Saturday, March 30, 2019

New Slovak president: Slovaks are more "generic" Westerners than Czechs

Slovakia is choosing its new president today.

In the 2nd round, Ms Zuzana Čaputová (who got 40% in the first round, age 45) faces Mr Maroš Šefčovič (20% in the first round two weeks ago, 53 years). The lady will almost certainly win – something like 60% by 40% of voters (bookmakers have odds over 10-to-1). Up to recently, this female lawyer has been a top official in the Progressive Slovakia movement.

Her male antagonist – the campaign contained almost no real fight, maybe he just gave up – has been a life-long diplomat who represents the mainstream "Smer/Direction" Slovak social democracy with its opposition to migrants and other things. Even that ambiguous guy would be extremely far from a "Slovak Orbán", however. After all, he's been an EU commissar and you know that this organ has never allowed any "true soulmates" of Orbán.

A very characteristic song for this blog post. "Words" have been played by radios from Summer 2017. I assumed it's some native speaker – there isn't a glimpse of "our" accent in the song that I could hear. It sounds roughly like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry... I don't really distinguish these women. It could be them, I thought. Only weeks ago, I was shocked when I learned that the singer is Ms Emma Drobná, a Slovak. We have singers singing in English in Czechia but none of them has simultaneously this flawless English and this huge exposure in mainstream radios. In total, the Czech audiences prefer the songs in Czech – more than the Slovak audiences, I guess. And the musicians have to adapt to that fact. Funny: When I completed writing the previous sentence, this very song started to play on the real Pilsner Hit Radio FM Plus.

Čaputová will become another attractive enough young female leader of a European country. Ideologically, the change will be minimal because her views are similarly "progressive" as those of Andrej Kiska, an old, rich, and male current president of Slovakia. But the hopes for Slovakia to move a few steps away from the progressive globalism will probably evaporate tonight.

Now, Čaputová has some virtues that I would describe as virtues, too. She's full of energy, attractive for her age, and understands the law. She's been an active attorney which is non-trivial. While lawyers may cause trouble, they also know lots of things, they can't be completely stupid (which is an understatement), and they have studied hard.

On the other hand, being a lawyer isn't enough to be a very good politician, I think, especially because the "ability to plan a better future" isn't a part of the lawyers' expertise. Lawyers really deal with the status quo only.

As an attorney, she's been helping various progressive causes, like the fight against the abuse of children and, more prominently, the efforts to ban dumping grounds in large cities. She's received a Goldman environmental prize for that kind of activism – you may get such awards really easily if you stand on the side preferred by certain powerful people. Well, the abuse of children needs to be fought against and I tend to dislike dumping grounds in the cities – although I am obviously much more agnostic than she is about the question whether dumping grounds should be in cities or elsewhere ;-) – but those causes could be said to be "good".

On top of that, she's been a courtroom foe of Marián Kočner, an entrepreneur who seems to be the mastermind behind the terrible murder of the journalist Kuciak. And this very anti-Kočner role is a clear virtue of Ms Čaputová now. You may easily become a president if you fought a notorious killer-mastermind in a recent prominent murder of a journalist. If you fought against a cruel German who wanted to silence a Czech writer by an international lawsuit, you could probably be elected a president easily, too.

However, the overrepresentation of such "nice" causes is a hint that the person is actually a staunch left-wing activist and this conclusion is more or less correct in her case, too. So she's a supporter of mass migration, the adoption of children by gay couples, and pretty much all other "progressive" causes you may think of. Of course I would vote for Šefčovič, a social democrat, if I were Slovak. It's a preference that would surely look ironic to me 20 years ago.

At some level, she's a rather ordinary female lawyer. But it's still strange that the "progressives" in Czechia haven't been capable of producing a similar candidate. Doesn't Czechia have similar "progressives"? Or would it be so clear that they would enjoy much less support? It just happens that the Czech "progressives" have always picked some old establishment men as the frontrunners against Zeman in the direct presidential elections and these old men have lost to Zeman twice.

