PRAGUE, Czech Republic--In the days before Czechs voted on joining the European Union, a giant metronome on a hill overlooking the Vltava River swung between two giant signposts, one reading “Yes” and the other “No.”
By the time the metronome stopped ticking, the direction its hand was pointing was absolutely clear: 77.3 percent of Czechs had voted in favor of joining the EU in May 2004.
Support on this scale surprised some commentators, with the political weekly Respekt asserting that “only real optimists could have expected such good news.” Opinion polls had long indicated that the referendum would succeed--partly because the result did not require a minimum turnout to be recognized as legitimate. Nonetheless, the speculation that the no vote could be large had been taken to a new level by the EU commissioner for enlargement, Gunther Verheugen, who said that if there were a Nobel prize for skepticism, the Czechs would win.
In the end, the Czechs showed that they feel very much the same about the EU as their Central and Eastern European neighbors. Although the yes count was the lowest so far in the region’s series of referendums, which have shown support ranging from 78 percent (in Poland) to 93 percent (in Slovakia), political analyst Bohumil Dolezal argues that “it is clear that these results are not much better or worse than the results in other Visegrad countries.” (The three other members of the Visegrad Group are Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.)
The turnout was also similar, though fewer voted in Hungary (45.6 percent) and Slovakia (52.1 percent).
The new EU commissioner will take his seat in Brussels backed by a consensus that was broadly similar across town and country, age, profession, and education. Only the opinions of the unemployed (65 percent) and Communist voters (37 percent) differed significantly from the average.
‘FOR THE FIRST TIME, NO ONE HAS DECIDED FOR CZECHS’
For Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, the result closed the post-1989 chapter of Czech history. “For the first time, no one has decided for Czech citizens. It is Czech citizens who have made their own decision,” he said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who leads the Social Democrats, the strongest party in the governing coalition, reached further back into history. The results put a line under World War II, which “tore the Czech lands out of Europe.” After the weekend’s historic, fateful vote, the Czech Republic could expect peace, progress, and stability from membership. The Czech Republic would enter the EU confident of itself, independent, and capable of influencing the union’s affairs, he said.
Political analyst Dolezal took a more down-to-earth view, saying that “there is no reason for either pessimism or euphoria.”
Antonin Berdych from the Institute for International Affairs contends that the Czechs really are a skeptical nation. The results of the referendum did not disprove that, but instead showed just how strongly Czechs support the EU. He believes the EU is the “only reasonable option” for Czech foreign policy.
Voters expressed a wide range of reasons for wanting to join the EU as they emerged from polling stations. A 46-year-old civil servant, Ivana Musilova, said she expected membership to improve the lives of future generations of Czechs, if not current generations. Although prices might go up initially, she believes “accession will mean better opportunities for business, studies, and employment abroad.” Petra Dobra, a 33-year-old waitress, expects the Czech health care and education system to improve.
Despite the success of the referendum, doubts remain about the enthusiasm of the country’s political elite for European integration.
Alone of all the region’s presidents, Vaclav Klaus refused to say whether he had voted yes. Before the vote he called on Czechs to vote but said that “in no way can or would I want to” influence anyone. Speaking to the BBC’s Czech service before the referendum, he supported his case by saying “I was elected president of the Czech Republic, including all its citizens--both those who will vote for and against accession.”
Pressed to make his position clear as he left the polling station, Klaus replied with the words: “I’ll say only one thing, and that is that I voted correctly. That’s the important news.”
Nor did he do much to lift the suspicion that he had voted no when he failed to come out with a statement immediately after the result. He finally broke his silence a day later, saying that the Czechs had “passed [a] test” in voting in the referendum.
Over the past decade, Klaus has been arguably the most prominent euroskeptic in the region, or “eurorealist,” in his own phrase. During the campaign, he refrained from similar criticisms, but he did tell the daily Lidove noviny that Czechs should have “enjoyed their independence” for longer than they did. However, “because of European developments that run ahead without regard for us and our little country, this phase has been very short.”
In characteristically forthright style, he had earlier criticized the campaign, which cost 200 million crowns ($7.6 million), as “biased, stupid propaganda” that was holding up “rose-tinted glasses” to people’s eyes. The campaign included television spots showing Czech pensioners spending holidays in Sicily and Mallorca after accession.
