25 Years…

It’s been a while since I posted – I’ve been super busy teaching, for the first time, my own course. For four intense weeks, I was the instructor in POLI 331, the Politics of East Central Europe. That’s the official title under which McGill has the course on record – I think they should change it to ‘East AND Central Europe’. As it is, the course always appears to me to suggest that it deals with the Eastern part of Central Europe. That would have been fun, but it’s not what we did. We cast our net a little more broadly, and had fun doing that too. For anyone interested in what the course looked like and how I put it together, check out the syllabus here. Of course, although I did write that syllabus, it was not the first time the course was offered and I was happily able to rely on previous iterations.

Teaching my own course for the first time was a blast, I had a lot of fun thanks to a great group of students. It was a lot of work and I’m glad I’ve been able to change gears a little bit, but I definitely hope I’ll be able to do it again.

These days are great for studying post-communist politics, and because it’s a quarter century since the annus mirabilis of 1989, lots of people are taking the opportunity to commemorate key events from that year. It seems like every other week there’s a new 25 year anniversary of something super important. If you read Czech, you can check out facebook page ‘znovu 89‘ (89 again), which posts day-by-day media coverage from 1989. It’s political news and things that foreshadow later events in 1989, but also things like Steffi Graf beating Martina Navrátilová (who was already a US citizen at that point) in the Wimbledon final.

As another example of the quarter century rush, earlier in June, it was 25 years ago that both Tienanmen square and the first more-or-less-free elections in Poland took place. Timothy Garton Ash wrote a short article about it, which you can find here (register for free). It’s a nice juxtaposition, but I disagree with TGA’s conclusion: ‘I pray that China will find its own peaceful way forward, building on its great achievements and repairing the equally obvious failings. But one thing I know: we will only be able to say with confidence that China has developed a stable system, along a quite different trajectory from post-communist Europe, when it can publicly face up to its difficult past’. There is no evidence that ‘publicly facing up to [a] difficult past’ is necessary for stability. Indeed, I think this is an example of a moralistic fallacy – just because you don’t like the Chinese past does not mean anyone needs to face up to it.

In my dissertation I argue that memory politics in East and Central Europe is driven by policy entrepreneurs, personally motivated individuals who feel they have a stake in the official Transitional Justice policies that are in place and the interpretation of the communist past that those policies reflect. This explanation contrasts with an understanding of transitional justice policies in post-communist Europe as driven by strategic party interests. On this view, transitional justice policies (such as lustration or declassification of secret service files) are designed purposefully by incumbent parties to produce certain legal effects (for instance getting rid of communist elites or providing transparency about the former regime, but potentially also undermining the electoral success of rival parties. The alternative explanation that I propose underlines that the policies in question don’t actually seem to produce any of these effects and that the actors most directly involved in promoting this legislation are frequently not government or party actors, but individual policy entrepreneurs backed by a broader societal network. What is at stake for them is not necessarily drafting legislation that will produce certain legal effects (creating rights and privileges or outlawing certain actions) but rather the interpretation of the communist past that is implicit in the legislation. They are using legislation as symbols of their anti-communism – a move that in turn rattles the cages of others who don’t see the communist past in the same way. Politics of TJ, or so I argue, is shaped by the dynamic interaction between the anti-communists and their anti-anti-communist opponents (who were themselves frequently part of the dissident movement).

Lubomir Zaoralek

Lubomir Zaoralek – (c) Lidove Noviny

A great example of the political agency of one of these policy entrepreneurs happened last week. It all started when Foreign Minister Záoralek (social-democrats, ČSSD), on a visit to China, offered his support for the territorial integrity of China – including Tibet. Záoralek’s statements probably weren’t really noticed by anyone in China, but they certainly were back home in the Czech Republic. One politician in particular – former deputy prime minister Martin Bursík – took the events personally and protested in a striking way. Rather than simply express his grievance in the press, he financed a large banner (about 10 m2) which he displayed outside of his apartment, which happens to be on the same street that the lower house of Czech Parliament is on. The banner says ‘Mister prime minister, you are mistaken, the Czechs do support Tibet’. The URL (http://podporujemetibet.cz/) leads to a petition asking the government ‘not to change the policy with regard to Tibet’.


Bursik and his wife Katerina Jacques in front of the banner (Prague Castle in the background). Jacques wrote a column in Hospodarske Noviny drawing a link between Tibet and Ukraine (c) idnes.cz

This remarkable display of dissent over this topic illustrates how deeply some politicians care about the communist legacy on a personal level. It is not clear that Bursík is right in his assertion that Czechs really do support Tibet, or that they feel strongly about the issue, but they probably don’t. Similarly, although Bursík’s petition calls on the government ‘not to change its policy’, it probably never was official Czech policy to support outright Tibetan independence. It is clear, however, that Bursík personally cares deeply, enough at any rate to personally put up a large banner and make his case for the Tibetans. It is also clear that, even if no actual breach with formal Czech foreign policy occurred, Bursík is far from alone in denouncing what he sees as communist China and its occupation of Tibet. Indeed (and the petition cites this event), former president Václav Havel met with the Dalai Lama just before he (Havel, not the Dalai Lama) died.


Dalai Lama, Havel

While Bursík’s line of reasoning may not technically inform Czech foreign policy, it has become a bit of a trope in the Czech political discourse – about this topic, and others. But while anti-communism permeates the way some people talk about politics, including issues like foreign policy with regard to China, it does not necessarily produce markedly different results. It does not really affect public opinion, or voting: The majority of Czechs probably doesn’t care about Tibet and likely doesn’t mind what happened. It also does not affect government policy: What Záoralek (a Social Democrat) did would probably have occurred as well if a right-wing foreign minister had visited China. And it also probably also would not have affected how parties interact and strategize, although we can’t really tell from this example because Bursík’s new party (Liberal Ecological Party, or LES in Czech – LES means forest) is a very small breakaway faction from the Green Party, and neither of these parties are currently represented in parliament. So if this is not an attempt to placate voters, to change policy, or to push a broader party agenda, what is going on here? My take on it is that Bursík putting up his banner was motivated primarily by a desire to express his personal interpretation of the Czech communist past, as channeled through his views on Tibet, even if nothing else would come of it. And it is the argument of my dissertation that a lot of the transitional justice policies that exist in East and Central Europe were shaped by the same mold.

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. 


(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). 


(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


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.