What is growing on the grave of socialism?

by Olga Samborska

Now that the protests against the International Monetary Fund IMF are over, the passions are beginning to cool down. Finally we can observe the fruits of what the Czech democracy is about and what has been growing on the grave of the real socialist system in the center of Europe.

Yes, protests are important, and so are the feelings of solidarity that accompany them. Yes, the IMF’s reactions to the upheaval around it are important, and so are the consequences on the development of the economy on a global scale. Yes, the first experience of Eastern European activists alongside Western Europeans is important, and so are the discussions of violence and non-violence that have arisen. But the discussion on each of these issues will follow its course. The protesters will have many new points to discuss in continuing their resistance. The IMF will have to deal with the demands of the protesters and make its policy more humane in some ways, because from now on and for a long time to come it will be under a strong observation and pressure throughout the world, until everybody has realized the uselessness of this type of transnational organization. Eastern European activists received a good injection of inspiration seeing themselves by the thousands in a politically active crowd. On the other hand, NGO campaigners will try to take their distance from radical activists in order to save their image as peaceful critics of IMF policies and continue to receive grants for their projects from international financial institutions.

Among the subjects present during these events, however, there is one that is left with an unclear future. This is the Czech state regime that during the past 10 years has evolved with the pretence of being democratic and during the recent events was faced with a serious test on the validity of this claim. Czech people have become used to believing that the revolution of 1989 has at once turned their society from a totalitarian system into a democracy. We are faced with the paradox that Czech people are busy building democracy, but at the same time that democracy is already there. What does such democracy look like in reality?

The first thing that hits the eye is the legitimized violence of the ruling body of the Czech state. In Soviet times there was a point of reference in the name of which the revolution took place and the Communist Party legitimized its terror. The point of reference was the future – the kingdom of communism. Now that the future has changed, what remains and continues to give unlimited legitimacy to the violence of power is the nation. In the Soviet system, “the distinction between the state and society disappears – power purports to ‘represent all the people’” (1) and has the monopoly of defining people's needs. In democracy, on the other hand, the legitimization of violence works by constructing ‘the people’ as a group with a common interest, which needs to be protected by the state, the police, the military from the ‘others’ (demonstrators, drug addicts, poor people, migrants, others that don’t fit in). Of course, for those of us who do not accept to exclude all these groups from any notion of ‘the people’, it seems absurd that the police might shoot into a crowd or drown the streets and passersby in a cloud of tear gas.

It is striking how unconditionally the Czech police took over the role of protecting a foreign institution like the IMF from those who came to Prague to protest against the policies of the transnational financial institutions. The police even forgot about local people’s needs. The Czech lawyer Vaclav Vlk complains: “The police should look after the property and safety of all citizens and not exclusively of selected individuals – bankers.”

The fact that the police took sides turned the Global Action Day and the Street Party planned for September 26 into Bloody Party. The authorities set up an army of 11’000 police officers against 10-15’000 demonstrators. During the IMF conference, police helicopters spent 71 hours hovering over Prague. In the course of three days of actions the police detained 889 people, 18 of whom were accused of ‘crimes against public servants’. Some of them are still in jail. Medical doctors gave help to 142 activists and 123 police officers. 13 activists were taken to the hospital with broken legs and ribs, with wounds on their head or in similarly serious condition. The battle between police officers who blocked the way to the Congress Center where the IMF clique was meeting and activists who wanted to prevent the meeting ended in broken corporate property – the McDonald’s, KFCs, banks that have in recent times become an inseparable and inescapable part of Prague.

When the signs and insignia of the old Communist enemy made their appearance on the streets, carried by a variety of leftists from 40 different countries, it was already clear as common sense that the ordinary Czech person would take the side of repression against the protesters. Police officers started to play the role of real heroes and received, on the Day of Action against the IMF, the visit of the Head of State. Vaclav Havel staged his visit in a typical Soviet-style performance, shaking hands with the ones he had been confronting just ten years ago and with whom he as an ex-prisoner surely has a special relationship. The friendly visit of the President of the State legitimized the crimes of the police and gave the ‘green light’ for all subsequent brutality. The ‘heroes’ used the methods established for the Soviet-time repression machine, methods which seem to have become their second nature: use of physical force to humiliate people, etc.