People close to the president were more open in their comments. Petr Mach, an adviser to Klaus, declared before the referendum that he would vote no, telling one publication that “[After accession] some laws could be adopted against the Czech government’s will because it will have too little say.” In another interview, he warned of a “demographic crisis” in the EU in 2005 and 2006 that would lead Germany to question the amount of money it is paying into the EU’s coffers. “As soon as the Germans say they’ll stop paying, there won’t be much of this Europe left,” he concluded.
Dolezal dismisses fears that the Czech Republic will have too little weight in the union. “It is like a parliamentary deputy refusing to do his or her job because he or she might be outvoted. That makes no sense,” he says. “Of course a small country must be aware that it is a small country and adjust its policy to match its capacity. It does not mean, though, that it cannot conduct a free policy.”
He believes the recent Iraq crisis is a vivid example of “something that the Czech Republic can influence,” foreign policy. “It just needs to find allies that will share the same views,” he contends.
Despite its success in seeing through what it described as its most important task, the Czech government, like its Polish counterpart, may find the post-referendum period tough. In an interview for the left-wing daily Pravo on 16 June, Spidla announced that he would resign if he failed to push planned public finance reforms through parliament. That would trigger the collapse of the coalition government. The danger that the reforms might be voted down is significant. The government enjoys only a two-vote majority in parliament, and deep divisions within Spidla’s Social Democrats led to the election of Vaclav Klaus against the party leadership’s wishes.
There was even speculation before the referendum that a low turnout would bring down the Spidla cabinet, although there was no minimum turnout needed to ensure the legitimacy of the vote.
Based on current opinion polls, Klaus’ former party, the Civil Democrats (ODS), would win any election with 33 percent of the vote. Only two majority governments would probably be possible: between the right-wing Civil Democrats and the Social Democrats, or between the Civil Democrats and Christian Democrats.
In May 2004, when the Czech Republic joins the EU, the EU could therefore find itself dealing with a government with a far more ambiguous attitude toward European integration. Over the past 10 years, the ODS has publicly presented accession as being in the country’s national interest. In 1998, Klaus, then the country’s prime minister, signed the country’s application to join, and in 1999 the ODS declared on its election billboards that “the ODS votes Europe.” Nonetheless, the party’s relationship with the EU is lukewarm. That was highlighted on the eve of the EU referendum when Jan Zahradil, the party’s shadow foreign minister, resigned from the Czech delegation that is currently debating the new EU constitution on the grounds that “it will contain some points with which I cannot identify.”
--by Katya Zapletnyuk
Border Life: Close Encounters of the Czech-Austrian Kind
How 13 years of (relatively) open borders has and hasn’t changed life at what was once the end of the communist world. From Respekt.
by Marek Svehla
13 June 2003
Euroskeptics: Intellectuals Against the EU
Many Czech intellectuals view the EU as an evil that should be given a wide berth. From Lidove noviny.
by Petr Zidek
13 June 2003
The history of the Czech Republic’s efforts to join the EU can be tracked in TOL’s archives and the archives of our predecessors, the print magazines Transitions (1997 – 1999) and Transition (1994 – 1997).
Poland: From Celebration to Survival Mode
Poland’s ‘reloaded’ Prime Minister Leszek Miller survives another confidence vote within days of the EU referendum.
WARSAW, Poland--Fresh from victory in the nationwide referendum on joining the European Union, Prime Minister Leszek Miller wasted no time in putting his shaky government's life on the line, calling for a parliamentary vote of confidence. With no abstentions, the Sejm on 13 June voted 236 to 213 in Miller's favor--close, but not as close as many observers expected.
The cabinet was supported by the governing Social Democrats (SLD) and their Labor Union (UP) coalition partner, as well as two small farmers' parties and several independent deputies.
Coming just five days after Poles gave their approval to EU membership, the vote was the second major win in a week for a Social Democratic leader who has been unable to kickstart an economy mired in 18 percent unemployment and whose fragile coalition government almost collapsed last winter.
