Current Affairs US anti-Communist award sparks debate over Klaus’s pre-89 role
The recent presentation of a US award for opponents of Communism to Václav Klaus has sparked a war of words in the Czech Republic. Some believe the former prime minister and president did nothing whatever to fight totalitarianism – and should be stripped of the prize. Now Mr. Klaus has responded with a detailed defence.
Previous recipients have included Milada Horáková, a Czechoslovak politician executed in 1951 after a show trial, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II.
However, no sooner had the divisive former prime minister and president got the honour than voices in the Czech Republic began questioning whether he deserved it.
Among the first to protest was journalist Mikuláš Kroupa. He heads Post Bellum, a project recording the testimonies of victims of the Nazi and Communist regimes, and is the son of a former dissident.
“Václav Klaus deserves many awards, but not the human rights one he received in the US. A mistake has been made. Václav Klaus was not an active fighter against Communism during the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia.”
A small group named Vraťte nám stát or Give Our State Back share that view. They have issued a statement calling on the American foundation to strip Mr. Klaus of the medal or risk losing credibility.
On Monday, Mr. Klaus struck back. In a 10-point defence, he says the medal is not for dissent but for those who have challenged and are challenging Communism in different forms and ways.
Mr. Klaus questions, as he has done in the past, the idea that the Velvet Revolution can be credited to a small number of dissidents, who suffered repression and often imprisonment for standing up for their beliefs.
He also makes the novel suggestion that many enemies of the regime who were employed in menial jobs, such as stoking furnaces, did so out of choice.
He points out that he himself never joined the party. On the contrary, he organised unauthorised seminars that helped cultivate the post-1989 generation of economists.
Mikuláš Kroupa says the ex-dissidents he knows have never claimed to have overthrown the regime on their own.
And, he says, few Czechoslovaks believed in Communism in the regime’s final decades and many could, according to Mr. Klaus’s reasoning, claim today to have challenged it.
“Colleagues at the Prognostics institute where he worked signed the Two Thousand Words and Charter 77 petitions, but he didn’t follow their example. He chose the path of holding theoretical discussions with economists. The Bolsheviks were aware of that and they tolerated him as an academic economist. Nevertheless, the secret police didn’t regard him as any kind of fighter.”
There is no doubt that many in Czech Republic will not take such a harsh view of their former leader being honoured in this way. At the end of the day, the debate is just one more illustration of how thorny a subject the recent past can be.