What Ukraine Can Learn about Lustration from its Neighbors in Central Europe?

Probably not too much, because the Ukrainians are facing a very different situation now than their neighbors (or anyone else) did in 1989. This does not stop them from talking about the Czech Republic, Poland, the Baltics, etc., as a good example that was set. This Monkey Cage post by Maria Popova and me lays out why the current Ukrainian proposals are very different from the lustration laws that exist elsewhere. We also note that there’s not much evidence that lustration contributed a lot to democratization and good governance, and that given how divided Ukraine is at this time, leaders there might want to proceed cautiously with lustration.

Monument Wars Part Infinity

For many Czechs, Russia’s Crimean land-grab is strongly reminiscent of the two pivotal times in their own 20th century history during which Czechoslovakian territorial integrity was trampled upon. Although defacing Soviet era monuments (the ones that have not been removed) is fairly common practice in the Czech Republic, the defacers have been extra active this year. And they’ve gotten something fresh and new to have a go at: apparently an organization of Russian veterans from the Afghan war, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the start of that war, has erected a monument in Prague’s Olšany cemetery honoring ‘Russian Internationalists’ – soldiers that offered ‘brotherly help’ in countries neighboring the Soviet Union. 

As could have been expected, this gesture was not widely appreciated, especially not against the backdrop of the invasion of Crimea. So first someone made the monument into a diorama, with little toy tanks and toy soldiers. Someone also spray painted ‘CZ’ on the monument. 

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(c) Lidové Noviny. See how the little soldiers were painted red?

Only a few days later, a new addition was made to the monument when a person or persons unknown spray painted ‘Jan Palach’ on the monument, adding a cross (link to LN story). 

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(c) Lidové Noviny. Note how the CH in Palach is written on one line – not because they ran out of space but because CH is its own letter in the Czech alfabet (it comes between H and I).

Apparently the officials that authorized this monuments only looked at the ‘technical parameters’ of the monument and not at the text which refers to the soldiers as ‘peacemakers’ (in Russian, the Czech on the sign is more neutral about the soldiers). The second Lidové Noviny article notes that although official Russian sources claim 12 ‘peacemakers’ died during the 1968 invasion at the hands of ‘counterrevolutionaries’, domestic historians dispute this…

When The Second Largest City (pop. 400K) Becomes a Village…

When the second largest city (400K inhabitants) becomes a village...

Maybe this journalist was thinking of Asterix and Obelix, whose small Gaulois village stood alone against the Romans. Likely, though, not too much ‘thinking’ lies at the basis of this article, which describes Brno as ‘a village near Prague’. Brno, of course, is the Czech Republic’s second largest city at 400 thousand inhabitants, and is about as far away from Prague as you can get without leaving the Czech Republic.

IPLAI Symposium

ImageThis Thursday (6 February, 12:30 PM, Thompson House) I’ll be presenting some of my dissertation research at the IPLAI symposium on the public life and the humanities. Along with several other grad and post-grad students, I will be talking briefly about my dissertation research (which deals with the the impact that Transitional Justice policies addressing the legacy of the communist secret service can have on the politicization of the communist past. Do such policies, which provide sanctions for secret service collaborators and declassify the secret service files, work to end debates over the past, or do they generate more contestation and controversy?

It’ll be challenging to address that question and all of the research and writing that I’ve done in only 15 minutes but I am excited to have this opportunity to talk about my work and share it with the people at IPLAI. It’ll also be great to learn about some of the work that others at McGill are doing. If you’re interested, be sure to attend. The full program is online now!

Such an Exciting Day

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Today is the day that Miloš Zeman appoints the new Czech government. It’s taken them 95 days to form a government, which is apparently a Czech record (for me, coming from the Netherlands, a little over three months of govt formation seems pretty run of the mill and I think it might be less than average!). This formation period being record long is at least partly (if not mostly) due to president Zeman running interference, as opposed to the parties finding it hard to reconcile their differences at the negotiating table. Normally, presidents just rubber stamp appointments, but in this case, Zeman announced that he would personally vet every candidate for a spot in the cabinet. He also said that he would delay appointing the cabinet until he recovered from an injury to his leg, because it was not dignified to appoint a government from a wheelchair…

Zeman also objected to the low level of expertise that he identified in some of the candidates, in particular Martin Stropnický, an actor who was ANO’s candidate for Defence minister. But his biggest qualm was with ANO’s leader, entrepreneur and billionaire Andrej Babiš. Babiš is listed by Slovakia’s ‘Institute of National Memory’, which hosts the archives of the communist-era secret service, as a collaborator. He has contested those claims but for the time being, even if some of the files themselves are no longer available (only the listings in the ‘evidentiary register’ remain), he will not be able to obtain a clean bill of past moral health, AKA a lustration certificate. The 1991 lustration law banned people who held a number of positions (including secret service collaborator) under the communist regime from taking up civil service positions in the new democratic regime.