Before the vote was called, Miller, appearing confident and composed, spent two hours answering parliamentarians' questions.
The vote gives Miller’s unpopular cabinet a fresh chance to tackle key reforms needed to prepare Poland for joining the EU next year. His administration will have to handle complicated preparations for EU entry in May 2004 in the face of recent opinion poll findings that some 70 percent of the citizenry are unhappy with the government's recent performance--mainly because of sleaze allegations and the continuing high jobless figures.
Well aware of public unrest, Miller launched his initial counterattack just a day after the successful referendum. On 9 June he told SLD leaders that he intended to stay in office until the end of the current Sejm term in 2005, even though in April he had told President Aleksander Kwasniewski he would call elections in June 2004. That was seen as a last-ditch effort to maintain the president's faltering goodwill.
Miller also proposed significant changes in economic and financial policy, including a revamp of the tax system through an 18 percent flat tax. Some of the responsibility for coordinating financial policy will be shifted from the Finance Ministry to the Economy Ministry, headed by Jerzy Hausner.
Kwasniewski was also active in the days following the EU referendum, consulting with pro-EU parties on moving crucial financial and other reforms through the Sejm in the 11 months before the country becomes a full EU member. Kwasniewski had earlier hinted that Miller's job could also be a topic of discussion.
Few were surprised when Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko, an opponent of the flat tax, submitted his resignation two days after Miller announced his tax plan. His successor will be Andrzej Raczko, a former deputy to Finance Minister Marek Belka. Belka himself resigned last July.
Kolodko favored holding the line on public spending but had been accused of making overly optimistic economic forecasts. Pekao Bank chief economist Dariusz Filar said Kolodko failed to disclose the true size of next year's budget deficit. Kolodko proposed taking 9 billion zlotys ($2.4 billion) from the Central Bank's so-called revaluation reserves to close the gap, but bank chairman and former Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz emphatically rejected the idea, saying it would entail printing money in quantities the constitution did not allow.
Another analyst, Krzysztof Dzierzawski of the liberal Adam Smith Center think tank, speculated that Kolodko’s departure could result in even more confusion over the government's policies.
Economy Minister Hausner is known to favor boosting economic growth even at the expense of adding to the deficit--a risky approach that relies too much on EU funds, said Rafal Antczak of the Center for Social-Economic Analysis. Another analyst from the center, Jaroslaw Neneman, said Hausner's proposal to raise workers' tax-free income from 2,700 to 4,000 zlotys ($1,070) could overburden the state budget.
Playing on the title of a blockbuster science-fiction film, the weekly Polityka coined a phrase for the premier's sudden surge of political energy: Miller: Reloaded.”
But although the prime minister is now in a relatively strong position, some commentators were skeptical of his ability to steer his unstable government through the rest of its term.
Political commentator Janina Paradowska told Polish Radio that the victory can't obscure the government's helplessness and Miller's inability to field workable policies.
Bronisław Wildstein of Rzeczpospolita told Polish Radio that Miller's success did not auger the same for his party or for the country, which indeed would face even more trouble in the future.
At present Miller is the only candidate for SLD leader ahead of the party congress to be held at the end of June, although rebels within the party may try to field their own candidate. Before then, the prime minister must face another round of questioning over his involvement in the Rywingate bribery scandal by a parliamentary commission on 16 and 18 June. He has already survived one no-confidence vote over the scandal.
--by Jakub Jedras
Week in Review: Votes Yes, Loudly
Voters in the largest candidate country repeat the pattern seen in other EU referendums, saying a loud yes.
9 June 2003
Our Take: Europe’s New Power
Poland’s new prominence has aroused fear and caused disorientation. The fear is misplaced and the disorientation useful.
9 June 2003
Week in Review: Saved from Collapse?
Poland's prime minister offers early elections in exchange for cross-party support for reforms ahead of EU accession.
1 - 7 April 2003
Our Poland country file at https://tol.org/client/article/category/regions/central-europe-baltics/poland is your source for Polish news, features, statistics, maps, and annual reports.
Kazakhstan: The Power of Parliament?
Kazakh government falls after a normally quiescent parliament rebels, but opposition figures expect political repression to continue, if not increase.
