The Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel popularized the notion of “living in truth.” He was dismayed at the degree to which lies had permeated Czechoslovak society under Communism. It wasn’t only government and Party officials who lied about history, the economy, the state of human rights, the opposition Charter 77 movement, and so on. Virtually everyone in society was complicit in those lies. His famous example, the green grocer who displayed propaganda in his shop window, demonstrated that nearly all citizens had to engage in lies to survive. Czechoslovak society had moved into a “post-totalitarian” phase in which conformity kept the regime in power rather than mere naked force.
When Havel became president of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989 – and later, the president of the Czech Republic – he became a powerful symbol of a new era of politics. Surely the country would “live in truth” as long as it had a president of unimpeachable character. On the practical, day-to-day matters of politics and economics, however, Havel was not as influential. Czech culture succumbed to a new kind of falsity – the lies of corruption.
“If you’re a politician here and you lie and there’s evidence that you lied, nothing happens,” Marie Perinova points out. “You don’t resign. We even have a member of parliament who has been sentenced to jail for corruption. He’s now starting his jail term, and he has not resigned from his MP status.”
Perinova is the communications manager at the Open Society Fund Prague (OSFP). I talked with her and colleague Robert Basch, the executive director of the OSFP, at their office in Prague last February.
“We don’t have drug mafias or organized crime as in Bulgaria,” Basch explains. “It’s organized crime, but it’s white collar. They’re not mafiosos. The corruption is very often done by smart people doing business with the state, withdrawing state money through business.”
There is corruption at the national level, dating back to the privatization process and the enrichment of a new class of businesspeople. There is also corruption in properties that have remained largely in state hands, like the Czech energy company CEZ.
But perhaps the more disturbing phenomenon is how deep the political-economic collusion goes at a regional and local level. “If you decide to do a career in a political party, it’s not very difficult to become a member at the local level,” Basch observes. “Members are nominated according to specific rules at the party congress. There’s a regional and then a national congress. If you have more people at the congress, you can nominate the people you want. So, the people who wanted to make a career out of using the political party for their private business, they brought people in as party members, paid the membership fees for them, and were able to ensure that their people were nominated to the regional and national congress. If you decide to do business at a regional level, you can become a party member, get connected, and make money by getting public contracts. It’s the same with the EU structural funds. At the end of the day, the top party people are not as influential as the party people at the regional level.”
OSFP has promoted a number of projects on transparency and rule of law, from a Truth-o-Meter to the creation of watchdog organizations. “Two years ago, we started to make a map of watchdog organizations in the Czech Republic, from the biggest like Transparency International all the way down to the ones in the village that are just a bunch of people focusing on whether the village heads are spending the money correctly,” Perinova reports. “There are more than 150 organizations in the Czech Republic.”
We talked about how the lack of a civil service law perpetuates this culture of corruption, the disturbing level of racism in the mainstream population, and why the Czech Communist Party continues to appeal to a substantial number of people in the country.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Marie Perinova: I don’t remember that day much. But I do remember the events of the Velvet Revolution. I was nine years old then. I remember the posters appearing suddenly, and people wearing small Czech flags on their coats. I remember different pictures on the television that I’d not seen before and hearing different names that I’d never heard before.
Robert Basch: I remember what was happening in Prague when the East Germans started to escape through the Czech Republic and Hungary to go to Austria. The streets were full of Trabants because they left their cars behind to run to the West German embassy. I remember looking from above at the West German embassy and all the tents and the camp facilities in the garden there.
In 1988, I participated in my first demonstration. In 1989, in January, I was at the Palach anniversary demonstration and then, in August, at the demonstration marking the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion in 1968. But I can’t say what exactly I was doing when I got the first information about the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember having conversations with my father. We were also getting information from friends in France and Austria and from BBC. I was only 14 at the time. I remember talking with a classmate about signing a petition — whether to do it or not to do it and how brave we were.
Marie Perinova: It’s different because you are from Prague. And I’m not.
Robert Basch: Definitely.
