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.

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.

The Mythical Expert

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Monkey Cage that identified a trend towards a more powerful presidency in the Czech Republic. This week, some of President Zeman’s newest actions offer further evidence that such a trend exists. In a radio interview, he announced that he was going to get involved in the process of selecting new cabinet ministers and would only appoint ministers with sufficient expertise (article in Lidové Noviny). Observers have noted that this intention goes against both constitutional precedent and against Zeman’s own stance on the matter when he was Prime Minister in charge of a cabinet (1998-2002), and rejected then-president Václav Havel’s involvement.

Zeman’s argument about expertise is a common trope in Czech politics, where any assertion by anyone can always be undermined by arguing that whoever made that assertion was not in fact an ‘odborník’. For instance, if someone says something about 20th century history, but he or she is not an historian, you don’t have to listen. Or if they are historians but they’ve specialized in a different period, you can also safely ignore them. Or if they only have a few publications, and only in second-rate journals anyway, they are definitely not worth your time. This sounds like gossip hour at an academic conference, but it’s regular fare in newspapers and on TV.

This, of course, begs the question whether whoever suspects a lack of expertise is himself (or herself) in a position to evaluate the level of expertise and knowledge that others bring to the table. This question is rarely raised, though, which makes questioning ‘odbornost’ a wonderful strategy for undermining other people’s credibility without actually addressing the substance of their claims and arguments. At the same time, while suggesting that non-experts can’t have valuable insights, it elevates the expert and his or her claims to infallibility and neutrality. The expert is never wrong, and you know this not by looking at what the expert says but by knowing that the expert is an expert. Also, the expert, being an expert, speaks out of expertise and is not politically or otherwise motivated to make certain assertions. So even when an expert’s claim looks suspiciously like a value judgment (“that guy is an asshole”) it can’t be, because they’re experts!

This mythical expert is not an exclusively Czech character, of course, but in my field research I’ve come across him a whole lot and he is a fascinating creature. Of course, I’m skeptical, but then again, I’m no expert, so what do I know.

More on Babiš

For who had not seen it yet – a short piece I wrote on the role of Pres. Zeman in the coalition negotiations that are going on in the Czech Republic has gone up on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. It’s pretty neat to be able to talk to such a large audience about Czech politics and they’ve even come up with a very punny title for my piece – Is Zeman ze man?

So here’s a little update on the whole Babiš/StB story. The whole affair has prompted the communists to issue a renewed plea for banning the lustration law as a whole (iHNed), but the Christian Democrats (who now play a pivotal role in the coalition talks) insist that it stay in place. Social Democrats would not mind seeing it go, they were never fans (and this includes Zeman who is now using this law to his own advantage) but in the context of the coalition talks they will have to tread cautiously.

In the mean time, no one is pointing out that cabinet ministers are not actually subject to the lustration law (they are not listed in article 1 of the lustration law which lists all the positions for which a lustration certificate is required). The article reads:

(1) Tento zákon stanoví některé další předpoklady pro výkon funkcí obsazovaných volbou, jmenováním nebo ustanovováním

a) v orgánech státní správy České a Slovenské Federativní Republiky, České republiky a Slovenské republiky,

b) v Československé armádě,

c) ve Federální bezpečnostní informační službě, Federálním policejním sboru, Sboru hradní policie,

d) v Kanceláři prezidenta České a Slovenské Federativní Republiky, Kanceláři Federálního shromáždění, Kanceláři České národní rady, kanceláři Slovenské národní rady, Úřadu vlády České a Slovenské Federativní Republiky, Úřadu vlády České republiky, Úřady vlády Slovenské republiky, Kanceláři Ústavního soudu České a Slovenské Federativní Republiky, Kanceláři Ústavního soudu České republiky, Kanceláři Ústavního soudu Slovenské republiky, Kanceláři Nejvyššího soudu České a Slovenské Federativní Republiky, Kanceláři Nejvyššího soudu České republiky, Kanceláři Nejvyššího soudu Slovenské republiky, v prezídiu Československé akademie věd a v předsednictvu Slovenské akademie věd a u Nejvyššího správního soudu,

e) v Československém rozhlase, Českém rozhlase, Slovenském rozhlase, Československé televizi, České televizi, Slovenské televizi, Československé tiskové kanceláři, Československé tiskové kanceláři České republik a Československé tiskové kanceláři Slovenské republiky,

f) ve státních podnicích, státních organizacích, akciových společnostech, kde většinovým akcionářem je stát, v podnicích zahraničního obchodu, ve státní organizaci Československé státní dráhy, státních fondech, ve státních peněžních ústavech a Státní bance československé,

g) v úřadech územních samosprávných celků, pokud se dále nestanoví jinak.

Subsection 1d does list ‘the office of the government’ (Úřad vlády) but that is not the cabinet, it is the Prime Minister’s staff. And while this law is from 1991 (you can tell from all the references to Czechoslovakia) this language has not changed in later versions – the renewals in 1995 and 2000 just said ‘this law from 1991 is still in effect’. So this one remains a mystery for the moment.