MOSCOW, Russia--Kazakhstan has its second new government in less than 18 months. The resignation of the country’s prime minister, officially because his supporters in parliament had falsified the vote count, could also signal a watering-down of one of his key reforms, the privatization of agricultural land.
Imangali Tasmaghambetov, who left office on 11 June, a month after first submitting his resignation to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, will be replaced by Daniyal Akhmetov, a regional governor and former deputy prime minister.
Tasmaghambetov’s departure is unusual in Kazakh politics as it was triggered by a major revolt in the normally quiescent parliament. Since late 2002, members of the Majilis have raised concerns about the possible impact on rural communities of a new law that would privatize agricultural land. Opponents of the bill had called for hundreds of amendments. These, though, were rejected by Tasmaghambetov, who claimed that the key points of his reform would have been rendered “almost ineffective.”
Roughly four in every 10 Kazakhs lives in the countryside, and the agricultural sector has missed out on the boom in Kazakhstan’s economy, which has expanded rapidly in recent years thanks to high oil prices. The economy expanded by 9.5 percent last year, after growing 13.7 percent in 2001.
However, Tasmaghambetov managed to push the bill through parliament when, in May, he linked the fate of his government with the bill. His government survived the vote of confidence, though only just.
Two-thirds of members of parliament’s upper and lower chambers would have had to vote against the government for Tasmaghambetov’s gamble to have failed. Once the votes of the two chambers had been added together, he won the quorum he needed. However, nearly three-quarters of the deputies in the lower house voted against the government.
Moreover, allegations then emerged that the vote had been manipulated.
When he announced his resignation, Tasmaghambetov acknowledged that “the results of the vote were falsified.
“The whole performance was organized by some Majilis deputies,” he claimed, but “as prime minister, I had no right to continue to cover the whole thing up, and I officially asked our president to release me from this position on 19 May, Tasmaghambetov said.
I had no intention of changing the government so soon, President Nazarbaev said. But … I accepted his resignation after he made a second request.
LAND REFORM LIKELY TO BE WATERED DOWN
Tasmaghambetov's resignation may prove a victory for opponents of land reform, as Nazarbaev now says that he will send the package back to the lower house for debate. Before the government’s collapse, the bill had looked set to become law any day now. The president had said that he would sign the bill once the Constitutional Court ruled that is was legal. It did so on 10 June.
However, on the day that Tasmaghambetov resigned--11 June--Nazarbaev met with parliamentary deputies and, according to Ualikhan Qalizhan, a deputy, said he had reviewed all the articles of the land code. “After taking into account the consequences of the draft code on Kazakh society, he decided to introduce some amendments,” Qalizhan reported.
“If everything is fine, we will discuss the president's proposals on 27 June.
Nazarbaev’s change in position also fuels speculation that Tasmaghambetov did not resign, but was instead forced out of office.
Tasmaghambetov may have served for a shorter period than any other prime minister since 1991, but changes in government have been frequent. The previous prime minister, Kasymzhomart Tokaev, lasted two and a half years before he decided to resign, saying that it was time for new people with new ideas.
Tokaev’s decision came several months after allegations of several assassination plots against the president and the emergence of a new opposition movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK). The timing prompted speculation that Nazarbaev had removed Tokaev in an effort to ease the pressure on himself. At the time, DCK member Bulat Abilov claimed that the new movement had played a historic role in Tokaev's downfall.
Observers believe there may have been a similar motive this time, with Nazarbaev sacrificing Tasmaghambetov in an attempt to save face after his reforms encountered unexpected resistance from a usually docile parliament.
The president also faces political pressure from outside parliament. The DCK is calling for a national referendum to decide on land privatization.
AKHMETOV TO CONTINUE REPRISALS, SAYS OPPOSITION
While there is now a greater possibility that Tasmaghambetov’s land reform will be watered down, Nazarbaev did not suggest that any change in the general thrust of government policy is likely. The president called for “a faster tempo of social and economic development” but said that this should be done “by implementing the programs adopted by the old government.
Akhmetov’s task would be to ensure the continuity of reforms, he said. All the programs that I approved this year were drafted when Akhmetov was a deputy prime minister,” he pointed out.
