Czech: Not As Bad As U Think!

Let me reveal a dark secret here which I haven’t written about before (well, OK, just once) and may come as a surprise to many of you: The Czech Republic – yes, the land of Václav Havel and “living in Truth” – is, sadly, a corrupt sort of place. We were only recently reminded of that fact by the latest government scandal (the best English-language summary comes undoubtedly from the Economist’s “Eastern approaches” blog). The Environment Minister, one Pavel Drobil, was caught on tape not only manipulating expenditures from the state environmental fund to feather his own financial nest, but also covering the misdeeds up – to include offering the whistle-blower a promotion in exchange for destroying the recording. Drobil did have to resign (though the whistle-blower also lost his government job, but of course), and for a while the very existence of the current Czech coalition government (only 6 months old) hung in the balance, because the opposition tabled a motion of no-confidence in the parliament and, after all, two of the coalition parties (VV and TOP 09) were new on the political scene, propelled to prominence by citizen disgust over the country’s seeming political status quo – most especially, the corruption.

In the end though, President Klaus intervened, there were a lot of meetings, everyone forgot about how anti-corruption they were supposed to be, and the current government managed to sail on. With that settled, what do we now see – and in the pages of the country’s leading business newspaper, no less! – but today’s piece by one Petr Honzejk entitled The Czech Republic is better than it seems. Masaryk’s “do not fear and do not steal” is coming back in style.

Make no mistake: the title is the basic message, but I’m glad to give you the lede as well:

There’s no use in fooling oneself. It’s enough when we can use a little realism. We live in a better country than we ourselves think.

Talk about looking on the bright side! With this latest Environment Ministry affair everyone is wailing “Nothing has changed!” Honzejk writes – but they’re wrong! Hey, at least there was a whistle-blower in the first place, who resisted all the lucrative pressure exerted to shut him up! And look, the minister resigned the same day the charges came to light – that has never happened before! He goes on:

This isn’t some exercise in naïveté. Nor the obligatory pre-Christmas optimism. Only a mention that, so long as we choose anything other than a self-tormenting point-of-view, we will see a better country in all directions than a year ago.

Like: Hey, we got a new government this year and escaped that “Paroubek goulash populism” we were all stuck in coming into 2010! (Jiří Paroubek actually was Prime Minister from 2005-06, but I guess he has continued to have a lot of behind-the-scenes influence.) And it’s a new government committed to enacting reforms! he adds. Stipulated – but surely his position as a writer for Hospodářské noviny enables Honzejk to be aware of the shameful compromise that has kept this government propped up, as well?

It’s almost comical, the happy-talk rabbits he tries to pull out of his hat here while trying to retain an even-handed, judicious tone. “[The Czech political scene] is no utopia,” he concedes, “as the Motolska Hospital affair showed us this year.” (Wait, I never even heard about that one! But I probably don’t want to know!) But look, research shows that the amount of illegal software installed on Czech computers has declined! Hooray!

No, the Czech Republic can no longer be regarded as belonging to the “Wild East,” he asserts. After all, the EU has decided to put the office of its Galileo GPS program in Prague. And the British news paper The Telegraph recently named Prague “the best vacation destination in the world,” while no less than the New York Times back in April had a laudatory (if rather short) travel article about the country’s #3 city, Ostrava (over on the eastern border).

OK, Prague is very nice to visit, but about Ostrava I don’t know for sure, having never visited there. However, my suspicion is aroused by phrases in that NYT piece like “Ostrava’s most famous symbol was a 1,033-foot-high slag heap” and “grimy reputation” and “derelict sites.” I suspect the travel writer is trying rather too hard here to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – as is, for that matter, Petr Honzejk in his “don’t worry, be happy!” article. That his argument can be put forth in a leading business newspaper must certainly be the very definition of “protest[ing] rather too much“; we should rather all keep in mind the Economist’s rather more gloomy conclusion: for the Czech Republic “[t]he gloss is off.”

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