Marie Perinova: Outside of Prague it was more based on television pictures.
Robert Basch: I was getting information mostly from foreign radio — there was no official information. But there was some information on Czech television about the East Germans escaping to the West German embassy. It’s true that Prague was a kind of island getting all this information about the demonstration on Palach’s anniversary or the August 1989 demonstration. If you were not in Prague, you were cut off from everything. And if you were a dissident outside of Prague, it meant that basically you were much braver. It was more difficult to be a dissident outside of Prague.
Did your school change from one day to the next in terms of content, teachers, and so on?
Marie Perinova: Definitely not in one week.
Robert Basch: There was a big change: the strike. After the demonstration on Narodni Trida on November 17, my classmate and I got information from Radio Free Europe that there would be a gathering. The demonstration was on Friday and immediately on Saturday at the university the strike was going to begin. The high school students had a gathering at Letna in Prague where that huge Stalin statue used to be. My friend and I went there to represent our school. We were almost the youngest at the gathering and the only ones from our school there. There was a decision that the high schools would also strike to support the universities.
So, the next Monday, we were in front of school at 6 am. I’d never been to school so early! We were lucky that there were some older students doing some organizing. At that time, there was one week of no teaching. We had a strike committee with two people representing each grade. And this committee somehow represented students, negotiated with the headmaster, and organized the program for the week by inviting people — celebrities, intellectuals, dissidents — basically to have a discussion. You couldn’t say that we were lazy students. Everyone was in the school that week, and there was a discussion or some other program every day.
That was the one significant change. But after that week, it was the same as before. We had the same headmaster. He was a Communist, but he felt that his position was not so strong so he didn’t try to make problems for students who were active. Everything was the same for a long long time.
A couple teachers were different. I had a great teacher of Czech language and literature. She immediately started to teach prohibited writers like Milan Kundera. Even if it wasn’t part of the official curricula, she decided to do that. She was informing us about banned literature before, but after the revolution she became really open about it.
Marie Perinova: And later on, the school started to teach English instead of Russian. But that was the next year. I was in the first round of students who started to learn English as a foreign language. But all the teachers were former Russian teachers. So they didn’t speak English much better than we did.
Robert Basch: They were only one lesson ahead of us!
Marie Perinova: We even had an English teacher coming from Russia. He used to be a tourist guide on the Aurora ship, explaining what Lenin had done there.
Did the change in 1989 affect how you thought of your future in terms of what you would do as a career?
Marie Perinova: I think it came later, probably much later. I was finally able to go abroad when I was 16 or 17 and see something different: that changed the way I looked at things.
Robert Basch: I was simply enjoying student life. The freedom was the most important thing for me. I was not thinking about my future career.
Is there anything you miss from before 1989?
Marie Perinova: No.
Robert Basch: I don’t miss anything. Definitely not.
What is the part of your current job that gives you the most satisfaction, and what is the most challenging?
Marie Perinova: I’ve been here for only about 2 years. I’m currently the communications officer, which is also the job I started with, and for the last year I was also doing the East-East Beyond Borders Program. Before, the Open Society Fund Prague (OSF) here didn’t really pay much attention to external communication. The most important thing was to distribute the money well and support the right and most beneficial things. It wasn’t so important to say that it was the OSF’s achievement. I started to work here with the aim to change this situation, and that’s been both a challenge and the most satisfying part of the job. OSF has been working here in the Czech Republic for 20 years already, so it has done quite a lot of work. It’s good to look at all these cases from the 1990s to the present and draw attention to them through summaries of this past work. Of course, fundraising is a big challenge, as it is probably everywhere.
Robert Basch: For me, the biggest change now is to do a successful transformation of the foundation here. We are transforming quite a lot of things here — the financial sources, the programmatic issues we focus on. We are also trying to make our fundraising sustainable. Everything has come at once, and this is the biggest challenge.
Another challenge is that we are promoting things that are not very tangible. You can feel that you are doing a good job and promoting open society and rule of law. But at the end of the day, because we are trying to push systemic changes, it’s a long-term effort. You can’t see results in one year, so it’s hard to see that something is changing it. It’s hard to quantify the results.