Just to be sure, in 2013, Zeman defeated Karel Schwarzenberg, a very old and mostly sleeping (therefore "Schlafenberg") globalist aristocrat who's been an Austrian citizen for most of his life and who only got closer to Havel later. Five years later, Zeman defeated another PC candidate, Dr Jiří Drahoš, a dull Academic official without opinions who has done much more work to spread the suffocating scholarly bureaucracy than to advance physical chemistry. Zeman is far from a perfect politician and he's not "my cup of tea" in various respects but of course he was the better choice that I picked in both cases.

Maybe the Czech progressives are more "sexist" and unwilling to turn a 45-year-old woman similar to Čaputová to a mascot – which is what they did out of Schwarzenberg, for example.

But make no mistake about it, by Ms Čaputová's victory, Slovakia will reinforce its image as the least reliable member of the Visegrád Group. Under some circumstances, if Slovakia seems to play Macron's and Merkel's game, I would find it desirable for the whole to expel Slovakia from the V4 group. The huge support that Macron-like or Soros-shaped candidates like her are capable of accumulating in countries like Slovakia – and also and especially Slovenia, still the most "pro-globalist" Slavic and/or former communist nation in the world – is hard to imagine in Poland, Hungary, but even in Czechia.

What I find fascinating about this "new Slovak globalism" is the reversal of the roles of nations that history often brings us.

You know, after the fall of communism in 1989, Slovaks had much more freedom to express their political views. And some dreams about their independence or much higher degree of autonomy were clearly vastly more important for millions of Slovaks than they were for Czechs. Czechs were almost universally happy with the Czechoslovak setup, even the setup that was fine-tuned during the communism by the 1969 federalization. They were thinking about other things, about the economy, about the "beef" that had nothing to do with their "national identity" per se.

The Velvet Divorce – the unusually peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia – went flawlessly because it was made from the top-down, by the prime ministers of the new countries who trusted each other and who could just do all things fairly and basically symmetrically. Their (Klaus' and Mečiar's) negotiations weren't really fights between Czechia and Slovakia. Instead, they were both "fair judges" who were fighting totally different foes in their own countries – and they basically shared these foes, despite the fact that Klaus was right-wing and Mečiar was left-wing.

But this largely symmetric process of the dissolution doesn't mean that the underlying causes of the dissolution were symmetric. They were totally asymmetric. As I mentioned, it was mainly the Slovaks – and up to mid 1992 or so, almost only Slovaks – who were creating problems for the continuing existence of the normal Czechoslovak federal state. Let me stress this point a bit differently:

It was the Slovaks who were the nationalists while the Czechs were the Cosmopolitans.

Note that Slovaks were also the left-wingers (and the plan to stop the mass-scale privatization in Slovakia defined a part of their "specifics"), while Czechs were right-wingers (we really had a consensus that the privatization should proceed very quickly). These left-vs-right roles got totally reversed in 1998. Slovakia elected a right-wing, albeit somewhat pro-globalist government on that year, while Czechia elected the social democrat Zeman as PM for the first time.

Amazingly enough, the political affiliations of both nations got reversed simultaneously once again: in 2006, Czechia went right-wing again while Slovakia went left-wing again. Between 1993 and 2013 or so, the left-vs-right leaderships of Czechia and Slovakia were almost perfectly anti-correlated. Isn't it amazing? This is the kind of cycles you should have in mind when you're trying to decide about the co-existence of the nations according to the left-vs-right criteria. You just shouldn't do it because the national identity is way more long-lived than some left-vs-right priorities of nations. You shouldn't try to make a nation independent – or unified with someone – just because some political party just randomly became the strongest one for a while because this strength may be rather short-lived in comparison with the life of the nation.

OK, so Czechs were sometimes more right-wing than Slovaks and sometimes less right-wing – and the amazing anticorrelation shows that Czechs and Slovaks were really thinking as two different nations, despite all the similarities starting with the languages. There just wasn't any natural "united political group think" of the two nations, ever. It's sort of surprising that two nations that are so close may keep these basically "completely separate" political identities but it is true.

Similarly, Czechs and Slovaks are different when it comes to their support for the progressive and globalist causes. In this case, however, I think that Slovaks are by far more globalist than Czechs.

