When Communism collapsed in East-Central Europe, it should have been a golden opportunity for the Greens. Newly enfranchised voters were looking for something new. They were skeptical of old-style parties. For decades they’d been breathing polluted air, drinking polluted water, and suffering other consequences of unrestrained growth. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, “post-industrial” politics were becoming increasingly popular. The German Greens, founded in 1980, were the most well known and politically successful, but Green Parties had gained seats in more than a dozen parliaments in Europe by the late 1980s.
When I talked with Jaroslav Hofer in May 1990, he was very optimistic about the prospects for the Greens in Czechoslovakia. One of the three people responsible for the Green platform, he boasted that a million people had asked for membership in the party. This was quite remarkable for a party that had been in existence for only about half a year. Public opinion polls were predicting that the Greens would draw somewhere around 11 to 12 percent in the parliamentary elections.
But in June 1990, the Greens came in 10th place with only a little more than 3 percent of the vote, not enough to qualify for parliamentary representation.
The Greens soldiered on, but Hofer eventually broke from the party. “It changed its leaders every fortnight,” he told me in an interview at a wine bar in Prague in February. “Some people just deserted the Greens for this party or that party. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have a big office, just a small office in the center of the city. It was not serious work. The Green party lasted for 23 or 24 years. And it became part of the ruling coalition. But as a result of becoming part of the ruling coalition, it fell into ultimate disgrace, and its candidates eventually could win only 1 or 2 percent of the vote.”
Green Party organizing was only one facet of Hofer’s life. He’d been a successful journalist who wrote the first major article about HIV/AIDS in Czechoslovakia. He was also a Sinologist who had covered China as a Czech journalist in the 1980s. Today, he is largely retired. And he has turned pessimistic.
“In 1990, we were full of hope,” he remembered. “Now I am 65 and there is no hope any more. Partly that’s also a question of age and health conditions. But the problem is that society – here and even in the States — has changed a lot in the last quarter century. Globalization, the loss of our industry. Yes, there were opportunities. You can try to start any kind of business you want. But probably someone richer and stronger has gotten there before you.”
He talked about how bleak Czech society has become, particularly for pensioners and the poor. It has also become a more dangerous place. So, Hofer is planning to buy a gun. “My son has done it. Three of my five best friends have done it. And I will do it too,” he told me.
“It’s very difficult to pass the exams that allow you to carry guns,” he explained. “But many hundreds of people pass them every month. I think I will do it too. Because I will live soon in a house on the outskirts that was already robbed 3 times in 5 years. I wasn’t living there at the time. We had tenants there. But I will have to have a gun.”
We talked about the rise and fall of the Greens, current energy politics in the Czech Republic, and the persistence of support for the Czech Communist Party.
When we met 23 years ago, you were involved in the Czech Greens.
At that time, the Greens seemed to me to be a very necessary movement for the country. The Green movement was formed already before the November 17 events. It spoke about problems that were very painful. The problem was, however, that the Green movement reminded me of the two sides of a fleece. At one moment it was very strong, and the next moment it was not there. At that time, we thought it necessary to stress not just democracy. It was also clear to us that there is no nationalist path for the Czech Republic. We wanted to be absolutely open and international. We didn’t see any borders between us and German Greens or Russian Greens. You’re a specialist, are there any North Korean Greens?
No. No Greens in North Korea.
I didn’t think so! But we wanted it to be an internationalist movement. We didn’t think too much about being in government. We were not ready to be in government. Basically, we wanted to be a strong NGO not associated with any political movement.
After a short time, I had to break all my ties to the Greens because the movement was, as I said, the back of the fleece. It changed its leaders every fortnight. Some people just deserted the Greens for this party or that party. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have a big office, just a small office in the center of the city. It was not serious work. The Green party lasted for 23 or 24 years. And it became part of the ruling coalition. But as a result of becoming part of the ruling coalition, it fell into ultimate disgrace, and its candidates eventually could win only 1 or 2 percent of the vote. The Greens allied with the Civic Democrats, the party of Vaclav Klaus, and the Civic Democrats were quite corrupt.