We have to somehow learn how to measure and evaluate what we are doing. The effect of our work. It’s not just a problem for the Prague foundation but for the entire network.
What is positive is the content of our work — and our independence. We are a Czech organization operating in the Czech Republic, and we are independent. We are not funded by public funds. We can say what we feel. We don’t need to feel afraid or feel we have to apologize for something that we said. We have to figure out a way to preserve this independence.
Marie Perinova: As Robert said, it’s easier to measure what we were doing at the end of the 1990s than it is now. It will take years to realize whether the work we’re doing now is successful. At the end of the 1990s, the foundation here introduced the concept of palliative care in the Czech Republic. At that time, much of the work of the foundation was not visible. But now, you can see that the foundation helped a hospice center to develop here. We brought foreign experts to come here and talk with them. Then the foundation gave a grant to the hospice center to write an analysis of the situation of palliative care throughout the Czech Republic and the legislative changes that needed to happen. The hospice center was then able to put those changes into legislation. When you’re in the middle of the work, you can’t see the nice bright result. Only after a few years, do you see how successful it’s been.
The work on palliative work has been passed on to other organizations?
Marie Perinova: Yes.
Is there something that was started here in the 1990s that hasn’t yet been brought to a successful conclusion?
Robert Basch: Transparency issues, rule of law, accountability. These are the issues that we started in the late 1990s. Now it’s our biggest program.
Focusing on corruption in politics, social life….?
Robert Basch: Mainly among politicians. It’s not always corruption. We look at the relations and close connections between business and politicians but also the lack of regulations on lobbying and the lack of a civil service act. There’s quite a lot of legislation that we would like to see and still don’t have. We have a major problem regarding civil service or public administration. After every election there are big changes in the ministries. The officials are not sure whether they will stay or not. It’s a problem with continuity. All these changes take place because there is a lobbying interest. There are close connections to political party financing and how the money is directed through state-owned companies to the political parties. Corruption is just part of it. It’s a problem with rule of law and the enforcement of the rule of law.
A second problem is the low effectiveness of the civil service because of the lack of this civil service law and the low qualifications of the officials. It’s not prestigious to go into public administration. Top people don’t go there. The people with great qualifications go into business or go to live abroad. We are in this closed circle of corruption, the low effectiveness of public officials, the non-transparent financing of political parties, the lack of enforcement of the rule of law. We have to somehow cut this circle into pieces. It’s difficult to define the greatest achievements of our work. But if we weren’t doing this work at the foundation we would be in a much worse position than we are in now.
Corruption is usually top of the list wherever I go in this region. But in Bulgaria or Serbia, they blame it on the fact that there was no major transformation — the same people are in power as in the Milosevic era or in the communist era. It’s an atmosphere that breeds corruption. But here you had a revolution, a lustration law, a pretty substantial break with the personnel of the past. To what do you attribute corruption here?
Robert Basch: There are two issues. If you decide to do a career in a political party, it’s not very difficult to become a member at the local level. Members are nominated according to specific rules at the party congress. There’s a regional and then a national congress. If you have more people at the congress, you can nominate the people you want. So, the people who wanted to make a career out of using the political party for their private business, they brought people in as party members, paid the membership fees for them, and were able to ensure that their people were nominated to the regional and national congress. If you decide to do business at a regional level, you can become a party member, get connected, and make money by getting public contracts. It’s the same with the EU structural funds. At the end of the day, the top party people are not as influential as the party people at the regional level. And because of the system of voting within the party, these top people are really dependent on people in the region.
The second issue has to do with the national level. At the end of the 1990s, there was an opposition agreement when the Social Democrats came to power. The Social Democrats were in charge of government, but they were supported by the opposition Civic Democrats. The two parties basically divided up the country. Each state-owned company was filled with political appointees who got quite good salaries for doing nothing, just using their positions as a financial channel to their businesses with the money then funneled back to the parties. The influential people at the regional level were party members of one party, but they also made sure to have representation in the second strongest party as well. They governed the regions this way. Any officials not willing to engage in corrupt practices were simply fired and replaced with new people. Again, because there’s no civil service law, if there are people who are uncomfortable for you, you can just kick them out.