Similarly, while the change in government could be a sop to opponents, it does not indicate that Nazarbaev’s position is weakening. Akhmetov is a loyalist, and the trust that the president places in him was emphasized when he chose Akhmetov as his candidate in elections to the governorship of the Pavlodar region. As part of the country’s industrial heartland, Pavlodar is a particularly important region economically. Politically, it is also sensitive. A previous governor, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, was imprisoned on corruption charges after co-founding the DCK. He remains in jail, despite the release last month of another key figure in the DCK, Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Indeed, on the pages of a Russian-language website, navigator.ru, opposition activist Nurbulat Masanov greeted Akhmetov’s appointment as a demonstration that the president’s “priorities are repression, and the suppression of dissent and opposition.” Akhmetov has been appointed prime minister “with the purpose of continuing reprisals,” he asserted.
The opposition newspaper Respublika believes, however, that Akhmetov could prove a transitional figure, as his appointment could bring to a head Kazakhstan’s political crisis, forcing changes in the political scene even before the next parliamentary elections in autumn 2004.
--by Rashid Dyussembayev
Week in Review: New Government, New Ideas?
Following the resignation of the Kazakh prime minister, questions are being asked about the president's plans for the country.
29 January – 4 February 2002
Week in Review: The Astana Spring?
The Kazakh president pardons a leading opposition critic amid competing speculation that more pardons are pending and that the crackdown will continue.
13 - 19 May 2003
Articles, annual reports, books, music, statistics, and maps can all be found in TOL’s Kazakhstan country file, at https://tol.org/client/article/category/regions/central-asia/kazakhstan.
Russia: Soros Bows Out
The philanthropist George Soros pulls most of his funds out of Russia--to help civil society in the United States.
MOSCOW--After a decade and a half and nearly $1 billion in aid, the U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros has decided to pull out of most of his activities in Russia, closing the Open Society Institute (OSI) foundation he set up in 1987 to develop “civil society” in the then-Soviet Union.
Soros announced the decision while attending celebrations in honor of OSI’s 15th anniversary in Russia, stopping in Moscow after visiting the foundation’s offices in 10 countries located across the Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Soros will downsize his total donations to just $10 million a year, from $25 million this year and approximately $60 million last year.
The Hungarian-born billionaire reportedly plans to open approximately 20 new regional foundations, which he will initially fund but then require to find their own sources of income. The OSI foundation’s current 15 programs will also be required to find their own finding.
Soros-funded activities in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus will increase.
In an interview with Russian RTR television, Soros targeted new needs in the United States as one reason he was channeling his funds away from Russia. “The administration [in the United States] has come under the influence of ideologues who have forgotten that the first and foremost rule of an open society is the understanding that we don’t hold a monopoly on the truth,” the philanthropist charged.
I feel now the battle for an open society has got to be fought in the United States, because the United States is inarguably the dominant power in the world. It sets the tone, it calls the tune for the way the rest of the world is going,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post.
In Russia, he said in an Associated Press interview, the situation has changed for the better. “I created the foundation in the end of 1987 in order to help the Soviet Union to move from a closed to an open society. I support those projects which are normally supported by central or local authorities, such as preservation of science, development of the Internet, stocking libraries with books. But right now it is no longer appropriate for me to continue subsidizing the Russian state: The economy is now recovering and the state is being strengthened. And that is why I think it is right for us to conclude our activities in their present form,” he said.
Soros also said the fact that some Russians are now even wealthier than he is contributed to his decision to pull out of Russia, since there are others who could now afford to carry on his charitable works.
Russia now has 17 billionaires on the Forbes list.
Alexei Pankin wrote in an opinion column in the Moscow Times that as the work of the OSI foundation winds up in Russia, people are still more interested in hearing about Soros’ insight into the future of the dollar than about his charitable work. Pankin, who knows Soros personally and in 2002 worked as the director of the Open Society Institute’s Media Support Program, recalls in his piece that during the 1991 coup, “perestroika gave us freedom of speech, while Soros--whose first charitable venture in the Soviet Union involved giving photocopiers and fax machines to nongovernmental organizations and media outlets--gave us the tools to realize that freedom.”