The old propaganda trick of depicting the current state as ‘natural’ and protesters as uselessly fighting against the ‘state of nature’ seems to appeal successfully to stereotypes present in the perception of people in the Czech Republic: “The market economy is seen as natural in opposition to the consciously created planned economy […] because ‘nobody created it’”, and “the market economy is seen as superior to the planned socialist economy.” (2) In this dichotomy between ‘natural’ and ‘consciously created’, the latter is considered alien and is rejected. It is interesting to note that the ‘natural condition’ against which resistance is useless has to be imposed with an army of police officers, as we have witnessed in Prague.

The rejection of willful change is also one of the reasons why feminist discussions have been greeted with great skepticism. While feminism is rejected as something that may be needed in the West but has no place in the Czech Republic, on another level the public discourse is completely oriented towards the West: “Similarly, the indisputable incorporation of Czechoslovakia into the Eastern block has now been replaced by emphasising its Western orientation”. (3) That is an additional reason why the appearance of red stars in the streets of Prague had a very negative effect on the media and ordinary people.

During the events, the mask fell from the face of a society claiming to be peaceful. In a poll by the Sofres-Factum agency, almost 43 percent of Prague inhabitants expressed the opinion that demonstrators should work off the damage they had caused. Another 40 percent would be content to just make them pay, without forced labor. Only one in a hundred person did not see the need to punish protesters.

Jan Krause writes in the weekly Tyden: “They throw paving stones because apparently they want the world to be such as it has never existed before. Thoughtful, with solidarity, generous and just. Some were shouting names of communist enemies as their favorite heroes, others called for the unity of the proletarians from all over the world. We’ve heard all this before. The unity of the world proletariat was on the daily agenda and gave the communists free hand to turn every citizen of the planet into a proletarian. We have it fresh on our minds. So we know how the ‘world of the righteous’ will end.”

In this context the Czech Republic does not look like the best place for revolutionary ideas to take roots. The only ideas that stand a chance are those that, from a Czech point of view, follow the common sense as it has proved its worth in history. Eva Hauserova, a Czech writer, visited an workshop at the official Public Discussion Forum at which Vandava Shiva talked about how globalization affects women from the Third World. She left completely disappointed by the calls for struggle. Her conclusion: “Fanatical leftists!” The media were just waiting for an analysis like hers. It appeared in the main Czech daily MF Dnes under the title: “I don’t want to be a resister against the IMF!” (MF Dnes, 29 September 2000).

The events in Prague confirm the prognosis of some analysts of the transformation period of Central and Eastern European countries: “The danger which one encounters in new societies created on the grave of socialism is that, in their very democratic enthusiasm, they tend to overlook the constitutive self-binding of democracy. National euphoria, all sort of quests for enemies (in the image of communists, Jews, excessive women, or members of other nationalities), can lead the new power to bow to the old totalitarian logic of retroactive legitimization of violence in the name of the nation or in the name of preserving ‘democracy’ itself.” (4) In other words, to limit democracy for the sake of some future democracy.

The image of the enemy became clear already one year ago when the information surfaced about 20’000 activists from all around the world coming to Prague to protest the IMF meeting. The label of “resisters of globalization“ was created for launching a campaign against the new enemies against which the state had to mobilize its efforts. The historical architecture of the city of Prague had to be protected from the barbarians. The population had to be saved from the aggression. Children from Prague, pensioners, students were offered compensation if they agreed to move out of Prague into holiday resorts. The money for these compensations came directly from IMF conference budget.

