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’.

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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.

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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.

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