Moreover, the Greens pushed for something we call “tunneling.” That’s basically stealing money from the government by supporting investments in solar energy. Now we as a state, as citizens, as consumers will have to pay 1 billion crowns because of the government that the Greens were part of. By the way, 1 billion is almost all the Czech debt to the federal exchequer.
I’m not sorry that I tried. It was nice to try something in politics. But we did it very amateurishly, without money and without being clear about what we really wanted. We failed to find a specific place in the political game.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Berlin. I just took the train. I wanted to be there.
You decided to go to Berlin when you first heard that the Wall was falling or before?
Basically the day before I just got my equipment and I went as a journalist.
Who were you working for at that time?
Were you at Checkpoint Charlie with your microphone?
I was trying to think about it positively, but I couldn’t be sure what would happen. I’m too much of a journalist. I have been in many demonstrations, but always on the verge, neither in nor out but just on the edge watching. I knew that I would change nothing. I went back to Prague. I still couldn’t write that much about it. But I could talk to people about it.
I thought, “It will take another 6 months for us to do it in Czechoslovakia.” I was afraid that the system was still too strong and that it could resist for a little longer. I didn’t expect such a rapid departure from power by the Communists. We didn’t realize at that time what the Russians wanted. We didn’t know how they would react. We could see Gorbachev’s position toward Honecker in East Germany, but we didn’t know if Gorbachev would like to see Zdenek Mlynar in the Czechoslovak government or perhaps even Vaclav Havel. We expected the renewal of Dubcek’s reformist communists. But I didn’t think the Czech dissident movement was strong enough to be able to come to power so easily and so quickly.
I remember sitting with my friends on November 17 and talking about when the government would fall. We expected it would happen anywhere from a few months to one year. We just didn’t know too much about Russian and American relations at that time. We were not sure what the Russians would allow us to do. And it turned out that they allowed us to do quite a lot.
Did you also work as a journalist covering the events of November 17?
Not too much. Frankly, I was always a foreign correspondent. I wrote a story about the fall of the Communist Party after the Party congress. But I was not in a position to write about what was happening here. It was a mess for four or five days. There were some people who wanted the army to become involved. There were other people who formed the Civic Forum.
You’re also a Sinologist. How did you become interested in China?
My father went to China in 1958 and told me, “Okay, boy, learn Chinese! You will need it one day.” I was 12 or 13 at the time. I went to language school and learned some Chinese there. Then I went to Charles University for Sinology studies, which was quite difficult to get into. Because I could speak English, French and German, Chinese and Russian, I had no problem finding a job. I went to the Czech news agency, CTK. They didn’t have anyone who could speak Chinese. So they sent me to China at the time when Deng Xiaoping came to power. I stayed there for seven years.
Seven years! What years were those?
From 1979 to 1985. It was quite a busy time. It was nice to be at a press conference with Madame Thatcher announcing that she was giving Hong Kong away. I had a chance to be at the first minutes of meeting between Ronald Reagan and Deng Xiaoping. It was a good time. China and Asia became a part of my life. I even taught Chinese history at Charles University for five years. But I must say that I am much more a journalist than an old China hand.
When you arrived in China in 1979 what was your impression?
Terribly drab. At that time, we as foreign journalists were only allowed to go around half of Beijing. We had to be careful not to overstep our bounds. The people were nice to us. We would go out sometimes in the evening to a low-class restaurant for dumplings. It was nice that people wanted to sit with us to talk. But after a few minutes, they’d go away and we’d be alone in the restaurant.
Because they were scared?
Not at the beginning. But they learned to be scared in 3 or 4 minutes.
How did you compare it to the political social situation in Czechoslovakia?
At that time we saw that reforms were absolutely needed. The question was how deep the reforms should be. In China, they started these reforms comparatively cleverly. I still consider Deng Xiaoping one of the best leaders of the last century. But China is a different country than the Czech Republic. If you sit in a canoe, it’s just enough to dip the paddle into the water on one side and the canoe will turn. But if you are sitting on a big transoceanic liner and you put your paddle into the water on one side, it won’t move at all. That’s China.
