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Something rotten in the state of Czechia?

klima coverThe Czech Republic has been in the news recently because of its politicians’ somewhat quixotic campaign to rebrand the country to the world as ‘Czechia’. But among political scientists and businesspeople the country’s name has long suffered worst damage than this.

Widely seen in the first decade after 1989 as a leading democratiser with high standards of governance overseen by a well-established set of West European-style political parties, the country has since acquired a reputation for engrained political graft and high level corruption, which blemished its record of reform and modernisation.

In successive elections in 2010 and 2013, the established Czech party system collapsed like a house of cards as – as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe – voters turned to a diverse array of protest parties promising to address the country’s ills by killing off political dinosaurs, fighting corruption and promoting the direct democracy. Political scientists quickly clocked thiselectoral turbulence and the unusual new parties it gave rise to, but few stopped to wonder why and how earlier judgements of the Czech party system as an ersatz, but basically functional, equivalent of West European party politics had been off the mark.

Michal Klíma’s  new book Od totality k defektní demokracii: Privatizace a kolonizace politických stran netransparentním byznysem [From totalitarianism to defective democracy: the privatisation and colonisation of parties by non-transparent business] tackles this issue head-on, suggesting that rather than being a normal party system distorted by elements of corruption, the Czech Republic’s post-1989 party-political settlement was a deeply corrupt system overlaid with a facade of left – right competition. Read More…

Czech Republic: How bad is Babiš?

An article about billionaire Czech politician Andrej Babiš by UK-based think tankers Andrew Foxall and Ola Cichowlas   of the Henry Jackson Society on the website of Foreign Policy has set the cat among the pigeons. Indeed the highly critical portrait  has sufficiently enraged the Slovak-born finance minister and deputy prime minister, whose ANO movement came second in the 2013 election and now tops the polls, that he has threatened to sue.

The broad thrust of the piece on the Czechs’ ‘oligarch problem’ is a familiar one: that Babiš’ has accumulated a dangerous concentration of economic, political and media power, including expanding newspaper and TV holdings and influence he can wield over public broadcasters; that are huge potential conflicts of interests between his business empire political role (shifts in government policy on bio-fuel have been cited as an obvious example); and that his own personal, professional and business background raise questions about his democratic credentials.

With a Communist family background, he made a pre-1989 career as official in communist-era foreign organisation dealing the petro-chemicals, had contacts with communist-era secret police, which registered him as an informer (wrongly a Slovak court has ruled  – although appeals are ongoing).  His post-1989 business career has been criticised for the possibly legally dubious separation of the original (state-owned) Agrofert company from its Slovak parent and left unanswered questions about foreign-registered companies and funds – and political favours -which helped build up business empire.

Veteran Prague-based business analyst James de Candole does an excellent job here summing up this issues and Czech-speaking readers could do worse than read Tomáš Pergler’s meticulously researched biography.

The FP piece, however, does a less good job. Read More…

Czech democracy: the wheel turns full circle

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism many Western analysts feared that, far from ‘returning to Europe’, Central and Eastern Europe would slip into a spiral of Latin-American style instability and authoritarianism.

Stanford professor Ken Jowitt predicted that ‘demagogues, priests and colonels more than democrats’ would shape the region’s future, while Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously wrote that the ‘East has become the South’.

Even as astute an observer of the region as Timothy Garton Ash was moved to conclude in mid-1990 that ‘Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today’.

But the region quickly confounded the doomsayers. Central Europe emerged as one the most successful newly democratizing regions in the post-Cold War world. Many states including the Czech Republic made smooth and rapid progress to OECD and EU membership and were soon marked down by Western political scientists as consolidated, if flawed democracies. In the Czech case, the flaws were readily apparent. The democracy that emerged was, for example, far from the optimistic vision of a prosperous, settled Central European state sketched out by Václav Havel when he looked into the country’s future in his 1991 Summer Meditations.

As well as failing to sustain the common state with the Slovaks, Czechs saw overblown claims of a post-communist ‘economic miracle’ disintegrate amid corruption scandals that ended the Klaus government in 1997. And, while the Czech Republic did generate a stable system of ‘standard’ parties of left and right recognizable to West European eyes, Havel’s warnings that party politics would become the preserve of a caste of career politicians seemed, in hindsight, prophetic.