Marie Perinova: There’s also a complete lack of political culture here. But I guess that’s the same all around Central Europe. It’s definitely a remnant of the past. If you’re a politician here and you lie and there’s evidence that you lied, nothing happens. You don’t resign. We even have a member of parliament who has been sentenced to jail for corruption. He’s now starting his jail term, and he has not resigned from his MP status.
Robert Basch: The new president was just elected. His campaign was full of lies and accusations that were not true. If he was caught in a lie, he didn’t have any problem using another lie in his defense!
Do you have a Truth-o-Meter here?
Marie Perinova: We do. We actually supported it, and it started last year. It’s very popular in the media. There are lots of articles about it. But it doesn’t change the situation.
In Serbia, they’ve had a Truth-o-Meter for a couple years, and it’s begun to have some effect. The most visible effect, however, is that politician no longer make promises. Part of the Truth-o-Meter was not just determining the veracity of statements but whether promises are kept or not. In terms of truth, it’s a supreme irony that you are in this situation here in the Czech Republic, given how much Vaclav Havel and others emphasized the importance of “living in truth.” But that tradition didn’t apparently sink in.
Robert Basch: Definitely not. Vaclav Havel as president definitely had influence, but in regard to practical day-to-day politics, he was not so influential. On this, Vaclav Klaus was much more effective.
As part of the privatization of the national property in the 1990s, there are now a lot of businesspeople who are very rich guys. Klaus’s government privatized the Czech insurance company, which is still the largest one here, and it was privatized for almost nothing and in a very strange way. The guy who bought it is worth about 30 billion crowns. He also has a huge business in Russia. Now he has built a Vaclav Klaus Institute. This guy and some other Czech oligarchs are around Klaus. Perhaps this will change when he’s gone.
The state still owns 51 percent of the stock in the Czech energy company, CEZ. The board chairman is using his money for the Social Democrats. The CEZ should be governed and controlled by the state, but it’s not. We do have an authority in the highest control office for controlling business. But they don’t have the authority to control this energy company. The politicians are still trying to prevent putting CEZ under the control of this independent body. And what could be the reason? CEZ is making this huge amount of money. And many people are making lots of money because of bad legislation –
Bad legislation on?
Robert Basch: Photovoltaic cells. There were huge government subsidies for the photovoltaic industry. And CEZ, because it basically controlled the energy network, was the responsible body for collecting that money. And it made a huge amount of money by buying up some of the biggest photovoltaic power plants in the Czech Republic and receiving subsidies from the government. The state is responsible for the legislation, and it’s clear that there was some deal behind it. For a long time, everybody thought CEZ wasn’t involved in this business. But they did it through other businesses. The ministry of finance should have acted as the majority owner, but it didn’t do anything — probably because of all the money, which could be used to fund the political parties. Private businesses are now detached from the state. But these state businesses are still withdrawing more and more money from the state through these games.
How would you evaluate the watchdog organizations dealing with this problem? Are there a lot of individuals and organizations interested in this issue?
Marie Perinova: Two years ago, we started to make a map of watchdog organizations in the Czech Republic, from the biggest like Transparency International all the way down to the ones in the village that are just a bunch of people focusing on whether the village heads are spending the money correctly. There are more than 150 organizations in the Czech Republic. The map doesn’t even include all of them. It’s quite positive in this sense because more and more people and organizations are interested in public spending, and there are more and more on-line activists. OSF funds many of the organizations trying to monitor the authorities.
Robert Basch: This is positive. What’s still not positive is the will to support these activities.
Aside from OSF.