It is hypocritical to say that if no violence had taken place in the streets, the Czech population would have taken the side of the demonstrators. The violence just provided them with a good excuse. In addition, ‘agents provocateurs’ of the police were active in the streets, succeeding in creating a situation that not only increased the anger of the Czech population but also an opportunity for laundering money under the guise of “covering the costs of the IMF conference”.

A fundamental skepticism towards anything unfamiliar, anything that does not follow Czech standards, contributed to forming the Czech public opinion. Appearance being often more important than content, the general picture of the protests outright shocked Czech people. “A herd of originals” or “a circus” are expressions that could be found in media for describing the demonstrators – maybe someone should have explained to the people how come protesters choose dancing and a big show as a form of protest. We are reminded of a big discussion that took place in the pages of MF Dnes last winter about Western tourists visiting the National Theater and the Opera. Anger flared up because of the appearance of British tourists visiting the high places of culture in ordinary leisure clothes and disturbing the traditional Czech etiquette. The authors of the article at the time called the Czech audience to show more tolerance, but in September nobody even tried to heed this warning. Those who were not in a position to drown the protesters in tear-gas fill the media with dirty stories developed a strong rejection of those who had something to say in the streets.

Of course, in the Czech Republic, the tradition of taking to the streets to express one’s opinion was rooted out already in Soviet times. The ease with which the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989 took down the regime, helped by the interests of local elites to replace the previous system of power with a more effective one, taught Czech citizens that a better life can be achieved without big efforts. A well-developed social-care system allows Czech people to close their eyes on poverty. Problems that are widespread in Eastern Europe, like unpaid wages over extended periods of time, high unemployment, pensioners searching the garbage, and the collapse of the health-care system, have not yet become very visible to ordinary Czech citizens. “As long as there is beer in the plenty, there is no reason to take to the streets,” I heard someone say. That is why the call for standing up and fighting poverty and international financial institutions did not ring a bell about people’s own distress in the Czech Republic.

The IMF and the World Bank ended their meeting one day early. Activists believe that this happened because of the protests. Bankers believe that the meeting was ended just because they had finished their discussions and had nothing more to say. The Czech police officers are getting applause for their “brilliant” service. Hundred of activists will not be able to come to the Czech Republic any time soon because of the deportation stamps in their passports, and hundreds of protesters need to deal with the brutality in Czech prisons and inform wider audience about what actually happened during those three September days in Prague.

The Czech authorities hope that the Congress Center, a cultural center revamped especially for the occasion, will bring huge profits from future congresses, and only the Czech tax-payers don’t know yet that they will pick up the bill to maintain and run this huge building and carry the consequences of the promises of investments by the IMF and WB. But what is clear is that nobody will change their opinion about what happened. As it seems, the Prague events have helped reunite the power and the people, against an enemy called “resisters of globalization”. This enemy from the West is now added to the old list of enemies that justified building a strong police apparatus – the ‘Russian Mafia’, migrants, gypsies. In this atmosphere the police authorities have launched the idea of starting to use rubber bullets against demonstrators, and the parliament will soon consider this proposition. The society is clearly on the side of a stronger militarization of the police.

With all this discourse about ‘enemies’, there are real people sitting in Czech jails, even after all activists are released. Just a few months ago the Czech Republic was shaken by a strike in Czech prisons, after those who face horrible conditions there, as well as the brutality of the police, lost their patience. Their voice remained unheard – but the international attention to the situation in Czech prisons after the Prague events can strengthen their struggle. And there are those real-life activists who will remain in Prague after the international delegations have gone home, and who are sure to serve as scapegoats in the eyes of the public. There is a reason to be scared of what is growing on the grave of real-socialism in the Czech Republic. If nobody stops it, that is.


  1. Renata Salecl “The Spoils of freedom”, 1994, p. 96-97
  2. Ladislav Holy “The little Czech and Great Czech nation”, 1996, p.180-181
  3. Jan Potocka, Cesky denik, 27
  4. Renata Salecl “The Spoils of freedom”, 1994, p. 96