Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 9
23 November 1998

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C :
Democracy Is When
Complaining Works

Andrew Stroehlein

Last Wednesday's anti-monopoly protest is a small but essential break in the political development of the Czech Republic.

It is very confusing to see how often Czech intellectuals and foreign observers criticize Czech society for its weak civil society. The recent protest against SPT Telecom's price gouging confirms that such criticism is no longer fair.

Whenever I hear such criticism of Czech society, I often wonder what all my friends are doing in those scout groups, sports clubs, music bands and further education classes. I had always thought that it was precisely such small-scale organizations, which formed the basis of civil society in my home country, the USA.

But the critics always point out that such small groups, while indeed filling the social space between the family and the state, are non-political, and thus, though a welcome sign, they do not mean that civil society is strong in the Czech Republic. The missing ingredient is "people power" which has a real influence on society as a whole.

The Anti-monopoly Protest - the popular protest against a rate rise in local phone calls - was the first step to changing this. In just a few days, over 100,000 signatures were collected; political parties and leading politicians took notice and made statements of support. Thousands of dissatisfied voter-customers appeared at public protests in Brno and Prague (look at pictures of the Brno protest HERE). Many more across the country took part in a boycott of Telecom.

The organization of the protest was quick and generally impressive, especially considering that most Internet users tend to be a bit anarchistic and individualistic. Information about the protests spread instantly through the Internet. Foreign and local news outlets were informed of the latest updates, and a long list of related news articles appeared on the protest organizers' website.

Thus, from seemingly nowhere - from this country with a supposedly "weak civil society" - press secretaries, protest organizers and other volunteers miraculously appeared. In just a week or ten days, they prepared and carried out a large-scale, relatively well-coordinated civic action on a variety of fronts. Leading Internet figures fulfilled their role and were quickly recognized by SPT Telecom as the natural representatives of the disgruntled.

People organized, and surprisingly, politicians seemed to take notice. Even the Social Democrats, who at first seemed as ignorant about the power and importance of the Internet as Vaclav Klaus, now seem to have come around to supporting the issue. And, yes, lo and behold, one sees democracy in the young Czech Republic: 1)people complain; 2)political leaders listen; and 3)things change.

Of course, grand celebrations would be premature: this three-stage scenario is still slightly unfulfilled - so far, only steps one and two have actually come to pass. The protest leaders' talks with SPT Telecom on Friday brought no definite conclusion just yet. But the negotiations will continue, and if political support remains after the Senate elections, stage three will occur soon. It is a victory for civic involvement and democracy.

It doesn't matter that the issue of phone bills is not very exciting. The little issues are the ones that really matter now. It is not so important that the politicians were only jumping on the popular bandwagon in an election period. Indeed, that is exactly what politicians should do in a democracy: listen to people's complaints and set about fixing them under constant threat of losing a prestigious representative seat.

The people were not consulted about the destruction of their former country, so it is little wonder that for so long, many have felt powerless and unable to affect the society around them. Finally, the Czech Republic has an example of peaceful, functional "people power" that it has generally lacked in the few short years of its existence. With the help of a threat to the wallet and with the powerful new information technology to hand, the earlier numbness has started to dissipate.

Andrew Stroehlein, 23 November 1998


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