It's equally ironic if not more so because, as I wrote using the bold face fonts, the whole dissolution of Czechoslovakia basically took place because Slovaks seemed "more nationalist" and Czechs were "more Cosmopolitan". But despite the permanent implications for the existence of Czechoslovakia, that difference was purely temporary and the actual "specific trait" of Slovaks relatively to Czechs is their higher adaptability to the "generic Western European political fashions".

With the strong support earned by Mr Kiska, Ms Čaputová, and others, we may say the following: While they painted themselves as special within Czechoslovakia, they are much more willing to dissolve their national sugar cube within the European Union coffee (let's ignore that the sugar cube was invented by a Swiss guy in Czechia). So around 1990-1992, much of the Slovak nationalism wasn't a universal nationalism. It was really just some anti-Czech nationalism, an effort not to be seen as a province of Czechoslovakia anymore.

I remember that in Summer 1992, I felt – and many Czechs surely felt – some "disappointment" when the Slovak lawmakers declared the independence of Slovakia, for example. It was a potentially unconstitutional stunt that politicians in Prague could ignore – but we already knew better. Even Havel, a guy hated by the Slovak patriots, avoided all ideas about sending the police or army to Slovakia. Instead, he resigned on the same day. Czechs weren't like the Spaniards and they generally understood that if (two?) millions of people who live in 1/3 of our country have a rather serious problem with the basic constitutional arrangement of Czechoslovakia, then we must change the constitutional arrangement, not the millions of citizens! At some level, millions of citizens' strong opinions have to be primary and prevail over the constitutional order which has to be considered derived from the people.

The disappointment faded away quickly. Czechs adapted themselves to the new order with independent countries, became somewhat proud about their ability to do this transition right, and any anger about the Slovaks that could have existed has evaporated quickly. PM Vladimír Mečiar semi-isolated Slovakia in the first 5 years of Slovakia's independent existence but we had some sympathy for Slovakia and the anti-Mečiar attitudes of many Czechs, while real, didn't have a "nationalist", generally anti-Slovak, driver.

I think that by 2000, it was already rather clear that Czechs, and not the Slovaks, are actually the more nationalist nation that wants to preserve its special characteristics. Already the first right-wing Slovak governments after Mečiar were rather clearly pushing for the policy "hey Slovaks, let's get dissolved in Europe completely". The whole elevated Slovak nationalism of the early 1990s was just a temporary fluke of a sort which only played one role, to dissolve Czechoslovakia. The most visible consequence of the Slovak globalism is the 2009 happy Slovak entry to the Eurozone. In Czechia which uses its CZK crown currency, the opposition to the Euro remains almost universal – among influential left-wing and right-wing politicians, central bankers, analysts and economists, entrepreneurs, and the public. The attitudes couldn't be more different. And incidentally, I do believe that Slovakia was among the rare countries that may have benefited from the Euro.

Well, Czechs may have looked like "relative globalists" in the early 1990s (also partly because the globalist PC "Prague Café" was very influential in the Czech politics soon after the Velvet Revolution) but in the long run, it is very obvious that the Czech national identity and/or the Czech patriotism and pride about some of our specifics is sharper and more resilient than the Slovak counterparts. This fact is utterly logical if you think about the history of the two nations.

Czechs are willing to differentiate themselves from "generic Europe" much more than Slovaks because they've had a much more readable national identity in the past, too. There had never been any Slovak state up to March 1939 when it was created with a huge support from Germany. That's very different from the Czech statehood which has existed for over 1000 years.

The question "whether our nation may legitimately expect to keep its differences relatively to Europe" is unsurprisingly answered differently in Czechia and in Slovakia. The Czech kingdom was more or less independent during the second millennium – and sometimes more tightly, sometimes less tightly integrated into the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Empire, both led by the German speakers.

But even when the Czech kingdom was tightly integrated into to the German-speaker-led empires, like between 1526 or 1620 up to the 19th century if not 1918, the nation still recognized that there was no "law of physics" saying that we had to be "like the Germans" or "like the Austrians" in all respects or forever. The tighter incorporation to these German-speaking empires has been variable and, on several occasions, temporary.

