05-01-2001

Many weeklies have started the new year with a look at the past. And for Czechs, the year 2000 was packed with surprises. The Year of the Mad Cow, as one commentator calls it, began with a boost to the already close-knit relationship between the governing Social Democrats and their opposition allies of the Civic Democratic Party. Four heads rolled in Cabinet to give the old alliance fresh blood and extend the already strained patience of the public with the unpopular power-sharing pact.

February brought one of many scandals - eight billion Czech Crowns was embezzled from Komercni Banka, one of the country's largest banks, by a firm with allegedly close links to the bank's management. The public is still waiting to see someone punished for this crime. In May, Czechs and Slovaks finally completed their divorce, which took place back in 1993. The division of property from the former Czechoslovak federation ended with a symbolic ceremony, in which the Czech Prime Minister handed his Slovak counterpart a bar of gold. June was a month of surprises. The powerful banking institution IPB crumbled, and there was a panicked rush to empty bank accounts. The government stepped in and the ailing bank was sold to CSOB, a rival institution. The opposition promptly slammed the Cabinet for making a bad decision, telling the public it would have to foot the bill.

There were more surprises in store. The Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, apologized to one of his political rivals. Miroslav Macek is one of many whom the Prime Minister has insulted, but he alone boasts of having received a written apology which appeared on television screens for a few seconds. I'm satisfied, since asking the PM to apologize in person is too much, Macek said. Before the public had recovered from that surprise, the publishing house Votobia published the contents of some former communist police files, discrediting Foreign Minister Jan Kavan. The implication was that he had been a willing accomplice of the hated STB, the Communist secret police in Czechoslovakia. This happened several weeks after the foreign minister took charge of coordinating the work of the country's intelligence services. The media fed on this development for weeks.

July was a fairly quiet month, in which Parliament approved a law giving pedestrians right of way at pedestrian crossings, known as "zebra crossings" in Czech. That law has just gone into effect, on paper at least. In August, the Prime Minister publicly assessed the two year performance of his minority Cabinet. He was lavish in his praise, and promised the public that from then on, things would only get better. The Czech people were either not listening, or else they forgot. Just over two months later, the Social Democrats suffered a stunning defeat in the Senate elections.

But back to September. The Czechs were in for a hot autumn. The IMF and World Bank annual meeting in Prague brought street riots such as the country had not witnessed since the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. That was at the end of September. October brought the activation of the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant in south Bohemia. That decision sparked demonstrations and border blockades from Austrian anti nuclear activists, and seriously strained relations between the two neighbouring states. Although some progress has been made, the controversy is yet to be successfully resolved.

October brought tragedy - the deaths of two army pilots in what was the 14th Czech fighter plane to crash since the birth of an independent Czech Republic. What is wrong with our air-force - journalists asked. The answer was obvious - a lack of funds for new modern planes and training pilots. On October 29th, convict Jiri Kajinek, serving a life sentence for two murders - gave the whole country something to talk about. He escaped from Mirov Prison, called the Czech Alcatraz, from which no one had managed to escape for 600 years. He was at large for 40 days, before police caught up with him. Paradoxically, by then he had become something of a national hero, with rumors that he was, in fact, innocent. Kajinek's IQ of 130 and rippling muscles turned him into a sex symbol, and the jailhouse was reportedly snowed under with packages of Christmas cookies addressed to him. He's become a cross between Monte Christo and Robin Hood, one commentator notes. While Kajinek was enjoying his month of freedom, the Czechs voted in the Senate elections, giving the governing Social Democrats a sound thrashing.

In November, the Czechs became fully aware of the dangers of CJD, the human form of mad cow disease. What had seemed like a far away problem, was suddenly on their doorstep. The Czech government banned beef imports from all EU states where the disease had been detected, but in spite of the measure, a great many people stopped buying beef in any form. On the threshold of the third millennium, journalists wrote about the mad cow disease, AIDS and cloning. December arrived, and with it the annual Christmas shopping spree. Czechs could afford to spend , and they spent more on Christmas presents than they had in any previous year. However, when the time for peace and goodwill among men arrived, they weren't sitting around the Christmas tree enjoying it. They were on their feet, putting into motion what some are calling a second Velvet Revolution. The crisis at Czech Television likewise overshadowed celebrations of the new millenium...

The crisis at Czech Public Television, dubbed in Tyden as "the revolution in your living room" is a dominant topic in all the weeklies and magazines. Jindrich Sidlo of Respekt notes that when Czech President Vaclav Havel recently used his prerogative to name the new governor of the Czech National Bank without consulting the Cabinet, the Civic Democratic Party came down on him like a ton of bricks, arguing that the existing law which allowed the president to take this course of action was bad, and that he should have waited for a new law to come into effect, which was allegedly a vast improvement on the old one. Now, in a similar situation, the Civic Democrats are screaming blue murder because rebel radio journalists and an increasing number of their supporters are not willing to adhere to a bad law and are demanding a better one. Is this schizophrenia? Sidlo asks. Not really , he says, it is just the Civic Democratic Party's belief that it can take what it wants - by brute force, or political wheeling and dealing.

Civic Democratic Party leader Vaclav Klaus revealed his hand when, in exasperation, he said Czech Public Television should be privatized, Sidlo continues. I don't blame him. Public media can be truly exasperating. You can't threaten them with expiring licenses, you can't buy them and you can't order them around. You have to grin and bear it when they ask impertinent questions about secret bank accounts, long dead sponsors or forgotten election promises. Given what they're like, who on Earth needs them?

Radovan Holub of Reflex magazine says that once again a revolution has divided Czech society into idealists and down to earth career-minded pragmatists. But, the Czech media is no longer willing to serve those in power. Right from the start, the majority of journalists made it clear they sided with the rebels, and recognized the value of a free press, Holub says.

On the other hand, Milos Cermak of the same magazine, begs to disagree. The stand is acceptable for most of us, but not for journalists, he says. Journalists should remain above emotional involvement, and above labels such as "good" or "bad". It is bad enough to see emotional reporting or downright campaigning from the two camps at Czech Television. We certainly deserve more from those who are not directly involved, Cermak concludes.

At the close of the first week of the new millenium, Czechs are glued to their TV sets. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they are watching a blank screen. The urge to switch to a different channel is overpowered by the knowledge that at any moment the rebel crew might manage to break in with an update...

05-01-2001