Deng was able to maneuver China without the strife that came to Russia after Gorbachev and Yeltsin made their mistakes. The Chinese were able, in my opinion, to get rid of 80 percent of Communism. They’ve done it step by step, cleverly. If it continues this way, China may become a comparatively democratic country in 30-40 years. On the other hand, there’s a volcano under China, a super volcano! You never know what it will do one day.
Were you sorry to leave after seven years?
I was happy to leave. It was not an easy job. As a journalist, I was afraid, mainly of my colleagues and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Everything I wrote could get me into big trouble. I was very cautious. It was a kind of game to write for Czechoslovak radio because the people up there did read it. I was walking on a tightrope. I didn’t feel comfortable there. Moreover, my wife was a doctor and she didn’t have an opportunity to work there. I said to myself, “Okay, we shall stay in our country for 10-20 years and then we will come back to China when I am 65.” But I couldn’t. My heart is not strong enough.
Have you visited since?
I visited with some delegations. For example with President Klaus or Prime Minister Zeman.
You were able to see how much has changed.
I saw quite a lot. I have an idea how it looks, but it’s a rough idea.
When you came back, you continued to work for…?
I came back and worked for CTK, the Czech news agency. I had one of the best jobs of my life. I was a deputy editor of the CTK magazine called Casopis 100 + 1. It was an extremely popular fortnightly magazine in which we translated, and changed a little, articles from the world press. We were selling more than 100,000 copies every two weeks. You almost couldn’t buy us. It flew out of the newsstands in a few minutes. People are still collecting it! It was an excellent publication.
I was one of the first people in the Czech Republic to write a really big article on HIV. HIV was a very complicated case for the government. It was not recommended that we write about it. But I wrote six A4 pages of the magazine. That really opened the discussion, and everyone could write about it because we broke the story. I also enjoyed translating Russian articles because they were about perestroika and the opening of that society. We were just on the verge of being fired. It was always like walking the tightrope. We were not stupid. There was always someone who said, “It’s not so terrible to write about it.”
When you wrote the article about HIV, there were cases already in Czechoslovakia?
No one knew. This was in 1985. It was just one or two years after it started. Nobody really knew what it meant. We used information from two American magazines, including Newsweek, which wrote some fantastic stories. We basically stole the ideas. We couldn’t even say that we translated it.
I cannot say that I was a dissident. I can’t say that I was a Communist. I was something between. I was just a normal thinking man who believed in his country, who believed that life should be better than it was. I was part of what I would call the gray mass. At that time, there were about 50,000 hardcore Communists. Many intellectuals were for reform communism, which we did not consider an absolutely stupid idea at the time. And there were still people who worked for the government, who were even Party members, but who hated the Communists. Half the population, or 60 percent, was just interested in making some money, buying a house, and doing normal things.
I understand that there have been polls that suggest that people are unhappy with the situation today in comparison to the situation before 1989. Your explanation might help to explain this poll.
First of all, this is a result of lawlessness. Every society needs strict rules, good police, good judiciary, and reliable judges. And it needs parties that are trustworthy or at least respected. Havel came in with an idea of moral government. He was not interested in law and economics. That’s where it started. We could have been in a better situation today if, on the first of January 1991, we simply adopted Austrian laws and the state structure that the Austrians or Germans have — because they are the closest to us in terms of their systems. We were all part of the same Austro-Hungarian monarchy, so it didn’t really require that much reform to make their laws fit.
The problem started with the lack of seriousness of many of our politicians. Instead of building a moral society, we started living in a catch-as-catch-can society: catching money if you can, and if you are rich you can do anything. That was our biggest mistake: the lawlessness in which people never know what will happen to them. We have cases here where you lose your ID card. Somebody uses it after a month when he goes on a tram and he doesn’t pay for the ticket, just shows this old ID card. After three or four years, you get a letter that says that you have to pay your entire monthly wages for lawyers and court fees just to pay off this 10 crown tram ticket! And there’s practically no defense against these small stupidities.
