place people want to migrate to. This is a little odd, given the President’s earlier warnings about the dangers of (as yet largely non-existent) immigration – presumably Czechs should take pride in keeping these admirers of Czech prosperity out of the country.

The speech ends with an unusual appeal (for Klaus) note: that Czechs should to remember the elderly and socially excluded and vulnerable such as disabled people, families with children and Roma, although this is on the thoroughly conservative grounds that the state cannot provide adequate care for such groups. Just the kind of thing of unifying thing the head of state should say on a national holiday, but also perhaps something of a pitch for the support of Christian Democratic parliamentarians in February.

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