On top of that, even when Czechia was semi-integrated into the empires, there was a readable affiliation of most Czechs with some political forces within the empire. Bohemia has played a role of a player that did help some German politicians against other German politicians (and would-be emperors, in some cases) in "internal" German political struggles (because those were partly ours, too) – Czechs usually picked the winner as the ally, at least before 1620. Between the 10th and 13th century, Bohemia got some royal advantages for picking the right side of the internal German disputes. Most prominently, Czechs were "naturally" Protestants between the 15th and 17th century, before they were re-Catholicized by the brute force. Although the re-Catholicization (let's say 1620-1848) turned the Czech lands to places that are closer to Austria, Bavaria, and Southern Germany (the Catholic places), the pre-existing "authentic" Czech national identity was actually closer to the Northern Germans (and the Dutch), the Protestants.

The history was very different in Slovakia before 1939. Slovaks were just some generic Slavic speakers (and folks like shepherds) within the Kingdom of Hungary (that was devoured by Austria at some moment, but the local life of Slovaks was still determined by Hungarians, not Austrians). It was the Hungarians who had almost all the political power. Most Slovaks were Catholic, like the Hungarians, and even the small group of Protestants must have been considered as a branch of a foreign (Czech) movement, not a truly standalone Slovak political group. A change occurred in 1918 and it was mostly the Czechs who had the power over important Slovak political issues although Slovaks surely became more powerful (and increasingly powerful, in 1918-1992) in Czechoslovakia than they had been in the Kingdom of Hungary – well, they had also influenced the name of the country for the first time.

The Slovak presidential palace in Bratislava, the capital and the largest city. Bratislava, previously known as Pozsony in Hungarian and Pressburg in German, is almost adjacent to both Hungarian and Austrian borders and has been historically controlled by these two non-Slavic nations. This marginal location as well as the "foreign" history of the capital – which is so strikingly different from that of Prague, a city close to the center of Bohemia – is both a sign and a cause of the limited sense of "actual" sovereignty among Slovaks. Bratislava has also been besieged and damaged, but not conquered, by the Turks.

But because of this centuries-long dependence of the Slovaks on actual decisions that are made by a different nation – by powerful folks who actually speak a different language – Slovaks instinctively think that this is the default method to decide about "general human questions" on the territory of their European country. I think that I have some understanding for this knee-jerk reaction because Czechs aren't so "infinitely far" from that way of thinking, either. Well, the Slovak rural folks still think it would be pretty absurd for them to live with lots of Muslims etc. On the other hand, it's natural for them to leave some big decisions to Bratislava which is more integrated with the EU and the "world". The Czech countryside (including the "countryside" as used by the Prague folks which also incorporates mega-cities like Pilsen) has been way more self-confident than that – after all, the Czech countryside has also produced the Hussites who have defeated many and successfully robbed stuff in tons of Western European countries, too. ;-)

This explanation of the relative contemporary Slovak globalism isn't 100% accurate. There are other reasons for the Czech and Slovak different attitudes towards globalism. One of the other reasons is the huge numerical strength of the class that used to be the "working class" in Czechia – although the people with a similar thinking are surely doing fancier jobs today in average. But they're still proud employees with a certain flavor of populist group think. Because e.g. the Middle Eastern migrants obviously don't depend on this "Czech working class", they are less enthusiastically accepted than they might be in other countries.

And there's one additional simple reason why Slovaks are more globalist than Czechs: they are a smaller nation (5.5 instead of our 10.5 million). Members of nations with more than 30 million people generally overstate how "small" nations with the population 5-10 million are. You know, even "de facto imperial powers" like the Dutch, the Swedes, and others are around 10 million. That's the size of the "median" European nations, not "small" nations, and around 10 million, a nation may be self-sufficient and complete in most respects. And you need days to walk from the center of Czechia to the border, too. It's not like a tiny quantum dot. On the other hand, somewhere between 1 and 10 million, there's the gradual transition to a nation that can't be self-sufficient and whose dependence on others – incorporation into a broader system – unavoidably beats sovereignty in most respects.

