>City slicker

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I lived in Prague for three years, from 1996 to 1999. After several years living in the Czech Republic’s second city, Brno, it was something of a relief to end up in a bigger more cosmopolitan environment of the capital. Praguers were invariably unfazed (and uninterested) by foreigners living in their midst, and even foreigners speaking Czech. So I was naturally drawn to Martin Horak’s study of city government in Prague in the decade following the collapse of communism, Governing the Post-Communist City, which promised to reveal the politics behind my daily bus journey from the high rise estate of New Barrandov past the traffic bottlenecks at the Barrandov bridge down to Smíchov Station to pick up the tram, which raced past some rather tacky shops and finally snaked its way into historic old Prague, where I would get off in the Lesser Quarter and walk past the US Embassy to the Institute for Contemporary History and sit reading my way through the Civic Forum archive and batches of newspapers from the early 1990s.

Although not exactly bedtime reading it’s an innovative and interesting book in a least two ways. Firstly, it seeks quite rightly to shift the research agenda on democracy in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) from democratic transition and consolidation – that is measuring up CEE democracies against an ideal of ‘established’ or ‘advanced’ democracy, basically an idealized composite of what exists in the West – to issues of governance and democratic quality – how well democracy works, to paraphrase Robert Putnam. High quality democratic performance in Horak’s definition is essentially transparency in policy-making, openness of policymakers to societal inputs and the long-term strategic coherence of policies adopted. Secondly, by focusing on governance in a capital city such as Prague, Horak is able to link up political, economic and social institutions in a fairly holistic way, which would be nigh on impossible for a national political system. A capital city’s political system is sufficiently small to research in depth, but large and complex enough to flag wider issues of institutional evolution and democratic governance.

The book centres on two lovingly detailed case studies: transport policy and preservation in Prague’s historic core. As quickly becomes from these policy sectors , the Czech capital scores poorly on all key indicators of democratic quality. Policy-making was opaque, piecemeal, expensive, inefficient and largely closed to the public. Such democratic failure was, however, puzzling. Prague’s city government had many prerequisites for success. It rapidly regained strong fiscal and political autonomy after 1989, had a large professional administrative apparatus and controlled sizeable tax and property resources.

Horak draws on an innovative strand in ‘historical institutionalist’ literature to explain such underperformance. The key he argues is to be found in the unevenness with which different sets of institutions developed after 1989. While new democratically elected structures of representation quickly emerged in 1990, the structures and policy-making frameworks of municipal administrators remained heavily influenced by the close technocratic practices of the late communist era, when professional planners were largely left alone by Communist Party bosses. Although emergent civic initiatives had some initial influence, inexperienced new city councillors facing multiple demands tended to opt for simple short-term solutions, drawing on existing communist-era policy frameworks or maximising opportunities for personal profit. This trend was exacerbated by the absence of strong regional structures in the right-wing Civic Democratic Party, which dominated Prague politics after 1991, but generally lacked a coherent political programme for the city.

Different policy sectors, however, exhibited different dynamics. Transport planning bodies and large formerly state-owned construction companies functioned as a powerful lobby for the exclusion of civil society groups from policy-making and the completion of communist-era motorway building plans. Civic groups quickly settled into a protest oriented strategy, enjoying some success in modifying or blocking the implementation of road building (sending costs spiralling), but were poorly equipped to feed into policy processes when invited to do so. This offers a rather interesting alternative perspective to the environmentalists-as-heroes interpretation that found in more conventional social movement based accounts such as, for example, Adam Fagan’s Environment and Democracy in the Czech Republic (Edward Elgar, 2004), where we find out a lot about protest and protesters, but politicians, bureaucrats and business are largely off stage baddies. A nice illustration of how Horak’s ‘holistic’ approach does indeed deliver new insights.

Prague’s preservation authorities shared the same technocratic culture as those of transport planners but were more open to civic groups, which, like them, generally opposed extensive commercialization of historic areas of Prague. However, preservation institutions quickly buckled and fragmented under pressure from local politicians, who blocked systematic and open policymaking in favour of closed, ad hoc decision making which facilitated lucrative relationships with developers and investors. There is little direct proof, but a mass of circumstantial evidence confirming the reputation of Prague municipal politics and administration as a cesspool of corruption. One of the more jaw dropping findings is that fully half of Prague’s elected city councillors in the late 1990s were involved with real estate companies and all but on sat on the boards of private companies of some kind. Only when the development potential of historic central Prague was exhausted and national freedom of information legislation forced greater openness was this pattern broken. Interestingly, Horak finds, there was less evidence of corruption in transport policy, presumably because construction companies and planners formed a tight and compact lobby touting for big long-term projects, which required more than the one-off buying of councillors for specific decisions.

Despite occasionally dense passages on Prague history and municipal bureaucracy, Horak has written a fine book, which skilfully interweaves documentary research with interviews with politicians, planners and civic activists, to produce a rich and subtle account of Czech politics capturing many nuances that other accounts overlook. To some extent, the specific nature of Prague as a case study limits the generalisability of the book’s findings. Its implicit view of democracy as consensus building between functional actors (business, civil society, bureaucrats and politicians), for example, would not scale up well to most national systems, where party politics is generally more competitive and interests more zero-sum. However, Horak’s central theoretical insight is original and does cut the mustard: that post-communist democratic development is a changing patchwork of overlapping institutional structures, each embodying different legacies and each liable to break open into differently timed ‘critical junctures’ when political choices suddenly matter. Indeed, his empirical analysis tends to subvert conventional historical institutionalist accounts more radically than Horak himself allows. What is most striking is how few realistic opportunities emerged for Prague’s overloaded, easily corruptible and programmatically bereft politicians to choose paths away from the flawed democratic practices so powerfully shaped by multiple communist-era legacies and rampant new business interests.

There are, inevitably, a few quibbles too over what the book might but doesn’t do. Bringing the story up to date would have given a richer more nuanced picture of the success (or not) of city government in Prague, than that furnished by the largely transitional politics of the 1990s It would also be interesting to know the impacts on Prague politics of the (much delayed) introduction of regional authorities across the Czech Republic in 2002 or EU membership. Missing too is any real sense of Prague’s place in Czech national politics – its relationships with the regions, importance as bastion of the right; and role as a harbinger for social and political change in the Czech Republic all merit some discussion. The recent rise of the Green Party not only confirms the importance of Prague as an incubator for national political leaders – Green leader Martin Bursík has a longer career behind him (in various parties) in Prague city politics, as does Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek – but suggests it could be seen in some ways as a harbinger of social and political change. But when all is said and done, Governing the Post-Communist City, is that rare thing, a damn good original academic book.

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2 responses to “>City slicker”

  1. Martin Horak says :

    >Hi – I recently came across your blog review of my book. Thanks – I’m happy that you engaged with it, and enjoyed it too. Your criticisms are well taken – it would have probably sterngthened the book had I engaged more with the national political context, and had I brought the story up to date a bit more. But I guess one can only do so much in a single project. By the way, the book just recently won the American Political Science Association’s award for best urban politics book of 2007, which I was thrilled about, of course. I see you have a recent book out on the Czech right – it looks very interesting, and I’ve put it on my “to read” list. Thanks again for your review!Martin

  2. Sean Hanley says :

    >Hi Martin. No need for thanks. The book speaks for itself so I’m it’s pleasing to hear APSA judges thought the same. A version of this blog review will appear (or possibly has appeared) in Democratization. And, as for my book, well the reviewers say it’s a good read with some interesting things here and there but I’m not holding my breath for any prize juries.

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