Zeman, who previously opposed the lustration law, started out by saying that he would not appoint Babiš without a certificate; then he changed his tune a little bit, saying that if parliament committed to passing an alternative Civil Service Law, he would appoint Babiš. This Civil Service Law was drafted over a decade ago but has been shelved since; if passed, it would regulate employment in the civil service and provide an alternative to lustration. Many see lustration as outdated and no longer necessary, but political will lacks to get rid of it, because to question lustration is to seem weak on communism, a label that especially the social democrats seek to avoid. Parliament did a first reading of the law, meeting Zeman’s demand, so today, Zeman appointed the new government including Babiš. <brag>I’d like to point out that I’ve interviewed or at least met with four of the seventeen ministers during my field work.</brag>. But that’s not all.


In addition to being appointed Finance minister and deputy prime minister, Andrej Babiš also started his day in court today. The Bratislava court will consider the evidence provided by Slovakia’s Institute of National Memory (Babiš was born in the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia and because his files are the archives there and they were published there, so is the court case, even if he is a Czech citizen now). The big question is whether Babiš knowingly collaborated, ie whether he agreed to collaborate and signed a document to that effect. While his opponents argue that Babiš is listed in the register as well as in some files (code name: Bureš), Babiš counters that the collaboration agreement that agents had to sign and that serves as the litmus test for ‘conscious collaboration’, is not there. Files go missing all the time, of course, but Babiš claims it never existed to begin with. It’ll be exciting to see what the court will rule.

Starting the New Year with Beer

Starting the New Year with Beer

Visiting Chicago, we stopped by a Trader Joe’s store. I checked out the beer aisle. They carry a number of interesting brews – among them, this store-brand ‘Vienna Style Lager’, a beer of Trader Joe’s own concoction. I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘Vienna style’ lager, and I’ve never heard of Austrian beer generally being of note, but perhaps my time spent in Prague has eclipsed otherwise worthy beers. Still, it baffles me that TJ would invoke Vienna to market its beer. What is more baffling yet is that the photo on the packaging is of a Prague landmark – it’s the old city hall on the Old Town Square (Panorama photo on Google Maps – note the disembodied legs!). Surely, the marketing people at Trader Joe’s should be able to find a presentable Viennese building to help sell their lager, no?

What is Robert Fico doing?

Robert Fico is the Slovakian prime minister. His position is strong – he leads a government that relies only on his own party SMER-SD for support in the unicameral Slovakian parliament. He’s only been in office for a year and a half, and yet, he’s now announced his candidacy for the presidency (links in Slovak, English). The elections for Slovak President will be held next year and Fico seems like the main contender as he is popular and well-known and there are no opponents on the left side of the spectrum, so he faces little opposition. The field of candidates is also not made up of very prominent party leaders. The reason that it is not is because the presidency is not very powerful, it is mostly symbolical. This makes it all the more puzzling that Fico would have a go at it, since he currently occupies the most powerful position in the country and would be stepping down to a much less important post at a time when he still has two years to go in the Prime Minister’s seat.

Fico announced his candidacy in a meeting attended by many important figures from Slovakian politics, during a yearly ceremony reporting on the achievements of the government. In his speech, Fico stated his view that the president should not be a counter-weight against the government but should be off the same political color. Pravda is reporting that if Fico becomes president, he will be replaced as prime minister by Robert Kaliňak, the current interior minister. In his speech, Fico also mentioned that he wanted to be a ‘patriotic’ president and listed a number of key events in Slovakian history including the Slovakian uprising (1944), the Prague Spring (1968), and independence (1993) – omitting the year 1989.

For more on the issue see Kevin Deegan-Krause’s comments on his pozorblog.