A communist apologist wins

By February 19, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

HAMILTON, Ontario, Feb. 19 (UPI) — Czech President Vaclav Klaus barely won a second five-year term from Parliament on the weekend. Klaus was given a run for his money by U.S./Czech academic Jan Svejnar. Only after the third round — and after a three-week delay — did Klaus secure victory.

Klaus should have been unceremoniously dumped.

Klaus took over the presidency from the legendary anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel in 2003. Havel had been the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism in 1989. In 1993, after the split of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he held for 10 years. Havel was president for a total of 13.

Klaus had been prime minister. He was famous for throwing temper tantrums. A not-so-well-known story had him coming out to go to the bathroom. He saw a young person using the office copier on his side of the hall way. “What are you doing at my copier?” he bellowed at the young intern. “Uh” the intern nervously said, “I work next door for your colleague the security minister.” “Ah, ha,” grumbled Klaus and stormed away. The next day he had a glass wall built between his and the security minister’s office.

That is Vaclav Klaus in a nutshell — a mean-spirited egomaniac.

The Czech press has numerous times brought stories of his sordid machinations. But just as soon as the stories appear, the source disappears or is no longer available for comment. Klaus is the man who brought the Communists back into favor by hosting them in the official presidential retreat in Lany in 2003.

Havel refused to interact with the Communists.

The Communists supported Klaus in his run for the presidency in 2002. Klaus was on the ropes, and almost out of the race. So Klaus reached out to the Communist Party and rewarded them handsomely by bringing them back into the fold. It is disgraceful.

Svejnar represents some of the best the Czech Republic has to offer.

We know each other as fellow board members of the New York-based, but Central European-focused CERGE-EI Foundation, which supports the development of young economically oriented leaders for Central and Eastern Europe. CERGE-EI is a joint venture of Charles University and the Economics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences. It is unique in that part of the world, and does its job superbly. Along with Princeton-educated and Hunter College-based Randall Filer, Svejnar has been one of the spiritus-rectors of the center. The main center is in Prague.

Svejnar, like other expat Czechs, returned to his home after the fall of communism. He took degrees from Cornell and Princeton on his way to becoming a professor at the University of Michigan. From 1996 to 2004 he was the executive director of the Davidson Institute at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. From 1992 to 1997 he served as the founding director of the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. He is director of the International Policy Center of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. A consultant to the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Svejnar was previously an economic adviser to Havel and Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla. He remains chairman of the supervisory board of CSOB Bank, one of the Czech and Slovak Republic’s larger financial institutions.

Unlike many in the Social Democratic Party, Svejnar — who is an independent — is free-market oriented and a conservative on economic issues. This had made his candidacy all the more surprising.

Svejnar had been recruited by the current chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party and former Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek. Paroubek had asked people to help him think out of the box in selecting a candidate to run against Klaus. Paroubek had said to me recently, “I do not agree with Svejnar on many economic issues, but he is a good and honest man and exactly what this country needs.”

Svejnar also did what others before him have not: He traveled around the Czech Republic and introduced himself to the people in town-hall meetings. Because Parliament selects the president, he was first criticized by some in the press and in public life — but soon his poll numbers rose and he was better liked than the controversial Klaus. And soon Klaus was feeling the heat and looking nervous.

Svejnar knew his election was in doubt. “Obviously it is an uphill struggle because President Klaus is the incumbent. But on the other hand quite a lot of people find my candidacy attractive. There is a chance.”

Svejnar and I had been in contact a few times during the rounds of the election. I would report to him from the U.S. presidential campaign trail, and he would report to me about what things look liked there. Mostly I knew Klaus and his thugs would begin to use dirty tricks against him — and they did.

I — and many others — did not want Svejnar to give up. He did not. Like a good and trusted soldier he continued his uphill fight.

The Czech Republic deserved Svejnar as president — he would have restored honor and competence to their highest political position.

In five years, Jan, we look forward to calling you “Mr. President.”

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party and vice-chair of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)