When elections approach they have the effect of concentrating the minds of politicians; this is the case in any country of the world. Maybe the Czech Republic has now entered the mainstream of democratic politics, because the Czech political discourse is now displaying some of the more pathological features normally associated with the political life of some of the most advanced countries in the world, such as the United States. Just as in America, manipulated smear campaigns are now playing a major role in Czech politics and the Czech media.
The elections to the second chamber of the Czech Parliament, the Senate, are due to take place this autumun and the pre-election campaign is now getting under way. Energetic attempts are being made in order to prevent some social democratic politicians from winning or from retaining seats in this chamber.
There is already a tradition of smear campaigns in the Czech Republic. Well before the general election in June 1998, the opponents of Miloš Zeman and his Social Democratic Party launched a smear campaign against them. This was the so-called Bamberg affair: it was alleged that early in the 1990s, the leading figures of the Social Democratic Party concluded a deal with some Czech emigrés in Switzerland that in exchange for contributions to the party's funds, the emigrés would be given influence in the Czech government after the social democrats had won the elections.
Although the allegations remained vague and basically unproven, a sustained campaign against Miloš Zeman and the social democrats was waged throughout the spring of 1998, especially by Czech public service Television, through its programme Nadoraz (Right to the Hilt). Jan Štern, the producer of Nadoraz, was later dismissed from Czech Television for unethical journalistic practice. Nevertheless, serious damage had been done. As I was told by one independent-minded young journalist in Prague last week, Jan Štern did irreparable damage to the political and economic developments in the Czech Republic. It is now clear, continued the young journalist, that the Czech economy is doing far better under the social democrats than it ever was under the pseudo right wing, estatist previous government of Václav Klaus.
But, in the view of this particular young journalist, Jan Štern's sustained campaign against the social democrats, which was based on unsubstantiated material and was aired repeatedly on Czech Television, lowered the citizens's support for the social democrats. This resulted in the fact that the general election of June 1998 ended in a draw. The social democrats could not form a government on their own and had to form a pact, the so-called "opposition agreement" with their main adversaries, Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party. Since then, Czech politics has been moving forward relatively slowly because most of the actions of the social democratic government must be approved by Klaus's civic democrats.
New smear campaigns
With the approaching Senate elections, it seem to be the smear campaign season again in the Czech Republic. The most important individuals that need to be discredited are the Foreign Minister Jan Kavan (he is a candidate for the Senate elections in the Moravian town of Prostějov) and a senior member of the Social Democratic Party apparat, Miroslav Šlouf.
Jan Kavan, whose mother was British and who holds dual Czech-British citizenship, studied in Britain after 1968 and during the post-invasion clampdown at home stayed in that country as an emigré.
For twenty years he fought almost singlehandedly against the Czechoslovak Communist regime from London, using his one-man London-based news agency Palach Press Ltd.[named after student Jan Palach who immolated himself in January 1969 in protest at the 1968 Soviet invasion of his country]. Kavan was regarded by British journalists as a reliable source because, unlike other emigré journalists, he did not peddle only his own point of view but presented an all-round account of events in Czechoslovakia. He occasionally made mistakes, but on the whole, he did an enormous amount of work for the cause of Czechoslovakia's independence, which Czechoslovak dissidents within the country fully acknowledge.
After the fall of Communism, Kavan returned to Prague and decided to become a politician. For quite inexplicable reasons (maybe because he was a Labourite, a left-winger; maybe also because he was a returnee emigré whom the rather enclosed Czech community does not like; maybe also because he is quite a chaotic person and there are genuine questionmarks over some problems in Kavan's life with which he did not deal very efficiently) Kavan became the target of a ferocious witchhunt. He was accused of having worked for the Czech secret police (paradoxically, one of the accusers was a person whose life had been probably saved by Kavan's international campaign on his behalf when this person was being tortured by the Czechoslovak Communist police), and he was smeared and driven out of political life. It took Kavan several years to be cleared by the courts. Regardless of this, the smear campaign continued until the summer 1998, when Kavan was made Foreign Secretary of the Czech Republic.