The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets said, “Today Russia already has a chance for a better future. The foundation on which one can build the walls of a civil society has been built. The Soros Foundation and the Open Society Institute didn’t work in vain. Russians themselves should (and can!) put in further effort, because many of them care about what kind of country they live in and how they should live.”
The business and political daily Kommersant quoted the director of the OSI foundation, Yekaterina Ganieva, as saying that what Soros did can be evaluated in different ways.
“Mr. Soros is finishing his historic mission to Russia, but it would be more logical to talk not about [his departure] but about the fact that he is showing respect to the country in which he has invested $1 billion. [Soros] thinks that civil society in Russia has strengthened enough and that it can be trusted from now on.”
--by Sveta Graudt
Guest Editorial: Saying Goodbye to Soros
The billionaire philanthropist’s decision to pull out of Russia shouldn’t shock anyone. What is more surprising is how long he stayed.
by Michael T. Kaufman
16 June 2003
Books: The Messiah of Budapest
A leading Hungarian dissident reviews the life of a fellow countryman whose pragmatism almost matches his idealism.
by Miklos Haraszti
13 December 2002
CER Book Excerpt: Speculating on the Open Society
Some in the opposition to the Hungarian communist system dismissed Soros as a naive meddler. They were wrong.
by Michael T. Kaufman
13 December 2002
Looking for stories, music, think tanks, and other resources on Russia? Check out TOL’s Russia country file at https://tol.org/client/article/category/regions/eastern-europe-russia/russia.
Belarus: Rapping Teachers’ Knuckles
Opposition fears the Belarusian government is beginning a crackdown in the classroom.
MINSK, Belarus--A Belarusian-language school appears to be the first to fall foul of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's new ideological guidelines for schools.
On 13 June, Education Minister Pyotr Bryhadzin told the acting head of the Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum, a unique state-run college in which all instruction is provided in the Belarusian language, that he was being replaced by a non-Belarusian-speaking official from the Minsk regional education department.
Vice principal Uladzimir Kolas, who has performed the functions of principal for the last five years, has aroused the ire of the authorities with his active participation in bodies such as the Assembly of Belarusian Intelligentsia and the “Movement for a Better Life, some members of which were arrested during an antigovernment demonstration in March.
Many professors at the school are active in the opposition to the Lukashenka regime.
The attempt to impose a new principal is the first overt act by the authorities in line with Lukashenka’s directive, given in his April 16 annual address to the National Assembly, that the opposition should not be allowed to exploit the country’s intellectual elite.
In mid-May, Lukashenka returned to the theme, telling students of the Belarusian State Arts Academy that culture was the foundation of state ideology, RFE reported.
At the end of May, the Education Ministry appointed a new principal for the lyceum, although even ministry officials had said that they thought highly of the school’s performance.
Kolas, the two other vice principals, Lyavon Barshchewski and Iryna Sidarenka, and many professors threatened to quit if the appointee, Tamara Shcherbachevich, took over the post.
“She is incompetent to be principal; moreover, she is a person of dubious moral qualities,” Barshchewski told the Belarusian Service of RFE/RL. “Parents asked her to resign, but she flatly refused and made it clear that she was ready to stay in the position [even if she had to be] guarded by AMAP [riot police] officers.
Shcherbachevich is not known among methodological circles, she has no academic degrees, she knows no foreign languages, not even Belarusian,” Vintsuk Vyachorka, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front whose son Franak is a lyceum student, told RFE.
The appointment was strongly protested by prominent Belarusian intellectuals, who viewed it as an attempt to ruin an oasis of Belarusian-language education.
Lukashenka, who uses Belarusian in public only rarely and who once claimed that there are only two good languages, English and Russian, has been persistent in his intention to eradicate the language. Many opposition figures favor increased use of Belarusian instead of Russian.
Ales Marachkin, an artist and a leader of the Assembly of Belarusian Intelligentsia, said that the authorities’ interference in the lyceum’s affairs was part of a systematic effort to close down Belarusian-language classes and schools and to replace the headmasters who adhere to Belarusification with indifferent and submissive people who switch over instruction to the Rus