From Communism to Democracy without Democrats

Czech democracy, just like other new European democracies that emerged after the fall of communism in 1989, has undergone an unprecedented institutional modernization in the last 25 years, yet it still shows significant democratic deficits

A majority of Czechs are highly dissatisfied with the state of Czech democracy, do not trust traditional political parties, and complain about rampant corruption.

The general elections in October 2013 saw a spectacular rise of anti-system movements and parties. The ANO movement, preaching anti- politics and running under the slogan “we are not like politicians,” finished second, and a stable government could not be formed without it.

The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are numerous, but several stand out, including a problematic economic transformation in the 1990’s, a weak civil society, the building of political parties from above by small elite groups, and a historical tendency, which philosopher Václav Bělohradský describes as a proclivity among Czechs to form opposition against politics, rather than building a political opposition.

The State as a Czech Trauma

One specific issue is the Czechs’ mistrust of the state. It stems partly from the fact that in the last 400 years, the Czechs enjoyed only roughly 50 years of political independence. After 1620, when the Czech protestant nobles were defeated by the catholic Hapsburgs in the Battle on theWhite Mountain, the Czech lands were ruled for 300 years by the Hapsburgs, mostly from Vienna. Independent Czechoslovakia, created in 1918, survived for only 20 years, followed by six years of Nazi occupation. And from 1948 to 1989 the country was essentially controlled by Moscow as one of its satellites.

This political history created a deep-seated mistrust of the state among ordinary Czechs as an institution controlled by powers outside the Czech borders. Czech political elites were decimated after 1618, and their reconstitution during the Czech national revival movement in the 19th century was slow. In fact, cultural elites were ahead of political ones in expressing Czech national interests. A culture of subverting the state and political elites that are “not ours” profoundly shaped the Czech national mind-set in the 19th century.

Moreover, the state in the Austro-Hungarian Empire—a patriarchal constitutional monarchy with centralized and inefficient bureaucracy—was a rather archaic institution. Its modernization lagged significantly behind developments in Western Europe.

The way this state has been portrayed in the works of Jaroslav Hašek or Franz Kafka was unfortunately not much of an artistic license. It can be argued that most Czechs perceived the state at the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a corrupt institution, controlled by the police and inefficient bureaucracy.

The First Republic lasted for only 20 years, which was not long enough for most Czechs to change their perception of the state as an alien body. Moreover, political elites of this new state showed, perhaps understandably, a lack of political skill in critical moments, contributing to the end of the state in the humiliating Munich dictate trauma.

The traditions of a bureaucratic police state, prone to corruption, were later only strengthened by the era of Communism. While democracy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire left much to be desired, there was, after all, a budding multi-party system and genuine efforts to build “Rechtsstaat.” The communist regime destroyed even these fragile traditions. The state was there to be cheated or beaten, the slogan of the era being “He who does not steal from the state steals from his family.”

The era of democracy building after 1989 was thus from the beginning saddled with the popular notion that the state is corrupt, inefficient, and oppressive. The new political elites, unfortunately, did not understand the need to rehabilitate the state and thus create conditions for people to identify with the new democratic regime as “theirs.”

On the contrary, the state was portrayed by the political elite—mesmerized by the notion of “an invisible hand of the market”—as an essentially hostile institution that is to be as small as possible. One could argue that even a small state could be efficient, but the traditions of the deep public distrust of the state, in combination with neoliberal philosophy (preferring the privatization of some important state functions to simply modernizing the existing ones) conspired to maintain the kind of state that most Czech do not identify with even 24 years after the fall of Communism.

Democracy without Democrats

Democracy-building was impeded not only by the misunderstanding of the state’s role in modern societies, but was also complicated by the gap that lies in the space between the two levels at which to judge the quality of democracy: institutions and culture.

The institutional modernization was to some extent accelerated by assistance and expertise from international organizations, such the European Union. However, developing a democratic culture takes much longer and has to do with the quality of a civil society.

Democratic behavior, rooted in active citizenship, cannot be instituted from above. The creation of a truly democratic environment is tied to people’s ability to internalize democratic values, which, in turn, is closely tied to the growth of a civil society.

Tomáš G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia after 1918, was well aware of this dilemma, when, after the creation of independent Czechoslovakia, he remarked: “Now we have a democracy, what we also need are democrats.”

Unfortunately, most politicians after 1989 did not realize that the institutional modernization needed to apply to the state as much it was directed at creating a political democracy and a market economy. And that democracy is not just mechanisms, procedures and institutions, but also a culture, which, in turn, is dependent on the quality of a civil society.

Unlike Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1938, Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, were surrounded by countries and international organizations eager to assist with democracy-building and usher them into supranational organizations like the European Union and NATO. Both Western Europe and the United States engaged in a massive transfer of know-how.

Judged solely as an exercise in institutional transformation, the results have been spectacular. Arguably, never have so many countries burdened with backward and authoritarian political institutions changed so quickly into essentially modern democratic regimes with market economies and the rule of law.

But the speed of this institutional transformation, culminating in NATO and EU accession, has had drawbacks. It created an even larger gap between the new institutional reality and democracy understood as culture. In other words, the very rapid institutional modernization intensified Masaryk’s old problem of democracies without democrats.

