Odd as it may seem, the Czechs are about to dip into their recent history and once again weigh the communist legacy. It has been almost 23 years since the fall of the former regime, and you might think that by now some things would, inevitably, have been resolved. Not so. Right now – in the middle of the euro crisis, with recession at our door, amid the rising popularity of anti-government movements like Occupy Prague – we face the question of how to treat the Communist Party. As if it weren’t spring 2012 but the early days of 1990.
To most of the Czech public, that topic may not seem so topical yet. The Czechs will vote for a president early next year, and among the front-runners is Jiri Dienstbier of the Social Democrats. He kicked up a media storm when he said it’s high time for Czech politicians and the public to acknowledge that the Communist Party is a normal party and that its political isolation should cease.
First, the easier part of this story. Dienstbier is trying to reach out to voters frustrated with the current right-wing government, and those who are beyond the electorate of his own Social Democrats. In other words, Communists – or, more precisely, very left-leaning Czechs. Not surprising, and indeed quite logical from his point of view.
So why did his words cause such a fuss? That’s the more complicated part.
In contrast to their former peers in most of the post-Soviet world, the Czech Communists remain unreformed. They never changed the party name, unlike their counterparts in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere. They never renounced their bloody history. They never changed their ideology – for example, they are calling for re-nationalization of private property. They continue to praise former leaders who, if alive, might very well be hauled before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. To put it simply, they are hard-core Stalinists.
But they have sat in parliament since the beginning of the democratic era. Their party is duly registered; they have had deputy speakers of parliament and can claim 12 percent to 18 percent of the votes in every election. On the surface they function as a normal political body.
The Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that the communist ideology is in breach of universal human rights and the constitutional principles of the Czech Republic, but the party still exists. That contradiction is a Czech specialty that fascinates young jurists, and there have been a few unsuccessful attempts by senators or civil society bodies to ban the party.
Faced with this dilemma, every political party that has sat in parliament since 1990 has refused to cooperate with the Communists. Even the Social Democrats, their most natural allies, have binding language in their manifesto forbidding a straightforward coalition with the Communists.
And here we are, in May 2012 with Dienstbier saying the current ostracism of the Communists is yesterday’s worry, a dead end. He says the party is either a democratic one sitting in a democratic parliament, and therefore should be treated as a potential partner, or it is undemocratic and therefore should be banned.
He has a point. Either you’re OK – in which case, why isolate you? – or you’re not OK and somebody – the government, the parliament, the former freedom fighters – should do something about it. His case is the more pertinent since his father, the late dissident and Charter 77 signatory Jiri Dienstbier, spent time in prison thanks to the Communists. The son can’t easily be dismissed as an opportunist.
Some will argue that there’s more to this debate than a legal question – that there’s a moral dimension that should prevail, even if the law allows for the Stalinists to exist. True. But that’s not the point here.
The point is that Dienstbier’s campaign kick-off is dragging Czechs back into a debate our fathers should have settled in the early 1990s. And the timing makes our fathers’ failure to deal with the issue back then all the more unfortunate.
The question of rehabilitating the Communists would be complicated at any time for the current Czech elite – essentially still the first post-communist generation of politicians. Arising in the midst of the European drama makes it trickier still (to say nothing of diverting attention from those rather more pressing problems).
In addition, the very reasons for taking the Communists on board now might well be the wrong ones. People frustrated with the government’s austerity measures might see the Communists as the last safe haven – and might be more prone to forget what the party did to the country’s economy and society when it was in charge.
Finally, a presidential campaign – the country’s first by direct public vote – isn’t the best forum for settling this issue. It’s not up to the president whether the Communists should be invited to share power; it’s up to the parties that win parliamentary elections.
A well-known proverb says never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. A famous Czech response says, what you can do tomorrow, put off until the day after, and you get two days off.
This story shows that two days off don’t make the task any easier. On the contrary – at least when it comes to one unresolved chapter of recent history.