Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Velvet Disillusion Department

Last week 120 Czechs, including signatories of the famous Charter 77 declaration (Czech original; English translation), issued a statement titled “Slovo k listopadu,” presenting a critique of the state of affairs in the Czech Republic 25 years after the fall of communism. It was published online Nov. 14 by Parlamentní listy (Czech original, with a partial list of signatories). A friend asked me to translate it, and I agreed, as a public service.

A Word on the Occasion of November

In the days when the Communist Party had a constitutionally guaranteed monopoly on power and employed it for the bullying and criminal prosecution of its critics, we did not hide our views but tried to share them with the public. Those who held power wrote that we were unelected washouts and self-appointed leaders, poisoners of wells and traitors of the people.

Authorized only by our own conscience, as free citizens, we also speak up today.

Through twelve years of work by Charter 77 and other civic groups, we were able to find, develop, and defend a common denominator for all our often very different political views: the defense of fundamental human rights and freedoms—inherent, inalienable, nonprescriptible, and irrepealable. We knew that without respect for human rights there is no freedom, and without freedom there is no prosperity. November 1989 brought a unique chance to transform a totalitarian regime into a democratic one without violence. We sought then to ensure that the civil liberties and fundamental human rights denied to citizens by the communist regime would become the foundation of the constitutional order in a free Czechoslovakia.

Yet respect for the Constitution has not become the basis of politics and public life. On the contrary, many active citizens who had hoped the new regime would establish justice and recognize equality for all have instead had to learn to live with their disillusion and create values outside of politics. Many have given up completely. Twenty-five years after November ’89, the concept of human rights in our country is being watered down and abandoned. None of the politicians has had the courage to tell voters before elections that they reject human rights. They swear on the Constitution, but they fraudulently and underhandedly dismantle its substance. In doing so, they render the very notion of a free Czech state meaningless.

Measured by its military or the size of its economy, the Czech Republic will never be a great power. Which makes it all the more important to be trustworthy, loyal to humanistic ideals, and consistent. We remember with gratitude the politicians of the free world who, on their visits behind the barbed wire to communist Czechoslovakia, made clear their interest in the fate of political prisoners. We saw this as a reflection of the fact that freedom brings with it an obligation for solidarity with the unfree. We saw the emphasis placed on respect for human rights in international relations after November ’89 by President Václav Havel as a historically correct response to our own experiences with an oppressive regime.

We therefore find it unacceptable that the current president of the Czech Republic on a visit to the People’s Republic of China—a country with hundreds of political prisoners—declared that he did not want to lecture about human rights, but to “learn how to stabilize society.” He is abandoning the principles of the November revolt and the democratic changes it brought. Using a stuffed cartoon mole from a children’s cartoon as a symbol of the country instead of the presidential standard with the motto “Truth Prevails” is not only embarrassing but in conflict with Czech interests.

Some business circles welcome the servile attitude of Czech politicians toward those who hold power in China. Yet only three percent of our exports go to China, while more than eighty percent goes to the countries of the European Union. It is in the Czech interest to expand and enhance relations above all with the European Union.

The main reason for the present state of affairs, as we see it, is the failure of the political parties that were to have been the fundamental building block of parliamentary democracy. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Social Democrats (ČSSD) in particular quickly transformed into instruments of oligarchy, placing the benefit of post-communist regional cliques ahead of both the laws and the welfare of the state. The personal responsibility and guilt of Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman in this are beyond doubt.

Almost all that is left of democracy, which should give all citizens equal opportunity to develop their material and spiritual wealth, is the formal ritual of elections. Contempt for law and morality resulted in unnecessary losses already during the period of the so-called economic transformation. Equality of opportunity and equality before the law, the prerequisites of a market economy, were cast aside.

Instead of protecting the rights and freedoms of all citizens, the state has become largely the obedient servant of privileged oligarchs, who now control a large part of the judiciary, as well as owning the media—in theory the watchdog of democracy, though in fact the media are failing to fulfill this public service function.

We are unable to change living conditions in communities that are excluded from the majority population, and the presence of racial and nationalist prejudice has a significant impact on the results of our elections. We are disturbed by the fact that more than seventy thousand pensioners in this country are at risk of having their assets seized to pay their bills, and their number is still growing. Our educational system lacks clearly defined priorities and a stable long-term vision. Churches are losing the trust of society. In twenty-five years of freedom we have not managed to come to terms with the crimes of our past or even to admit our mistakes. If politics is supposed to be a space for discussion of all these topics, then truly it has failed.

The arrogant and ignorant policies of our officials, whose alleged right- and left-wing orientations are in fact meaningless, have discredited and damaged the trustworthiness of politics and the system of political parties as such. The system has become so enclosed on itself that voters have started to look to parties with charismatic leaders, who are likely to deepen the crisis of parliamentarism still further.

A quarter-century after the end of communist rule, we as a society stand on feet of clay, unprepared to deal with the crisis, a society without memory or ideals.

This only makes us more convinced that the idea of human rights is still relevant. In our view human rights is not a list of demands for the state to fulfill, but a call to all people to watch out for the rights and freedoms of their neighbors and honor the dignity of every human being. Without the persistent and shared defense of human rights, democracy becomes a dead letter and communal life turns into a struggle of all against all.

Twenty-five years after November ’89, we recall the ideals of Charter 77 mainly for the sake of the generation too young to be tainted by personal experience of the communist regime. They take a critical view of the mistakes and false interpretations of the past twenty-five years, and are seeking their own path. They are the first generation since the National Revival of the nineteenth century who have a chance of not living through a regime change, war, totalitarian ideologies, or nationalist intolerance. They are the first generation of Czechs who can live freely and be responsible for their own decisions. For the first time in modern history, we cannot make the excuse of foreign intervention and claim we could not act on our own.

We know from experience that freedom is not given. It must be won, in a never-ending process. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Václav Havel both, each in his own era, discussed the need for “nonpolitical politics,” that is, the active involvement of citizens in public affairs. Only with the personal engagement of citizens and under the constant scrutiny of civil society can parliamentary democracy have true meaning and elected politicians true responsibility.

A new generation is on its way in. We would like to pass on to them our belief in the indispensability of human rights. Increasingly these will be their rights—let us hope they can defend them fearlessly and advance them more effectively than we have been able to do.

Prague, November 2014

Luboš Dobrovský, Petr Placák, Miloš Rejchrt, Jan Ruml, Marta Smolíková, Petruška Šustrová, Jan Urban

Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker