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All Politics Is Local -- Also in the Czech Republic

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The long-serving U.S. politico Tip O'Neill is credited with the observation that "all politics is local." If a politician hopes to stay in power, he or she must connect with people at a local level and respond to the concerns of constituents. Trips to far-off places might be glamorous, but you win votes by fixing potholes.

Petr Bratsky is a firm believer in the importance of the local. He is currently in the Czech Senate, affiliated with the Civic Democratic Party founded by Vaclav Klaus in 1991 on the center right of the political spectrum. Before joining the Senate, he served as the mayor of one of Prague's municipalities. He is also a very active booster of the cultural life of the city. After I met with him in his office, he gave me a copy of a CD featuring old Prague songs. Bratsky plays guitar and sings on the recording.

I asked him why politicians have a poor reputation these days in the Czech Republic, even if everyone continues to sing the praises of democracy in general.

"It is because people see politicians as too high up," he told me. "They have barely any chance to talk to them in person. They like democracy, freedom, and free market; they do not like politicians, taxes, or the ever-present economic crisis (or maybe it is not ever-present, but only that we talk about it too much). I would also compare it to the situation within political parties. For instance, in the Civic Democratic Party the mayors scream that they do not see the prime minister and that neither ministers nor politicians ask them for their opinions in general."

He continued: "But quite often people like local leaders. The sentence 'We don´t like politicians' applies to members of Parliament and ministers only. Mayors and city councilmen are the most popular. And if people do not like someone, it is because they were involved in corruption, which is very visible even on a small scale. So, I would not say that people do not like politicians. They do not like politicians who are too distant and who can be easily blamed for someone's child who doesn't have a good job or a place to live."

Petr Bratsky started out in politics not thinking that it would become a career. Now he stays in because of the results that he occasionally sees. "I also try to come up with compromises between opposite parties," he explained. "While working in committees we can get along very well. Or sometimes we are able to help processes in civil society. So all of these things make me want to stay in politics. Otherwise, relations within politics in the Czech Republic are not nice. That applies to interparty matters, along with the recruitment we call 'whaling' - bringing in new members in order to have more votes over the competition. This all leads to bad relations between the parties. Only the fact that I can help out on some good things makes me want to stay in politics."

We talked about Vaclav Klaus, the final amnesty that Klaus announced before stepping down as president, corruption, energy politics, and many other issues.

The Interview

There is a very high estimation for democratic process in this region. But the reputation of the actual people involved in the democratic process is falling in all of the countries in this region. Why do you think this has happened?

It is because people see politicians as too high up. They have barely any chance to talk to them in person. They like democracy, freedom, and free market; they do not like politicians, taxes, or the ever-present economic crisis (or maybe it is not ever-present, but only that we talk about it too much). I would also compare it to the situation within political parties. For instance, in the Civic Democratic Party the mayors scream that they do not see the prime minister and that neither ministers nor politicians ask them for their opinions in general.

But quite often people like local leaders. The sentence "We don´t like politicians" applies to members of Parliament and ministers only. Mayors and city councilmen are the most popular. And if people do not like someone, it is because they were involved in corruption, which is very visible even on a small scale. So, I would not say that people do not like politicians. They do not like politicians who are too distant and who can be easily blamed for someone's child who doesn't have a good job or a place to live.

Also, the hopes and expectations since 1990 have been higher than what politicians and institutions can realistically deliver. In all the countries where some sort of revolution took place, the expectations were huge, but the reality was very much behind.

People judge the quality of their lives according to the environment they live in. During the socialist regime, they saw an abundance in the West of medical supplies or household goods like toiletries. Today we live in society where all of this is normal. It's now the standard. So, we are looking somewhere even higher and further. Those expectations are unrealistic. We do not accurately assess the situation in this country, and journalists often skip these topics. That is maybe why the overall mood is bad.

As an example I can mention the medical standards, which are objectively very high, so high that a few years back we could not even dream about that. But now people see it as normal. We do not know what poverty is. There are very few individuals who fall below the poverty line. I just got back from Peru, where I could witness poverty. Even the Roma families here who complain all the time live in first category apartments with hot running water and TVs, refrigerators, heaters, dishwashers: they have nearly everything. I do not mean that those technical items are the only things to be calculated to measure the quality of life. People can also easily afford to go to cultural events. They can get education for almost free. It seems to me that people here derive their feelings that life sucks from the media and not from the real facts.

One more thing to add is that the social system is on such a high level here. For example, the benefits for the unemployed are so high that my wife´s hairdresser as a self-employed person, when she pays all the taxes, rent, and other monthly expenses, ends up with 8,500 Czech crowns. But if she were unemployed she would get 8,300 Czech crowns. So the financial motivation to work is disappearing due to the high level of social support. To find a motivation to work is now easy only for the people who enjoy their jobs, or who would feel bad not working. The rest simply does not feel the need to work. This is a big sociological problem in this country.

How do you think it's possible to get out of the downward economic spiral in the Czech Republic if it doesn't do some stimulus spending?

We are quite a small country. We have not accepted the Euro yet. The national bank has only very limited flexibility. In general we as an industrial country are dependent on exports. Also, our agriculture is not very strong, and we made it even weaker by entering the European Union, because we gave up several commodities during the initial discussions, for example sugar beets. Regarding other European countries and our commercial partners, we have to try to enter new markets, which is nowadays becoming more and more difficult due to various artificial barriers that the EU imposes on countries from Latin America. They are doing the same, which causes big problems for smaller economies such as the Czech Republic. The crucial markets we used to have in the Soviet Union are not present any more. The Russians are being very selective. Some of the Arabic markets are impossible to get back into.

The government is trying to take all sorts of steps for economic growth, which will certainly cost them their mandate. The Social Democrats, who want to win the next elections, happily watch everything from a distance. But we cannot think that everything will miraculously end up working as it does in other countries. The Czech economy relies on German and Russian partners, without whom we would not be able to do anything. Russia holds all of Europe in its hands in terms of energy. We are trying to gain at least a little bit of independence by building a nuclear power plant. So even though the European economy as a whole is on a downward spiral, the Czech Republic is ranked relatively high in all categories (rate of unemployment, level of poverty). I strongly believe that when the world economy recovers, we will not be all the way at the bottom. And in two or three years, everything will slowly start to rise back up.

One last thing to mention concerns our scientists, who have major successes in areas of, for example, pharmacology. Because of the lack of financial resources they have to be part of bigger international projects. Many of them have already been close to getting the Nobel Prize or have worked in teams that later got it (such as Professor Holý). Czech scientists are on the way to creating medicine to treat AIDS or various vaccinations. But then American companies have the money and possibilities to do much larger research on samples of thousands of patients. They get the patent that in fact originated in Czech brains.

That is why I stay optimistic: we have the contacts with top scientists from the United States, Israel, Great Britain, and Sweden. Our universities, traditions, and smart students with their erudition will help the country in the future.

Do you think that a new government will go off in a different direction economically? Will it continue to collaborate with your party? Will it adopt the same economic policies from the last few years?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.