During Communist time, you didn’t have to work that much. You just had to live and not worry about being fired two years before retirement. Now you can’t be sure. What has also changed drastically is the situation of Czech Roma. Under Communism, they had to go to the army and serve two years. They learned, if nothing else, how to live with White people. Now they don’t have that chance. Many have been liquidated by drugs. They don’t have the chance to find a job. It’s difficult for them to learn Czech language. They can’t pass the exams because their language is different. It’s difficult for the children to pass exams that are hard even for the majority. Many Roma have taught themselves to steal and live a criminal life. In a way it’s not so bad for them to live in a prison. They at least have something to eat there and have a more comfortable life than outside.
I was quite surprised to find that so many people now want to have their own guns.
Here in the Czech Republic?
Is there a liberal gun law here?
It’s very difficult to pass the exams that allow you to carry guns. But many hundreds of people pass them every month. I think I will do it too. Because I will live soon in a house on the outskirts that was already robbed 3 times in 5 years. I wasn’t living there at the time. We had tenants there. But I will have to have a gun.
If you apply for a gun, can you carry it or do you have to keep in your house?
I can carry it. If the doctor allows me and the psychiatrist allows me, if I can prove that I can handle the gun, can shoot the gun, and know all the laws connected to the gun. But my wife and I will probably do it — at the age of 65!
Are any of your friends doing this?
My son has done it. Three of my five best friends have done it. And I will do it too.
Is there a lot of violence in Czech society at the moment, in addition to robbery?
It’s still better than some places outside the Czech Republic. There are comparatively safe places in this country, but Prague is not one of them. It’s also not the place with the biggest unemployment, like northern Bohemia and northern Moravia. There are still small towns where nothing happens. But there is a fear now that wasn’t there 24 years ago. If you ask me what is the biggest difference, it’s this feeling of insecurity, of fear. Basically this country, which used to have many different industries, factories that were able to sell to many countries on different continents, is now mainly reselling Chinese goods.
Look, I don’t want to paint an absolutely black picture. I’m talking about the problems. Of course, the life for us who still belong to the middle class is much better than it was under Communism. But the life for people from the lower middle class and below is worse. This is why, for the first time, about 40 percent of people voted for a Communist deputy in Prague in the Senate.
He didn’t win. He was one of the top two in the race for the Senate seat. He got 40 percent of votes in Prague, which is the most conservative, the best-off place in the Republic and perhaps in the whole former Russian bloc. The Communist Party is absolutely trying not to do anything. They just keep a low profile. They still attract more and more voters.
There was a sociological study in 1988. It told us that 30 percent of the Czech population supports the Communist or leftist groups, 30 percent are against it, and 40 percent will follow the one who screams the loudest. The situation today is similar. You have 30 percent for the Left, which is the Social Democratic Party, and 30 percent for the Right, which is also not very rightist. And 60 percent of people will follow the person who screams the loudest.
People are not interested in politics. NGOs, except for Amnesty International and Transparency International, can’t be considered a real force.
Because people don’t believe in NGOs any more?
They are already tired. We believed in Havel, and he didn’t do what we wanted. We believed in Klaus. We believed in this one, that one. And now we’re tired. We believed in the Green movement and they committed this terrible crime around solar energy. Their leaders, when they got into power, were unable to affect anything. Environmentalists can point to only one institution that helps us: the EU and no one else.
Have there been any major improvements in the environmental situation over the 25 years?
Yes, there have been. The problem is that the atmosphere has improved because many factories are closed. This means a lot of lost jobs. And the water is cleaner too, thanks to the filtration stations supported by the EU. After all, the Germans don’t want any dirty water going through Germany.
The problem is now the loss of cultivated or wild green space. There are many new stores and many new roads. The concrete-making industry creates a lot of jobs here!
And on the energy issue…?
The Czechs have come to the conclusion that they will not allow any experiments like Chernobyl. But we live in a country that is quite free of volcanic activity or seismic activity. We have no tsunamis. The ecological movement has never been fully clear about the fight over nuclear power stations.
You built a new one in Temelin.
Yes, in south Bohemia. It was started by the Communists and was just finished seven years ago. Now nobody knows how much energy is needed. And it’s not clear if another nuclear power plant will be built. There are new ways of producing energy that are not so reliable, like wind. And wind power stations kill the birds. Solar panels, which take up too much of the green earth, kill the grass.
The solar industry been ruined by this scandal?
No, they have so much money that they can’t be ruined.
And they have so much money because…?
Unidentified people found out that if they bought enough cheap Chinese solar power equipment, they could get large subsidies from the state. And these firms signed an agreement with the government that they would get so much money for every megawatt hour of energy: much more than what they would get from any other kind of energy. If they are clever, they can buy energy from the grid and then resell it for three times higher to the state! It’s unclear how this was done, but it was done, and with the help of the Greens.
It’s also a big issue in Germany. There’s enormous investment in solar. You can see solar panels on practically every building. Are panels common here as well on buildings?
Not as much as in Germany. For example, I don’t know myself whether I will do it. I need some cheap energy for heating. But you can’t get a subsidy from the state if you are just a small man without great lawyers. Lawyers can always get money from the state, but that’s another problem, a problem everywhere. The nation would be happier if all the lawyers were to drown at the same time.
Are you working as a journalist now?
No, I retired about six years ago. I had some health problems. I wasn’t strong enough to work any more. I did teach Chinese history at the university. But my health problems prohibited me from doing this too.
What has it been like to deal with pensions and health care in this society?
Fortunately my wife is a doctor. Still, the insurance companies have paid many millions for me. I had cancer and heart problems. I still have to pay a lot for medicine. But I’m lucky that my wife is a doctor.
Do you have a sense of the difficulties that other people face as pensioners?
If I were a single old lady of 65 who has worked for 40 years as a teacher, who lives alone in a flat owned by some private investor, then I would probably say that it doesn’t make sense to go on, because my family or children would have to support me. Such a lady gets about $400 a month from her pension. Out of that she spends $300 for the flat and electricity. Another $50 goes to medicine. At some point she’d probably have to steal.
If they have no other sources of income, pensioners are living on the edge. Many people have lost their houses or their flats because they cannot afford to pay for it anymore. This is something that never happened in Communist times: so many homeless people.
Are there homeless shelters in Prague?
Yes, there are some.
I’ve seen some homeless here but not as many as in Washington, DC, for instance.
The police throw them out of the center of the city.
Last question: when you think back to your worldview in 1990, what has changed in your philosophy? You talked a little bit about your realization that the Green Party started out rather amateurishly. Are there other things?
In 1990, we were full of hope. Now I am 65 and there is no hope any more. Partly that’s also a question of age and health conditions. But the problem is that society – here and even in the States — has changed a lot in the last quarter century. Globalization, the loss of our industry. Yes, there were opportunities. You can try to start any kind of business you want. But probably someone richer and stronger has gotten there before you.
The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989-90 and everything that has changed or not changed since then in this country, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Something in the middle. Some things are better, some things are worse. I might say 6 and my wife would say 7 or 8. But my mother-in-law would say probably 2 because she is living alone as a widow. Fortunately, my wife supports her.
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life.
Frankly, I wanted to return to China again when I was 64 and I cannot. But I had many new opportunities as well. So, 5.
Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for the Czech Republic with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic.
3. I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.
And “tunnel” is a loaded word in the Czech language, as you said.
Prague, February 20, 2013
Jaroslav Hofer is a radio journalist, a Sinologist fluent in Chinese, and one of the three people preparing the Green party platform. Over coffee in a cafe on Vaclavsky Namesti, he described the Green position in Czechoslovakia.
The Czechoslovak environment is in critical condition, an ecological catastrophe, worse than anywhere else in the region with the possible exception of parts of the GDR. The worse section is northern Bohemia where the large coal-burning electric generators are located.
Like several other parties encountered throughout Eastern Europe, the Czech Greens argue that their program is not based on ideology, that they are “neither leftist nor rightist.” Ecological questions take precedence over all others and the party will cooperate with all those who are willing to solve Czechoslovakia’s environmental problems (they will not, however, work with the Communist party – an official stand — or the far-right Republican party – an unofficial stand). Though they are willing to cooperate with other parties, the Greens nevertheless view these parties with a certain amount of suspicion. Other parties talk about ecology but relegate the topic to the lower end of their agenda and use environmental consciousness as simply an easy way of generating political support.