Robert Basch: Yes. The budget for our watchdog program is 7 million crowns per year. That’s roughly $350,000. Compare that to the budget of CEZ, the energy company, which has more than 130 million Czech crowns to use for charity activities and lobbying. People here still don’t understand what “watchdog” means and how monitoring is important for democracy. There are some islands of active people. Some of them are not even organizations, just the initiative of one or two people. At the local level, people are investing some amount of time in these activities, but they’re not sustainable over the long term. To be more active, you have to invest not only time but your own money. If you are not a millionaire, then it’s difficult to do this over the long term. Money is necessary for websites, to pay the venue for public discussions, to rent an office, to print leaflets, and for salaries too. When you go to individuals to support this kind of activity, some might say, “This is great, we can help you.” But when you go to businesses, they’ll say, “Yes, we think the situation should be changed, but I don’t think this will work.” These issues are sensitive for them. Politically. And businesses need to see quick results.
In Bulgaria, corruption is connected to organized crime, drugs, trafficking. Bulgarian organizations can make the argument with European countries that it’s a problem for the EU because these are trans-border problems. In the United States, transparency activists tell businesses that corruption raises the cost of doing business. Do either of those arguments work here?
Robert Basch: That’s the difference in the Czech Republic. We don’t have drug mafias or organized crime as in Bulgaria. It’s organized crime, but it’s white collar. They’re not mafiosos. The corruption is very often done by smart people doing business with the state, withdrawing state money through business. We use the second argument much more, that corruption raises the cost of doing business for everybody. At the national level, there’s not so much to steal any more. And politicians are worried about not getting reelected. Now the focus is on the regional level. At the regional level, because it’s not the politicians but the people behind the politicians doing the corruption, they don’t care if they are reelected. Or, because they are connected to both parties, it doesn’t matter to them who gets elected. They only care about getting the money.
We are trying to talk to businesses about the long-term business climate and how it’s important to change the system. But it’s still not a situation where they can talk about this issue openly.
I want to ask you about another OSF issue — the rise of nationalism, intolerance, and anti-Roma sentiment. It seems that the situation here is not as bad as in Hungary or in Bulgaria. But perhaps I’m wrong?
Marie Perinova: I think it’s pretty bad here.
Robert Basch: But not as bad as in Hungary. Last year, there were all these marches in Hungary through the Roma villages. Everything was about right-wing extremists and skinheads. These movements are visible and violent. In the Czech Republic, we had a similar problem in the northern part of Bohemia. But who was demonstrating against Roma? The general public, mothers with kids, etc. So, this is deep-rooted xenophobia and intolerance.
The state in fact is quite effective fighting rightwing extremists. There was an extremist Workers’ Party, and the state succeeded in banning the party. But the problem is that the people in front of the Roma communities shouting, “Get out!” are not marginal – they’re part of the mainstream. And the politicians are not able to say something openly and stand against this mainstream public.
Marie Perinova: On the contrary. Through their popular speeches, the politicians are helping to sustain the stereotypes, for instance, about people who don’t pay rent and get social benefits. In the Czech Republic, this sentiment is specifically targeted at the Roma rather than against the Vietnamese community living here or the Ukrainian community.
Robert Basch: Another difference is that a previous Hungarian government reformed the educational system so that Roma pupils are placed in mainstream education. Hungary has an inclusive approach. I don’t know if it happened in fact at the local level but at least they made some attempt. In the Czech Republic, nothing has happened yet. Roma kids are still segregated in education. So the intolerance here is not as visible as in Hungary, Romania, or Slovakia. It’s much creepier because it exists in the majority population. Czechs still don’t see it as a major problem, but I think it’s close to an explosion, as it was last year with the demonstrations in northern Bohemia.
You said there are no political figures who feel that they can make a stand on this. Are there cultural figures who have spoken out on this issue? Musicians, sports figures?
Robert Basch: Michael Kocáb, the minister of human rights. He’s a celebrity, and he’s active. We can think about five people who are influential.
Marie Perinova: But he’s a celebrity for intellectuals not for ordinary people.