Now, at the start of the campaign for the Senate elections, two anti-Kavan activists, Přemysl Vachalovský and John Bok, have published in book form an alleged secret police file, compiled on Kavan during the period 1969 to 1970. During this time Kavan, as a student in Britain, was an official of the independent Union of Czechoslovak Students and as such he occasionally liaised with representatives of the Czech Embassy. This was a transitory period (Husák's oppresive "normalisation" did not start until the spring of 1970) and Dubček's reforms were not yet one hundred per cent dead. At the time it was not clear which Embassy staff were pro-Dubček reformer and which were Communist hardliners. Kavan repeatedly met an embassy official who presented himself as a Dubčekite. From the secret police file it transpires that he was in fact a secret police agent and he sent reports on his meetings with Kavan back to Prague.
Vachalovský and Bok have now published the Kavan file from 1969-1970, which contains these reports from Britain. In publishing the work, they have actually broken Czech law. The secret police files from the former First Department of the Federal Interior Ministry of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have never been declassified and never moved into these archives. The files in this Department contain information not only on old contacts of the Czech intelligence service, but also on live contacts. It is true that Kavan's 1969-1970 file has circulated in the Czech Republic in one form or another since the fall of Communism, but strictly speaking, its publication in book form can probably be seen as a breach of confidentiality regarding the intelligence services of a NATO member country.
Strangely enough, while the ambiguous Kavan file from his student years in London from 1969-1970 seems to have "survived", the voluminous file on his anti-Communist activities from 1970-1989 has been destroyed. The only thing that is available is a list of documents from the late 1970s, which were allegedly included in this file.
This list of documents was quoted by Benjamin Kuras, a Czech critic of Jan Kavan, who lives in London, in an article, published in the Czech political weekly Respekt on 9 March 1992. But Kuras quoted the list of documents rather selectively, so that an impression was created that Kavan worked for the Czech secret police in the 1970s. He quoted the names of items in the lost file such as "Rozhovory o Palach Pressu" (Discussions on Palach Press), while in reality, one of the items was called "Rozpory v Palach Pressu" (Conflicts within Palach Press). Kuras also failed to mention that the file included documents such as "Kavan – vizuelní obhlídka bydliště" (Kavan – a visual assessment of his residence) and "J. Kavan – J.R. Kavanová – návrh na odnětí státního občanství" – (Mr J. Kavan – Mrs J.R. Kavan- a proposal to strip them of Czechoslovak citizenship). On the basis of these inaccuracies, a campaign of vilification was conducted against Jan Kavan for a number of years. When Britské listy pointed out these inacuraccies in November 1998, Benjamin Kuras publicly apologised for them. However, Respekt has never published a proper correction on this matter.
It is fascinating that Vachalovský's and Bok's alleged file on Kavan includes twenty stills from a video, made by the secret police when Kavan was interrogated on his arrival in Prague in November 1989. During the second of these interrogations, the secret policemen suddenly offered Kavan drinks: whisky or Champagne. Kavan says that he was not behaving agressively towards the secret policemen because he wished to be allowed into the country: he went along with the proposal and had a drink from a champaigne glass.
The question of integrity is important here. As I argued on Saturday 20 May in a discussion on Czech Radio with one of the publishers of the volume, Přemysl Vachalovský, since the anti-Kavan activists have twice published information which is obviously unreliable, how can the Czech public take their current volume seriously? I demanded that Vachalovský prove the authenticity of the volume or admit that otherwise, its publication is an unsubstantiated smear. Vachalovský failed to provide any convincing answers.
Similar smear campaigns were started last week against social democratic politician Petra Buzková (who allegedly "used to be a prostitute") and by extension, against Senate elections candidate Miroslav Šlouf (the anti-Buzková accusations have allegedly originated near him). We will return to this topic next week.
Jan Čulík, 21 May 2000
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.