The Green movement was founded at the end of November and was officially established as a party in February. The party unified various ecological organizations that had been active both legally and illegally for the last 20 years. According to Hofer, 1 million people have asked for membership and he estimates that 300,000 people have actually joined. It is a federal party with sections in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. The chairs of the committees are rotated every 8 months. The polls show that the Greens are 3rd or 4th in the country, with 11 or 12 percent. Another poll showed that 60-70 percent of Czechoslovaks support Green politics.
Hofer blamed communism for Czechoslovakia’s ecological problems. The monopoly control of state didn’t allow criticism and didn’t allow the publication of the truth about ecological damage. He supported instead the free market under which private enterprises could be dissuaded from polluting by taxes and other government regulations. Other program features include support for a strong social and health program. Also of interest: the Czechoslovak Greens are one of the few Green parties (Hofer said the only one) that is not absolutely against nuclear power. Since coal-burning is the country’s major electricity supplier, nuclear power must be supported as a viable alternative. Support for nuclear energy varies across the country. North Bohemia, which is choking from the pollution, prefers nuclear energy while the more pristine south is more skeptical. Presently there are two plants, one in Slovakia and one in southern Moravia. A third is planned for southern Bohemia and a fourth for central Slovakia. According to Hofer, the International Atomic energy Agency has declared the existing plants safe. Greenpeace has tried to criticize these plans for additional reactors but apparently has not succeeded in generating much support (although on other issues, Greenpeace has been wildly successful in Czechoslovakia).
For Hofer, the critical question is the restricting of Czechoslovak industry. The country produces too much steel, and uses 50 percent more energy to produce the same output as the West. By closing down these steel producers and modernizing the rest, national energy consumption would decline. In order to save money to support government programs in health, for instance, Hofer argued that reductions in military and elimination of food subsidies would release funds. Trains and metro, because they are energy-efficient, should however be subsidized. Are people against such austerity measures? Educated people realize that there will be costs, Hofer replied, but farmers and workers still have not.
Why, I asked, did the Greens not work in coalition with Civic Forum. First of all, he replied, the Greens are not simply concerned with winning power. “It would be a catastrophe if we got absolute power because we are simply not prepared for it.” The Greens, therefore are a sort of political supplement, a group that will consistently press for ecological protection on the parliamentary level. On a personal level, Hofer supported Civic Forum when it was a movement. But now that it is changing into a political party, he finds fault. For instance, when the U.S. gave Czech parties one million dollars, the money only went to Civic Forum and the Christian Democrats. Hofer is afraid that Civic Forum is working for a hidden agenda, a covert ideology, but he simply doesn’t know what it is. There is, of course, a “pact of non-aggression” between the Greens and the Civic Forum. But personally Hofer worries that the Forum is composed of too many Communists of the 1950s and 1960s. He prefers the Communist of the 1970s and 1980s (perhaps because he was one) – Communists of more recently vintage simply imprisoned dissidents, they didn’t torture or execute them (as in the 1950s). He also admitted that with 1.7 million Party members out of an adult population of 10 million most parties would have a significant number of former Party members. The Greens decided that no one could run as a candidate for the party if they have not been independent of party affiliation for two years – this prevents quick party switches. Nevertheless, the Greens are not, like many parties, running simply an anti-Communist campaign. The Greens want to put forth a positive program. I asked about the criticism of the Greens as a party of melons (green outside, red inside). This was simply mud-slinging, he replied.
The Greens’ overall politics, he said, were right-center. It was for free market and against state intervention. It wanted to be a serious party, a partner that could be dealt with. There would be no compromises on environmental issues but, of course, technical compromises on those issues not central to the Green platform – health, for instance. I asked him whether he considered this simply another form of ideology. No, he replied. The Greens had already declared that they would not take any posts in government except perhaps ministerial posts in health and ecology. Instead, the party supported political professionals for these positions. Should they win Hofer’s estimate of 10 percent, 25-30 Greens will be in the parliament.
The Greens are presently looking into starting a hotel and a health restaurant. They believe that the party should not simply survive on membership fees but should establish profitable enterprise as well.