The strong locally-rooted civil society and political decentralization Havel envisaged as the bedrock of Czech democracy were present only in fragments. Local democracy was too often expressed in the murky world of municipal politics and a system of belatedly implemented regional government that become a still greater byword for corruption. Non-ideological consensus politics that Havel and others hoped would be a defining feature of Czech democracy have existed only in bastardised form of Grand Coalitions and power-sharing deals that had more to do with dividing the spoils of office than agreeing inclusive, balanced policies.

To most outside observers, however, the Czech Republic remained one of a belt of successful, stable Central European democracies, scoring well on most indices of governance, reform, and democracy, albeit with a clear lag behind West European democracies. Most would have agreed with the assessment of the Hungarian economist and political scientist Béla Greskovits that CEE states, including the Czech Republic, had created poor quality, but essentially ‘crisis-proof’ democracies where market economics co-existed in ‘low equilibrium’ with democratic politics.

However, following the enlargement of European Union in 2004 and, particularly, the onset of the global economic downturn and the Eurozone crisis, many commentators have started to view the future of Central Europe in much darker terms seeing the onset of ‘democratic backsliding’ or a ‘democratic recession’. Hungary has been at the centre of such concerns. The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán from pro-Western Christian Democrat to authoritarian populist exploiting an electoral landslide to impose an illiberal constitution, rein in the media and emasculate the judiciary, was particularly shocking.

In 2012 Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried similarly to exploit a landslide election victory to overturn of established procedures and strip away constitutional checks and balances to unseat his country’s president Trajan Basescu. Elsewhere voters across CEE have turned not to establishment strongmen but to a range of to protest parties ranging from Poland’s ultra-liberal Palikot Movement to neo-fascists of Jobbik in Hungary.  Where does the Czech Republic fit into this picture? Read More…

Czech Republic: Zeman tears up the script

Miloš Zeman Praha

Photo: David Sedlecký via Wikimedia Commons

 The collapse of the centre-right government of Czech prime minister Petr Nečas earlier this month came as little surprise. His coalition had struggled on for more than a year without a parliamentary majority trying to push through an unpopular package of reforms and austerity measures that divided even its own MPs.

 Nor, in hindsight, was it surprising that Nečas was forced to resign in a corruption scandal. Although by reputation a geekish Mr Clean, Nečas’s efforts to root out corruption in his own Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and in wider political life proved patchy and ineffectual.

 The main talking points were how close the arrests came to Nečas – the main accused is his former chef de cabinet Jana Nagyová – and why Czech police and prosecutors had only now got their act together after years of suspicious inaction. Commentators speculated that the anti-corruption probe could open out in Central European version of Italy’s Clean Hands operation in the early1990s that brought down the whole party-political establishment.

 Most commentators assumed, however, that in the interim the coalition would limp on until scheduled elections in 2014 under the Civic Democrats’ stopgap leader Miroslava Němcova or that the deadlock would be broken by a cross-party vote to dissolve parliament. Attention shifted to the familiar ritual of party delegations being called in for talks with the president, who constitutionally appoints the prime minister and informally plays a brokering role in government formation.

At this point, however, the country’s recently elected president Miloš Zeman tore up the political script. Read More…

Will Václav Klaus unite Europe’s eurosceptics?

V KLAUS (2012)

Photo: David Sedlecký via WikiCommons Media

Yesterday the Czech media was all aquiver with front page news in the left-wing daily Právoand its associated news server Novinky.cz – that former Czech president Václav Klaus was ‘seriously considering’ running for the European Parliament. And that he was planning to do for the Civic Democrats (ODS) – the party he founded in 1991 and led for many years before stepping down as leader in 2002 then leaving altogether in 2008 in protest at his successor’s embrace of the Lisbon Treaty.

 What’s more, the story runs, as MEP Klaus, given his stature, would more or less automatically lead the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group which brings together the British Tories, ODS, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) in what is intended to be a mainstream conservative anti-federalist bloc.

 The newspaper quotes a ‘credible source’ while Klaus himself has said nothing publicly. But the ex-president is a cautious politician who likes to drop hints, fly kites and generally test the waters. So it’s plausible that someone in his entourage or Klaus himself did indeed  tip the wink. Indeed, he has already hinted directly in an interview in December that he was thinking about running for the EP for his old party, when I was sceptical)

 Could it happen? And could Klaus become a kind of EU-wide Leader of the Eurosceptic Opposition. 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…

Party government: All we want for Christmas is you…?

