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Monarchy as Metaphor in the Czech Republic

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Much of East-Central Europe was once ruled by monarchs. From the 16th century until the end of World War I, the Habsburgs presided over a territory that extended from parts of present-day Poland in the north to the Croatian coastline in the south. At the time, the subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire viewed it as either one of the most tolerant of monarchies or a "prisonhouse of nations." Those nations would eventually achieve their independence after 1918.

After 1989, there was renewed enthusiasm for monarchy in the post-Communist lands. Royalists rallied in Bucharest in 1990 to support the return of King Michael. Otto von Habsburg, the head of the house of Habsburg who died in 2011 at the age of 98, resisted calls to rule in Hungary. Instead, he threw his lot in with the European Union, joining the European Parliament in 1979 and promoting EU expansion after 1990. King Simeon came the closest to some form of restoration when he returned to Bulgaria and served as prime minister from 2001 to 2005.

The monarchy movement is perhaps not as strong in the Czech Republic. There is a party that supports the transformation of the government into a constitutional monarchy, but it has been described as "one of the parties that could fit in an elevator." But the principle of monarchy has appeal beyond the programs of specific parties.

"I'm a monarchist," Dagmar Havlova told me in an interview in Prague last February. "I believe that some symbol of morality at a different level is important even if the symbol is just a vision of what we would like to achieve. When you have a king or a queen, who is a human being, you can understand that the symbol and the human being can differ, but you are more attached to the symbol than to the person. So I believe that monarchy is the right system. It continues over generations. It is also an issue of responsibility. Individual politicians are elected just for a few years, while a royal family lasts ages. Monarchs are responsible to the country, to history somehow."

The last time we met in 1990, Havlova was working at Civic Forum. Her brother-in-law, Vaclav Havel, had helped form the movement during the Velvet Revolution and was then serving as Czechoslovakia's first (and, as it turned out, only) post-Communist president. A computer scientist by training, Havlova followed the familiar trajectory of dissident, from life on the political margins to service in government in the early 1990s. She eventually left formal politics because she strongly disagreed with the direction Vaclav Klaus was taking Civic Forum and, later, the country.

These days she embraces monarchy more as a metaphor than a practical political program. "Transition to monarchy is more a metaphor than a realistic project," she explained. "In the case of noble families, the upbringing in the traditions was an appropriate preparation for the task, while present-day people are not prepared even to take responsibility for themselves. There are no unselfish people around who would accept the mission and devote their lives to it."

There was perhaps a trace of this enthusiasm in her support for Karel Schwarzenberg in the Czech presidential contest against Milos Zeman. Schwarzenberg, after all, is a prince who is related to the von Furstenbergs and Prince Rainier of Monaco. He served as Vaclav Havel's chancellor from 1990-2 and then later as foreign minister. "Voters probably preferred his moral capabilities," Havlova said by way of explaining the prince's popularity and near-victory in the presidential race. "The prince is a rather experienced and world-renowned personality, a politician with a great knowledge of history, and able to distinguish the essential from the marginal."

We met at a club in the lovely Art Nouveau Lucerna building, which Havlova is now beginning to renovate after a multi-year struggle over ownership with a realty company. The building was constructed in 1921 by Vaclav Havel's grandfather. We talked about her plans for the Lucerna, her trips to the Antarctic, and how wide open policymaking was in that first year of government after the revolution.

The Interview

I'm interested in the formation of Civic Forum and where it eventually went. Tell me a little bit about your involvement in Civic Forum and the different roles you played in the reorganization.

From the very beginning I worked on the logistics team. After the election, I was on the council of Civic Forum and was one of the four representatives of the council of the Civic Forum Coordination Centre. Then a diversity of opinions emerged, and various political streams appeared. Under the umbrella of Civic Forum there existed one rightist party, the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA). Later KDS, the Christian Democratic Party of Václav Benda was founded. Also, there was no unity of opinion about whether to transform Civic Forum into a regular political party or preserve it as a movement. Step by step Vaclav Klaus, who supported the party system, became a very visible person within Civic Forum.

In fall 1990, shortly before a general assembly, I happened to be in open conflict with Klaus. I did not agree with his political pragmatism, his inability to arrive at a consensus, his resistance to cooperation with the Slovak group Public Against Violence, and his opposition to the idea of civil society. Václav Klaus was one of the few of our economists with wider views, but I didn't accept his attitudes and behavior as a leader - such as his not recognizing the difference between clean and dirty money or his policy on privatization. I wanted a broader variety of ownership and not just the coupon privatization. With the help of overseas development assistance, we managed to accomplish a successful restitution and the so-called "small" privatization. However, allowing a small but very rich community to emerge was not the approach I preferred. Even if it might require a longer time, I preferred the way that was fair and, moreover, would encourage the growth of a strong middle class.

When the assembly elected Klaus as the chairman of Civic Forum, I bowed out of active politics.

Why do you think Vaclav Klaus was successful politically?

He chose a very simple and publicly understandable approach. This was a time when people believed that they all would become rich and happy and everything would go well. There was a campaign to educate the masses about economics and the structure of shareholding companies, offering them the role of shareholders of privatized state enterprises. There was also the scam of a certain Viktor Kožený who offered to immediately purchase from citizens their shares for cash. And it all happened under the name of Václav Klaus. The fact that a great number of people decided to surrender their chances to own property and obtained instead instant petty cash, is another thing. It was an extraordinary opportunity that some used, some misused, but the majority did not participate in actively.

During the discussion within Civic Forum of party versus movement, which did you support?

I did not see this issue as essential. On the one hand I like movements, and I could not understand why a political party was so important for people as a supporting structure. However, even today quite a few people believe that politics is impossible without parties.

You've travelled a lot. Have you come across a political system that you find more transparent?

I'm a monarchist. I believe that some symbol of morality at a different level is important even if the symbol is just a vision of what we would like to achieve. When you have a king or a queen, who is a human being, you can understand that the symbol and the human being can differ, but you are more attached to the symbol than to the person. So I believe that monarchy is the right system. It continues over generations. It is also an issue of responsibility. Individual politicians are elected just for a few years, while a royal family lasts ages. Monarchs are responsible to the country, to history somehow.

Is there a country where you think that monarchy works well?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.