The AWOL Czech President

This week started off with a commemorative occasion of note, at least if you live in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Monday, 21 August, marked the 49th anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the broad-based Communist reform movement underway there known collectively as the Prague Spring.

OK, the 50th anniversary next year will presumably be a much bigger deal. But for remembering officially the event in those peoples’ political history which, in its long-standing trauma, probably corresponds to the 9/11 attacks in the US, at the least, every year’s 21 August is surely worth some official attention. But not from the Czech Republic’s President, Miloš Zeman, at least not this year: there was nothing from the Presidential Palace, no attendance at any ceremony, no statement.

Naturally, then, the State Radio’s news channel, Radiožurnál, wanted to find out how come. Gaining no access to Zeman himself (perhaps somewhat understandably), they turned to his official spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček.

The interview was brief, three questions, amounting to “Did the President express anything in relation to the 49th anniversary of the Occupation, and does he intend to do so going forward?” What it yielded was no so much obfuscatory as, frankly, outrageous. The President had already expressed himself on that subject, Ovčáček maintained, and that at least 47 years ago when he made it clear he was against the invasion and paid for his opinion by losing his job. And then check this:

In other words, the President bravely expressed himself during that period when it was no cheap thing to do so, [whereas] today the sort of people who opine on this sad anniversary are those who during Normalization [the period following the ’68 invasion] were satisfied with digging in to the gravy-train [CZ: chrochtali u koryta].

Now, Zeman is getting old, perhaps he momentarily forgot that he is, after all, President of the country.

And then: “Isn’t he going to return to the subject at future anniversaries?” “The President puts forth his views on this almost every day, when he speaks of how the Czech Republic must remain a sovereign nation” and bla bla bla . . .

It’s as if Zeman has no further obligation to have anything to do with that Warsaw Pact “brotherly assistance” simply because of how he is alleged to have behaved in the years immediately afterwards. Let’s take a quick look at what that behavior actually was; for this, I go to his page in the Czech Wikipedia. I know, the particular nature of that source is such that you never can discount someone with a political point to prove distorting what you find there, but still, there’s some interesting material.

Perusing the Files

Spokesman Ovčáček in his answers claimed Zeman was fired no less than three times for his opposition to the ’68 Invasion. The Wikipedia page – as I say, FWIW – has no explicit mention of any of these; rather, it says Zeman joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968 (when he was 23) and then was expelled in 1970 for his anti-Invasion views. Was he actually a Communist Party employee during that period? The article does not say, although it hints he was staying on then as some sort of instructor at the Prague Economics University, from where he had just graduated.

After experiencing that, it seems Zeman went on, up through 1989, to occupy a series of jobs all having to do with running economic models. Interestingly, the first such, lasting until 1984, was at Sportpropag, a company normally having to do with athletics and physical fitness for the masses – but, apparently, under the Communist system such a firm could also have its own department devoted to complex economic models. The article also gives a few details (too few) about some sort of cooperation, with the economics analytical sense, for the State Security department in the early 1980s. Then in August 1989, before the Velvet Revolution happened, Zeman dared to have published an article he had been nursing for years which criticized the Communist economic system. He was promptly fired from his position at another company doing economic models – but, of course, three months later the entire world in that part of Europe turned completely upside-down.

So those are the facts as we are able to gather quickly from Wikipedia. Oh, and is something else, courtesy of Google Scholar: There’s actually a book out there called Policy Analysis in the Czech Republic, which briefly mentions Zeman and Sportpropag, and says a couple of interesting things:

Not without reason, this program [the State Economic Research Programme, begun in the 1980s and the umbrella organization for the sort of economic bureaus in which Zeman worked] was said to provide a livelihood to many politically suspected intellectuals.

Indeed, another famous post-Revolution Czech politician, Václav Klaus, also inhabited this economic-research world during the Communist era. And this, in a footnote:

This department [Zeman’s own “Department of Comprehensive Modelling” within Sportpropag] was disbanded in the spring of 1984, for political reasons. It had published an anthology on the methodology of social sciences, which was openly critical of the condition and state of the pro-regime Czechoslovak science [sic].

OK then, it was an earlier bit of published dissent which seems to have led to his job-switch around 1984. In some sense, then, Zeman did refuse – on occasion – to just play along with the authorities and paid for that in some way. Most Czechoslovak citizens, truly, hardly went that far – they just dug in to the gravy-train, so to speak. But a few did do much more.

Again, though, Miloš Zeman is the Czech Presidentand he is running for re-election in the direct election for the post that will occur sometime later this year (or early in 2018).

In view of this (minor) controversy, it is timely that a new trove of personal photos of the chaos in Prague during that 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, taken by a visiting Polish geologist, have just surfaced, and you can see them here.

Let me also remind you that it was a reporter from Czech State Radio (Český rozhlas) who question the President’s spokesman about his strange behavior; there is now very good reason to doubt that the same would ever happen in what are supposed to be the Czech Republic’s brother-states in Central Europe, namely Poland and Hungary.

Finally, let me add another bit picked up from Zeman’s Czech Wikipedia article, from the section titled “State of Health and Diet”: Zeman reportedly drinks daily six bottles of wine and three “drams” of hard alcohol, in addition to being a heavy smoker. He is a diabetic – and he is also now almost 73 years old. But, again, there was no attempt by his spokesman to excuse on the basis of any health problems his absence from last Monday’s commemorative ceremonies.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.