At any rate, there exist many competing nations, blocs of nations, and plans for the civilization. And they are competing – sometimes by persuasion, sometimes by shouting matches, sometimes with weapons – for territories, the political power, as well as the human material of whole nations. Czechs may be thinking about the most contemporary, seemingly global, questions but they still do so from the perspective of our history, our national character, and the lessons that we have apparently learned from our history. To put it simply, we know that lots of the bad ideas may come from Western Europe as well (aside from the good things like individualism, enlightenment, capitalism, human rights, religious and other freedoms, scientific and industrial revolutions... Western Europe has really created Nazism, fascism, and communism, too) and our Western European overlords or allies may betray us or treat us badly. We need to be ready for such things, we need to realize that our nation doesn't have the same interests and the same thinking as others, that some latest fads abroad aren't necessarily ours as well, we need to be ready to oppose some uncontrollable phase transitions that have often taken place in Western Europe, and our social conservatism in such contexts is right for our long-term survival and for the future of Europe, too.

Others would summarize the specific Czech attitude differently. But the point is that Czechoslovakia was really a project that sort of spread and enforced the Czech perspectives and ideals about the future of Europe on a larger territory that incorporated Slovakia – and also the Subcarpathian Ruthenia for a while. It could have succeeded and after a few more decades, the Slovaks could have thought just like Czechs. But we simply hadn't gotten this far and it was still obvious – and it is even more obvious now – that Slovaks are ultimately much more willing to become players in plans for Europe that are designed in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, or San Francisco (to pick a somewhat more appropriately progressive U.S. city LOL).

So the grander Czech plans have really lost much of Slovakia as well. I am not quite impartial, despite the clear limits of my Czech patriotism, I think it's closer to a pity than to good news. And I think that people in other countries – and I mean mostly my readers in Northern America and Western Europe – should try to increase their empathy for the spirit and political thinking that I sketched as the Czech one which remains almost completely unfamiliar in the West.

Various nations, like the French, liked to be "special" and keep their identity. However, despite the French language that differs from the contemporary lingua franca, English, France has become a canonical driver of the mindless globalization in the present world. I would like the people to understand that Czechia also has some separate strong national identity, some lessons and emphases that differ from the European average, and these attitudes have been more likely to be on the right side of the history for quite some time. Czechs aren't the most creative or productive nation in the world. But our calm attitudes are e.g. a top reason why Prague could have preserved its historical architecture – and many other "clearly positive" outcomes. In 100 years, do you want our current civilization to be as preserved as the historical Prague or the historical Dresden? You know, if you prefer the appearances of Prague, maybe you should embrace some of the (calm, pragmatic, never overlooking the long history and the limits of current fads in the future) Czech political attitudes as well because those aren't quite independent things...

Lots of the Slovak shepherds are voting for a "progressive" female lawyers. In isolation, her victory may look fine but in the broader perspective, it's a part of an unwelcome trend. It would be great if many folks in other countries could spiritually join the "Czech thinking" as the ultimate Central European plan for the future of the continent and the Western civilization because the strength of a similar kind of thinking may very well decide about the survival of our civilization in the 21st century.

And that's the memo.

P.S.: One recent event linked to Czechs, Slovaks, and Cosmopolitanism. Mr Jozef Kabáň, a Slovak man, has been the top designer of Škoda Auto, the Czech unit owned by the Volkswagen Group. He moved to Audi in 2003 and to Škoda in 2008. I think it was under his supervision when the Škoda cars really became more attractive than the VW proper, Seat, and often also Audi cars based on the same platforms. I think that every person who impartially evaluated the feedback must have agreed that Škoda was doing better than "another VW unit", especially in design, and that it had to have something to do with the bosses of the design in Škoda.

I have repeatedly said that I wouldn't have allowed him to leave. I would have tripled his salary if needed because his exit may be shown to be a huge mistake. Well, Slovaks and especially Czechs often fail to appreciate their people. So he left. Now, there's at least one board that seems to agree with me that you really should hire this guy: Kabáň was just named the design boss of Rolls-Royce.

There will never be any "truly rigorous proof" that he should have been kept but I think that this new job is already rather close to that proof. ;-)

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