Czechoslovakia: Civic Forum splits

March 12, 1991

By Tracy Sorensen

PRAGUE — Czechoslovakia's ruling Civic Forum formally split into two camps on February 24, ending a long period of wrangling between more free-market oriented forces and those advocating a measured, state-controlled transition to a capitalist economy.

After weeks of intense negotiations, the two camps — the rightist Civic Democratic Party and the more liberal Civic Movement — will remain in a coalition which will keep the name Civic Forum and be headed by the president, Vaclav Havel. This is to continue until elections in 1992.

Civic Forum is no longer a broad, democratic umbrella for the diverse citizens' initiatives which sprang up to overthrow the Stalinist regime in November 1989: all that remains are a name and a reputation.

The politicians insist that the new deal is a way of fulfilling their electoral mandates while finding their places in the developing political spectrum. More critical observers point out that the unprincipled coalition united under the Civic Forum name exists only to protect the electoral fortunes of the current elite.

"The game's up", Czechoslovak News Agency journalist and left activist Adam Novak told Green Left on February 23. "Civic Forum can no longer be identified as the standard bearer of the hopes of the population for direct democracy, and in no way any more represents any kind of third way which is neither Stalinist nor capitalist."

The transformation of Civic Forum into an embryonic version of the two-party politics of the West began not long after the elections last July, when finance minister Vaclav Klaus' declared preference for neo-liberal economic theory and an aggressive privatisation policy came up against criticism from politicians with more social democratic instincts. (The few genuinely interested in a "third way" had already been shunted into irrelevance.)

But the split loomed in earnest early this year, when Klaus announced that he wanted Civic Forum to become a right-wing party, properly constituted with paid members. This horrified the more liberal elements, and the fight was on to prevent Klaus' takeover bid.

Division at the top

Both new parties have now begun to recruit members. But this will not be as easy as it would seem: the mass membership base of Civic Forum no longer exists.

"The result of the Klaus political line has been to liquidate the movement", says Adam Novak. "It exists as a group of members of parliament and a paid apparatus."

The initial membership of the Civic Democratic Party is expected to be drawn from Klaus' parliamentary supporters and the lower levels of the Civic Forum apparatus, especially in the smaller towns. It contains eamlessly made the transition from Communist Party membership to competent servants of the new regime.

The Civic Movement will draw on Civic Forum's more liberal members of parliament and activists from the Civic Forum coordination centre in Prague. The group includes key figures from the dissident opposition and the majority of government ministers.

President Havel's sympathies are undoubtedly with this side, although his role as symbolic bridge between the two parties precludes his joining.

According to Novak, the group coming together to form the right-wing Civic Democratic Party contains two streams.

"You've got the real neo-liberals who want the restoration of capitalism, and are prepared to see the destruction of any state enterprise, whether it works or not.

"That's the raison d'etre of a lot of the little right-wing groups, which mainly seem to have the support of people from the age of about 22 or 23 to about 35: people who believe that, no matter how much chaos, a capitalist system must be created immediately. They think that they would be its new middle class."

According to Novak, Klaus represents a more bureaucratic, "national isolationist tendency which is more concerned with maintaining social stability and maintaining state control over industry".

This tendency sees a role for itself within a state which does individual deals with foreign capital in order to make the system as a whole fit into the world economy with minimal disorder.

Bureaucratic elite

Klaus' role is to hold together these two tendencies on the right: the real neo-liberals, and those who, like Klaus himself, use neo-liberal rhetoric but prefer a more moderate path in reality.

"Klaus, from way back, has been part of a bureaucratic elite", says Novak, "and he's simply not interested in destroying it".

Klaus has thus evolved into a very different figure from Poland's more demagogic president, Lech Walesa, seeking support from the technocratic economic elite rather than relying purely on a populist approach.

From the start, Klaus has made all the running on economic policy, leaving other politicians to react. Those unable to stomach his free-market rhetoric include foreign minister Jiri Dienstbier, deputy premier Pavel Rychetsky and defence minister Lubos Dobrovsky; these politicians now form the nucleus of the Civic Movement.

This group's declared aims include "push[ing] through the transition to a market economy while social and ecological aspects are respected".

Rychetsky has said that the Civic Movement "disagrees with the view Party that it depends on each citizen how he will take care of himself". Stressing the destabilising effects of expected unemployment, he argues that the government must be pressed to come up with alternative production programs to substitute for those discontinued.

But while there are important ideological differences between the politicians in the two camps, there appears to be much consensus on day-to-day decision making.

Recent Klaus-inspired legislation on the restoration of state property to its original owners, and the "small privatisation" (of shops, hotels and similar enterprises) gathered the support of the Communists and of the liberal parliamentarians; the rightist neo-liberals voted against him.

Continued control

In both sets of laws, classically free-market policies were rejected in favour of a more interventionist approach: the return of property to original owners, for example, will not involve the wholesale eviction of tenants from privatised housing, and the "small privatisation" is a process tightly controlled by the state.

The Bata case, says Novak, can be seen as a general model for the government's interventionist economic approach.

Canada-based Tomas Bata, a descendant of the Czechoslovak founders of the multinational Bata shoe company, has been involved in negotiations with the government over conditions surrounding his company's investment in the Czechoslovak shoe industry.

"These negotiations show that the slow transition, slow restoration wing of the bureaucracy is still powerful", says Novak.

"The general model being followed for integration into the world economy is for large multinational groups to form monopoly deals with very large Czechoslovak producers for mutual cooperation, to the exclusion of other players.

"So, monopoly production is being preserved, and those monopolies are individually seeking deals with huge producers outside the country. Bata has demanded not just compensation (for property confiscated by the Czechoslovak government in 1945 as punishment for his uncle's collaboration with Nazi Germany) but a 51% share in the shoe industry.

"He has demanded that no negotiations be held with any other shoe producer until his stake is settled: that is, he has demanded that the Czechoslovak shoe industry get no other information about what is possible until he has finished. And he has demanded exclusive retailing rights abroad.

"That's very much the pattern of what's going on, the preferred method of the government."I

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