Robert Basch: Here’s an example on how the media approaches rightwing extremists. This right-wing Workers’ Party made a very effective campaign before the European parliament elections, marching every weekend through Roma settlements. There was some fighting, but it was not like in Hungary. Every Monday the media reported on the march. But in the media there were only representatives of the police or this Workers’ Party — never Roma or representatives of organizations supporting Roma.
Then there was an arson attack on a house and a three-year-old Roma was burned very badly over 80 percent of her body. Since then, the politicians came out much more strongly against the anti-Roma sentiment, and it changed the atmosphere in the media. The arsonists were sentenced to 20 years. The politicians claimed success for pushing the police to jail the perpetrators. Only Vaclav Klaus said that 20 years was “unexpectedly high.” He sent such a strong signal to politicians and media. And his popularity rating was more than 50 percent. The media had shifted after the attack in 2009, and now we are again back as before.
Marie Perinova: Even when the public was shocked that this was happening, there were jokes in other parts of the Czech Republic that the Roma family actually burned the house themselves in order to get another house. So, the racism is very deeply rooted.
Are there any Roma in prominent positions in Czech society as politicians or in the media?
Robert Basch: Very few unfortunately.
The two architects of the break-up of Czechoslovakia – Vladimir Meciar and Vaclav Klaus – have left the limelight. In Slovakia, Meciar is gone and so is his party. But what about Klaus? What do you think will be future his influence?
Robert Basch: There’s a difference between Klaus and Meciar. Klaus was not so direct. He did everything much more behind the scene with his political games. Another difference is that his party, which he established, is still one of the top two or three parties in the country. When Meciar left, his party left too. When Klaus leaves, his party will remain. He has still a quite strong position in the party along with his followers. And some of them are calling for him to again become party chairman and rescue the party. As for his legacy, perhaps he would like to become member of European Parliament. He might want to be active in Brussels.
Marie Perinova: Or become prime minister!
Robert Basch: There could be a caretaker government with Klaus becoming prime minister. His party will preserve his legacy.
Marie Perinova: And his links to business. That’s something that will continue. We saw this with the latest amnesty. What can you think when you see an amnesty that pardons people that were prosecuted for taking millions of Czech crowns? As an ordinary citizen, you have to suspect that something is behind it, that it’s not a coincidence.
Since you began doing this kind of work, have you reevaluated any of your assumptions? Have you had any second thoughts about your political philosophy?
Robert Basch: It’s hard to say. When the major changes were done here in the 1990s, I was in a completely different position than now. At that time, I agreed with privatization. I supported the radical changes because I believed at the time — and I still believe — the people at that time were open to the changes. They were really prepared to starve for some time just to change society. There was a strong anti-communist sentiment. It was really time to do it. If you would try to do it now, it would be impossible. A recent poll says that almost 50 percent of the people believe that it was better before 1989.
Wow. When I asked you the question about whether there was anything you liked better before 1989, neither of you could think of one thing!
Robert Basch: Yes, it’s strange. Now there’s the sentiment that social welfare was better back then, and there were jobs for everyone. Now the state is close to bankruptcy. There’s not much economic development and no money for social welfare. Compared to other countries we still have a relatively low rate of unemployment, but it’s still higher than before. That’s why we have these sentiments today.
Is that sentiment different by generation? Or is it across the board?
Robert Basch: It’s across the board. There was an argument after 1989 that there was no need to ban the Czech Communist Party because it would die out. Now it still gets 16-17 percent of the vote.
Marie Perinova: Even more now, almost 20 percent.
Robert Basch: So, it’s even stronger now than at the beginning of the 1990s. It didn’t die out. It’s obvious that young people support it or else they wouldn’t be able to get so many votes.
I still think it was good that the changes were done so quickly. There was one thing that I didn’t agree with, that Klaus decided not to privatize the banks. That was done at the end of the 1990s by the Social Democratic government. The Social Democrats were in some ways more rightwing than Vaclav Klaus at the time. At that time I agreed with the way it was done. Now I think it was a mistake. It was such a huge change of the industry, of the economy, I don’t know if there might have been a better way.