All I want for ChristmasAt an eye-watering £75 Hans Keman and Ferdinand Müller-Rommel’s new Party Government in the New Europe which came out earlier this year with Routledge is unlikely to have made it to under many people’s Christmas trees this year. It does, however, offer a quite thought-provoking, if not causally readable, a state-of-the-art survey of research on the place of parties in European democracy – and one with laudable and long overdue goal of taking in  both established West European democracies and the younger democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

 As Keman and Müller-Rommel make clear, despite an onslaught of social and geopolitical transformation – post-modernisation, de-industrialistion, Europeanisation, globalisation and so on – patterns of European party government have proved surprisingly resilient. Although public dissatisfaction and electoral volatility have mounted in Western Europe – driving the emergence of new parties that many of us political scientists professionally know and love– old established parties have maintained a central position in government.

While an impressive feat – and mildly reassuring to the middle aged and middle of the road, the editors are almost certainly right to term is growing mismatch between the represented in parliament and the pool of from which of governing parties are drawn as a ‘gap in representational quality’. Eastern Europe’s party systems till recently also been characterised by high (if reducing) volatility, but Keman and Müller-Rommel claim, rather intriguingly, greater fluidity of parties and party systems implies less of a representation deficit. A chapter by Fernando Casal Bértoa and the late Peter Mair party system institutionalisation in CEE confirms that the region’s parties are both less institutionalised than those in earlier waves of democratisation and are bcoming, if anything, less institutionalised, but is rather less sanguine about what the prospect implies for democracy.

 Political scientists have often, if somewhat implicitly, followed Schumpeter in seeing party competition as i being about picking teams of elites to govern. However, as Ian Budge and Michael McDonald point out this not only ties the profession to an elitist and technocratic model that many would find rather toxic, neglects the question nature of the democratic majorities which underpin them.  More specifically, they are concerned with the question of whether – and how – elected governments’ majorities should overlap with the position of the mythical median voter in the political centre or with the electorate of largest party (which may be elsewhere).

 Through a series of simulations, they find that there is often considerable tension between the two according to the format of party system and the speed and scope of policy change under a new government. Slower rates of policy change make it more straightforward to reconcile the two models of ‘democratic congruence’. Such findings Budge and McDonald note are particularly relevant to CEE, where lack of voter-party identification makes simplified party competition models of this kind a good(ish) approximation of reality.

 Social policy specialists are not everyone’s idea of sexy, but – as well driving forward many of the best innovations institutional theory – they have long seen party competition as a key factor shaping policy outcomes. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly then this book features as a triple whammy of chapters in this area. Klaus Armingeon kicks off, testing whether the classical proposition that strength of left parties, leads to stronger trade unions and more egalitarian welfare states, applies to Central and East Europe. While CEE the does exactly not invalidate this view – Armingeon finds no instances of social democratic welfare states without strong left parties – many CEE case fit the West European paradigm uncomfortably:  there are many instances of strong left parties with weak trade unions and minimal welfare states.

 CEE party specialists might at this point nod sagely and wonder whether the region’s self-styled social democratic parties – many successors to ruling communist parties – can be straightforwardly taken at face value as programmatically ‘left’ parties.  For as F.G Schmidt notes – and Armingeon himself allows – additional factors such as the national legacies of communist rule clearly needs to be factored in. Schmidt analysis of patterns of party government and social policy in CEE accordingly picks out two distinct groups of states, which intuitively make sense: the Visegrad countries and Slovenia, where – as in Western Europe – the party-political coloration of governments matter for social polciy and Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states where it does not.

 Paul Penning top things off using Charles Ragin’s QCA to show that the left/right complexion of governing parties matters for welfare policies only in combination with factors such pre-existing benefit levels, integration into global markets or corporatism.  Frustratingly, however, data limitations stop him extending the analysis to CEE, where – as in so many areas – QCA might help unpick spaghetti-like patterns of similarities and difference with the West.

 Although it narrows ‘party government’ to party influence on policy, overall Party Government in the New Europe is an engaging collection, refreshingly free of padding, which gives a lucid overview of a well established but obviously still evolving research agenda. Despite the good intentions, however, it sadly makes limited progress in integrating the comparative study of Western Europe and CEE. Faced with the usual awkward patterns of difference and similarity, even chapters genuinely pan-Europe in scope fall back on the old standbys of simply juxtaposing the two halves of the New Europe or viewing the East through the prism of the West.

 Like the inevitable presents of socks and aftershave, useful, familiar and not altogether unwelcome, but not quite…

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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