Empire to Republic | Anxious 8: What Will 2018 Bring Anxious Czechs?

With a rocky history behind them, Czechs never had it so good – and they secretly know, despite all the grumbling.

Czechs are a bit obsessed with years ending in “8” – and the history of the 20th century has given them plenty of reasons. The start was not so bad, with independence and the founding of the First Czechoslovak Republic in 1918.

However, later years unfolded under darker stars. The first was the allies’ betrayal in Munich 1938, when France and Britain helped Nazi Germany annex the so-called Sudetenland – integral parts of Czechoslovakia, without which defense was near futile. Just six months later, the Nazis grabbed the rest of the country.

Then came the war, and a brief period of freedom following the liberation by American and Soviet troops in 1945. But just three years later the Communist coup in 1948 ushered in 40 years of totalitarian one-party rule.

Then, in 1968, when the freedom-minded thinkers of the Prague Spring gave people hope – a dream soon crushed by Warsaw Pact troops, bringing with them the Siberian frost of repressive “normalization.”

It is no surprise, then, that many Czechs eye 2018 with anxiety, as populism and nationalism are on the rise across Europe. The western society we have worked so hard to become part of since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, is itself in crisis. So, we could paint quite a bleak picture, as Czechs like to do. But a glass half empty is also half full, and we can look at that half.

The Czech economy is thriving, even if its fruits could be better distributed. Czechs can travel and speak freely, and their country is among the safest in the world – an excellent 6th place in the 2017 Global Peace Index, just two places behind Austria, but outranking Switzerland (9th) and Japan (10th) – even if your Czech travel companion will still tirelessly warn you of pickpockets.

The Czech Republic is part of the European Union and of NATO, two exclusive clubs of democracies. The Czech passport ranks as 8th most powerful on Passport Index. Surrounded by allies within the Schengen zone, there isn’t even an external border to guard.

But the Czechs share one feature with their richer Austrian cousins that ensures happiness will not boil over, even in these flourishing times. They tend to complain about anything and everything, and they do it mostly in pubs, too shy to go public and actually try to change the things they consider wrong.

Unlike their Slovak brethren, who have shown enormous energy and public determination in the past 20 years, most recently when they took to the streets this year after the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée to protest for a “decent country.”

The Czechs can certainly find a thousand reasons to be unsatisfied after almost three decades of “transition” from a command economy to a social market democracy. Public money could be used more efficiently, the rule of law better enforced, incomes higher.

But there are many more reasons to be satisfied and justifiably proud, especially looking back on the last century with all the dramatic changes their grandparents and parents had to live through. No one has to flee the country due to their convictions or religion. Czechia belongs to the richest part of the world and is protected by the strongest military alliance. Its democracy may be under strain, but it is vivid and engaged, and based on strong institutions, particularly in comparison with EU problem children like Poland or Hungary.

We need only ensure that the moaning and groaning that is part of our national character isn’t our society’s only tool of communication.

Click to zoom.

Martin Ehl
Chief International Editor of the Czech economic daily Hospodářské noviny and a syndicated columnist writing on Central European issues.

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