Marie Perinova: I’m wondering whether it was a mistake to allow the Communist Party to continue working here. Before I thought it was actually a really good thing that Havel didn’t want to ban the party. It was about tolerance. He was thinking that even the Communist Party would change into a normal democratic party, with the same ideology maybe but within democratic limits. But if I’m thinking about the next elections, where it seems like the Social Democrats will win but will form a government with the support of the Communist Party. I really wouldn’t want this to happen.
Robert Basch: Recently, there was a parliamentary initiative to have a day commemorating Jan Palach’s death. Part of the proclamation for this Palach Day mentioned that he was fighting against the Communist totalitarian regime. There was a dramatic discussion in parliament. The former chairman of the Communist Party stood up and said openly that he completely disagreed with that part of the proclamation about Palach fighting against the Communists. He said that Palach’s act was against totalitarian regimes in general and not against Communism.
In other words, Palach was fighting against Nazism.
Robert Basch: Yes, exactly. This is the problem. This guy is an MP, and he’s still active. His father worked in a Communist labor camp as a guard, one of the tough guards who beat people. This is his son, a neo-Stalinist. Just imagine that this will be the party that will form the government with the Social Democrats! This is the only country where the Communist Party didn’t change its name, didn’t say sorry for its history. They say they did apologize — but they didn’t really.
Are there ways other than banning the party of diminishing its influence by attracting away its supporters?
Robert Basch: Since the early 1990s, there have been many parliamentary parties. But recently we have only five parties in the parliament. All of them said they wouldn’t cooperate with the CP. But this changed. During the presidential campaign, two candidates – Milos Zeman and Jiri Dienstbier, Jr. — openly approached the Communist Party and asked for support. The Social Democrats made some kind of decision in 1996 that they would not cooperate with the Communists. But now they do so at the regional level. And they probably won’t be able to form a government without the Communist Party.
For almost 20 years, there was an effort not to cooperate with them, and the CP was isolated. In parliament, nobody wanted to listen to them. But they still have 20 percent of voters.
Marie Perinova: I think it’s even more complicated. There’s a discrepancy in the perceptions of how people think they are and how they really are. Regarding unemployment, the numbers are not that bad. Of course they are worsening. But compared with other countries in Europe, we have one of the lowest rates. Realistically speaking, the Czech Republic hasn’t been hit so hard by the crisis. People are not satisfied with this government at all because they feel that the government is really cutting the budget. But they aren’t feeling it as acutely as they think they are feeling it. The government now and even the previous government had difficulty explaining the reforms. It’s obvious that we need to cut the budget, but the government is not able to explain why it’s necessary. People feel that they have no other option than to vote against the current government.
Have there been any sociologists who have tried to explain this discrepancy between perceptions and reality here?
Marie Perinova: I haven’t seen any research. There was someone who wrote about it in the media recently but in more general terms. And it wasn’t only about the Czech Republic.
What groups here in the Czech Republic have participated in the East East Beyond Borders Program?
Marie Perinova: There are many. The program started here in 1992. It was the very first program of the foundation here. And improving the palliative care was one of the most successful projects of the East East Beyond Borders Program here. Of course there are still many challenges ahead. There still aren’t enough hospice services; the climate in some hospital hasn’t changed. But a lot has changed. And the people in the Czech hospices who received so much support through the program started to help their colleagues later on. They’ve had projects in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Ukraine where they were passing on this experience. That’s one of the greatest things about the East East program. It was not Western experts who’d been working on the issues for 50 years talking to people who were at the very beginning. It was hospice experts from the Czech Republic who had just experienced the tough beginning of the process talking about it with colleagues with Ukraine.
We also had a number of programs on migration issues. It was mainly with those countries where the greatest number of migrants has come to the Czech Republic: for example, Ukraine. It was good to see it from both points of view. On the one side, Ukrainians have been coming to work here and the question is how to solve the illegal immigration with working permits. And then to see it from the other side: why people are leaving Ukraine, how to promote more information in Ukraine about how to get here legally, how to get working permits without the mafia making the arrangement and then taking lots of money from your salary.
Prague, February 18, 2013