The new Czech democracy, just like other democracies of Eastern and Central Europe, suffer from a highly confrontational and sharply polarized political environment. There is little culture of dialogue and compromise.

Mental stereotypes originating in the communist era are still strong. Some analysts speak of a “Bolshevik mentality” that echoes communist- era attitudes. Political opponents are not to be listened to and worked with; they are to be destroyed.

Liberal Democracy as a Moving Target

The transition to liberal democracy in the region, including the Czech Republic, has taken place amid the accelerating process of globalization, which calls into question the very notion of the nation-state—the foundation upon which liberal democracy first developed. The Czechs are thus struggling not only with internally generated problems but with dilemmas created by supranational integration, and by changes in the very paradigm of liberal democracy—the declining role of traditional political parties, for example, and the growing influence of the media on the democratic systems’ functioning.

As noted above, the most important Czech political parties were created after 1989 by small groups of newly-born elites. Even some of the historical political parties, such the Social Democrats, were reestablished as elite projects, basically.

In combination with a high level of mistrust among citizens in partisanship after more than 40 years of one-party rule, the creation of parties as elite projects has caused parties to be small and weak. There are no mass parties, to speak off. In fact, the Communist Party, which inherited a large membership base, remains the largest party in Czech politics.

The fact that such small and weak parties presided over an extensive privatization process caused the parties themselves to be “privatized.” In other words, while leading parties played a crucial role in creating new entrepreneurs and powerful economic groups that dominated the newly privatized economy, they—due to their internal weaknesses— were becoming not only intertwined with these new economic actors but dependent on them.

Today, political parties in the Czech Republic often act more as business entities that trade with political influence than defenders of public interests. The high levels of corruption have to do with the fact that political parties are often controlled by behind-the-scenes economic interests.

When the privatization process, which was a source of major corruption, ended, many of the newly created business interests used their close contacts with political parties to manipulate state tenders. According to conservative estimates, some 100 billion Czech crowns, out of some 600 billion the state spend annually on public tenders, disappear in kind of this systemic corruption.

The influence of big money on political parties, has, of course, been a problem in all democratic societies, but mass parties with long traditions that still exist in the West have been able to resist the dictate of big money better than weak, “privatized” parties in the Czech Republic.

Czech democracy has further been deformed by the fact that the creation of a market economy has heavily depended on foreign capital, mainly foreign direct investment by large multinational companies. In comparison with established Western democracies, domestic capital played a relatively small role in the new market economy.

If we take into account that market entities, such as small and mid-size businesses, played a crucial role in the creation of civil societies in traditional democracies, the relative absence of this segment of the market economy in post- communist countries has been an obstacle in building vibrant civil ones.

The public space that Jürgen Habermas saw as one of the pillars of modern democracies has not developed to the extent known from established ones, and may, in fact, never fully develop. Economic policies dominated the process of democracy-building, with the unfortunate result of diminishing the importance of anything “public.” As a result, wherever public space began appearing it came quickly under the pressure of markets and was often colonized by private interests.

The Unclear Future

If we take into account the positive influence of external factors, such as membership in the EU and NATO, it seems natural to argue that the Czech Republic has a better chance than Czechoslovakia before WWII of succeeding in maintaining and developing a democratic regime. Given this seemingly benign international context, it seems easy to agree with Masaryk that the country could be safe as a democratic regime in 50 years if it lived in peace.

However, global developments make such arguments somewhat tentative. Liberal democracy’s roots in the Czech Republic began in the context of revolutionary global changes fueled predominantly by globalization, which itself was largely fueled by revolutionary changes in communication technologies and science. In other words, the democratic paradigm may be changing globally.

Though the nation-state gave birth to the concept of liberal democracy, the idea itself has come under increasing pressure in this globalised world. Liberal democracy’s viability at the supra-national integration level remains unclear.

What impact this development will have on liberal democracy is not yet certain. What is clear, however, is that the pressure that globalization puts on the very concept of the nation state combines with the traditional Czech distrust of the state to create an explosive mix. In other words, the Czech state is not only under pressure of globalization but also under pressure from a number of traditional prejudices against the state.

In this context, it is perhaps no surprise that the Czech state is, 24 years after the fall of communism, not only inefficient, but in some ways a failed project. The Czech Republic was, at the end of 2013, the only member of the EU that did not pass a civil service law.

The state was seen by most people not only as incompetent and corrupt, but also prone—once again—to spectacular police actions, resulting in little or no success in fighting real corruption. Although several parties successfully ran in the October 2013 elections with promises of modernizing the state, it is questionable whether the Czech political elite, now threatened with a wave of anti-politics, can achieve that in an environment infused with systemic corruption and a lack of trust in anything that has to do with the state among the public.

Combined with the traditionally strong antielitist sentiments in Czech society, which, in turn, are come from plebeian traditions and provincialism of a country that did not have its own political elites for centuries, these are potentially dangerous trends. The jury is still out on whether the Czech post-communist era will be replaced in the end by a fully functioning democracy and a state that people trust and identify with.

Jiří Pehe

is a Czech political analyst and writer, and since 1999, he has been the Director of New York University’s academic center in Prague. He was the director of the Political Cabinet in the office of Czech President Václav Havel and continued serving as Havel’s external political advisor until the end of Havel’s term in 2003. Pehe has written numerous essays and papers and has also published several books, including three novels.

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