From Greens to Guns in the Czech Republic

02/03/2014 02:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

When Communism collapsed in East-Central Europe, it should have been a golden opportunity for the Greens. Newly enfranchised voters were looking for something new. They were skeptical of old-style parties. For decades they'd been breathing polluted air, drinking polluted water, and suffering other consequences of unrestrained growth. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, "post-industrial" politics were becoming increasingly popular. The German Greens, founded in 1980, were the most well-known and politically successful, but Green Parties had gained seats in more than a dozen parliaments in Europe by the late 1980s.

When I talked with Jaroslav Hofer in May 1990, he was very optimistic about the prospects for the Greens in Czechoslovakia. One of the three people responsible for the Green platform, he boasted that a million people had asked for membership in the party. This was quite remarkable for a party that had been in existence for only about half a year. Public opinion polls were predicting that the Greens would draw somewhere around 11 to 12 percent in the parliamentary elections.

But in June 1990, the Greens came in 10th place with only a little more than 3 percent of the vote, not enough to qualify for parliamentary representation.

The Greens soldiered on, but Hofer eventually broke from the party. "It changed its leaders every fortnight," he told me in an interview at a wine bar in Prague in February. "Some people just deserted the Greens for this party or that party. We didn't have money. We didn't have a big office, just a small office in the center of the city. It was not serious work. The Green party lasted for 23 or 24 years. And it became part of the ruling coalition. But as a result of becoming part of the ruling coalition, it fell into ultimate disgrace, and its candidates eventually could win only 1 or 2 percent of the vote."

Green Party organizing was only one facet of Hofer's life. He'd been a successful journalist who wrote the first major article about HIV/AIDS in Czechoslovakia. He was also a Sinologist who had covered China as a Czech journalist in the 1980s. Today, he is largely retired. And he has turned pessimistic.

"In 1990, we were full of hope," he remembered. "Now I am 65 and there is no hope any more. Partly that's also a question of age and health conditions. But the problem is that society - here and even in the States -- has changed a lot in the last quarter century. Globalization, the loss of our industry. Yes, there were opportunities. You can try to start any kind of business you want. But probably someone richer and stronger has gotten there before you."

He talked about how bleak Czech society has become, particularly for pensioners and the poor. It has also become a more dangerous place. So, Hofer is planning to buy a gun. "My son has done it. Three of my five best friends have done it. And I will do it too," he told me.

"It's very difficult to pass the exams that allow you to carry guns," he explained. "But many hundreds of people pass them every month. I think I will do it too. Because I will live soon in a house on the outskirts that was already robbed 3 times in 5 years. I wasn't living there at the time. We had tenants there. But I will have to have a gun."

We talked about the rise and fall of the Greens, current energy politics in the Czech Republic, and the persistence of support for the Czech Communist Party.

The Interview

When we met 23 years ago, you were involved in the Czech Greens.

At that time, the Greens seemed to me to be a very necessary movement for the country. The Green movement was formed already before the November 17 events. It spoke about problems that were very painful. The problem was, however, that the Green movement reminded me of the two sides of a fleece. At one moment it was very strong, and the next moment it was not there. At that time, we thought it necessary to stress not just democracy. It was also clear to us that there is no nationalist path for the Czech Republic. We wanted to be absolutely open and international. We didn't see any borders between us and German Greens or Russian Greens. You're a specialist, are there any North Korean Greens?

No. No Greens in North Korea.

I didn't think so! But we wanted it to be an internationalist movement. We didn't think too much about being in government. We were not ready to be in government. Basically, we wanted to be a strong NGO not associated with any political movement.

After a short time, I had to break all my ties to the Greens because the movement was, as I said, the back of the fleece. It changed its leaders every fortnight. Some people just deserted the Greens for this party or that party. We didn't have money. We didn't have a big office, just a small office in the center of the city. It was not serious work. The Green party lasted for 23 or 24 years. And it became part of the ruling coalition. But as a result of becoming part of the ruling coalition, it fell into ultimate disgrace, and its candidates eventually could win only 1 or 2 percent of the vote. The Greens allied with the Civic Democrats, the party of Vaclav Klaus, and the Civic Democrats were quite corrupt.

Moreover, the Greens pushed for something we call "tunneling." That's basically stealing money from the government by supporting investments in solar energy. Now we as a state, as citizens, as consumers will have to pay 1 billion crowns because of the government that the Greens were part of. By the way, 1 billion is almost all the Czech debt to the federal exchequer.

I'm not sorry that I tried. It was nice to try something in politics. But we did it very amateurishly, without money and without being clear about what we really wanted. We failed to find a specific place in the political game.

I understand that there have been polls that suggest that people are unhappy with the situation today in comparison to the situation before 1989.

First of all, this is a result of lawlessness. Every society needs strict rules, good police, good judiciary, and reliable judges. And it needs parties that are trustworthy or at least respected. Havel came in with an idea of moral government. He was not interested in law and economics. That's where it started. We could have been in a better situation today if, on the first of January 1991, we simply adopted Austrian laws and the state structure that the Austrians or Germans have -- because they are the closest to us in terms of their systems. We were all part of the same Austro-Hungarian monarchy, so it didn't really require that much reform to make their laws fit.

The problem started with the lack of seriousness of many of our politicians. Instead of building a moral society, we started living in a catch-as-catch-can society: catching money if you can, and if you are rich you can do anything. That was our biggest mistake: the lawlessness in which people never know what will happen to them. We have cases here where you lose your ID card. Somebody uses it after a month when he goes on a tram and he doesn't pay for the ticket, just shows this old ID card. After three or four years, you get a letter that says that you have to pay your entire monthly wages for lawyers and court fees just to pay off this 10 crown tram ticket! And there's practically no defense against these small stupidities.

During Communist time, you didn't have to work that much. You just had to live and not worry about being fired two years before retirement. Now you can't be sure. What has also changed drastically is the situation of Czech Roma. Under Communism, they had to go to the army and serve two years. They learned, if nothing else, how to live with White people. Now they don't have that chance. Many have been liquidated by drugs. They don't have the chance to find a job. It's difficult for them to learn Czech language. They can't pass the exams because their language is different. It's difficult for the children to pass exams that are hard even for the majority. Many Roma have taught themselves to steal and live a criminal life. In a way it's not so bad for them to live in a prison. They at least have something to eat there and have a more comfortable life than outside.

I was quite surprised to find that so many people now want to have their own guns.

Here in the Czech Republic?

Yes.

Is there a liberal gun law here?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.