Life After Life
Mirek Topolánek seldom allows to be interviewed and only under the condition that politics will not be discussed at all. When you meet him in person, it becomes clear that his natural passion to make an impact does not allow much space for personal issues. Clearly, Mirek Topolánek is a natural leader. He is still charismatic and authentic. On the other hand, when compared to his media image, he is less reserved, he listens, he has gentleman’s manners and he is sharply sincere. Our meeting over a cup of coffee lasted for more than two hours, for me inspiring ones. I believe that Mirek Topolánek and his involvement in politics does not represent a closed chapter.
How is the life after you leave the politics?
It is interesting that you have chosen the name of the chapter in my book as a title. The topic that I have truly lived and had a chance to reflect upon. For a politician, it is really difficult to leave politics, particularly in an involuntary manner, when he is not ready to leave. On the other hand, which politician is ready to leave politics? Politicians feel that they are a messiah type figure, and that they should last in politics until the end of their days and then become canonised. I also had the feeling that I left too early, before finishing my “masterpiece”. On top of that, the Czechs, being both the most egalitarian and envious small nation in Europe, desire that politicians either end up at the Unemployment Office or in the Moldau River. Czechs do not appreciate their elites, since they lost them due to several immigration waves, they ostracize them and fail to acknowledge them. The elites since 1989 belong to the last group. So after falling from the top, I have not been rocking in a safety net or cuddling in the safe warm nest. People who looked like friends had the tendency to cross to the other side of the pavement, they did not look into my eyes and some of them reacted even worse…Then, one learns to appreciate those who did not like him but their behaviour did not get worse and even those who helped him. No one wants to employ you. No one wants to have anything in common with you. Just one example to illustrate. I had a discussion regarding the management contract in Slovenské elektrárny with the president of ENEL Company in Rome. He asked me disbelievingly? “Do you still wanna work”? Yes, Fulvio, I have to provide for my family. And so he tried again: “Wouldn’t just a consulting contract be sufficient?” He did not believe me. I had to persuade him that it works like that and I simply had to work. Such story demonstrates a different point of view and attitude in some traditional West European countries. A politician either becomes a senator or he is appointed to a prepared position. Or he is simply rich enough. People do not have to agree with that particular top politician, but they respect the fact that he has dedicated a part of his life to his country. They perceive it as a recognition of his work and as a reward for his willingness to bear responsibility. The second reason is much more pragmatic. When a politician gets a chance to contribute elsewhere, the higher is the probability that he will continue to mess in politics. But there are exceptions, such as Silvio Berlusconi. My story has a typical Czech ending. One investigative journalist had found out, “leaked the information on the website”, Italian journals printed out the story, Italians got scared and that was the end to my contract. Funnily enough, I have returned in another way, due to the partial ownership of EPH company in Slovenské elektrárny, so I have returned, albeit in another time and indirectly.
So what have been you doing?
I left for abroad to clear my head in my private, civil and working life. Actually, I had to learn again how to work on a PC, how to use a printer, scanner, Excel and PowerPoint. And how to stop commanding…You are quite powerless when in top politics. Around you they do everything on your behalf, they hold your hand and create a feeling of being indispensable. You need to learn how to live a normal civil life, go shopping, walk your kids to a kindergarten. Stories how politicians do not know how to buy a tram ticket are far from being exaggerated.
I made a decision to dedicate my energy to the three following areas: I will find a job that will provide sufficient means and that I will enjoy; I will take better care of my family, since it is the family that suffers most from politics; and last but not least, I am going to enjoy my life. After almost seven years, I can humbly claim to a certain degree that except for the last point, I have succeeded in the first two.
So was it a real “sabbatical”? Well, from my experience as an executive coach, I cannot believe that everything went smoothly and that from maximum stress suddenly you managed to switch to inner peace and harmony.
I confess that after two weeks I was in panic due to not working, and after one month I felt powerless due to what was going on. After two months I was bored to death and hungry to face new challenges. Then I had to return. No one would believe that it took a year until I managed to get rid of the inner feeling of responsibility “for the country and for the people”.
Perhaps it sounds exaggerated. You are right, to get rid of being restless and learn how to get rest was the hardest work. You run at the full speed in some kind of a never-ending race, you work 15 hours per day, you sleep three hours, you are under permanent pressure without the liberating feeling of victory. And suddenly nothing…Emptiness. I would compare my situation to a professional athlete. The moment he ceases his full engagement in sport, including daily workouts and he does not start doing something else, he starts to have health issues, problems with alcohol and he cannot make the transition. I was aware of all risks and I made a decision not to be a failure. Besides, when I was leaving politics, I was really severely sick. Next to common civilization diseases, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, high fat level in blood, I had lung problems leading to beginning of sepsis. Until then I did not have time and strength to take care of my personal problems. So I decided to commit a complete “brainwash” and change the life style. Suddenly, instead of hundreds of people, who had been shaking hands with me, I was surrounded by few individuals, who have accompanied me throughout my whole life. I have also changed hobbies. When I was 54, I started to play ice-hockey and I still play it, I have discovered a new bunch of people and I really enjoy it.
What is your position in an ice-hockey team?
The ice-hockey today is based on the returning left back winger. But I am the left winger, non-returning one…(loud laughter)…I cannot keep up.
But let me get back to my “return” to life. I experienced one particular moment feeling as a craftsman exam in a civil life. That was the time, when I was able to use email, phone, DHL and scanner to buy a car on a leasing contract and that car was waiting for me in front of my life after I returned from Italy. I was proud then. Today, I see the episode ridiculous.
What about a job?
That was a bit complicated and it had its own dynamics. After I entered politics I passed the managed of my rather successful companies on and later sold them. I was being naïve and I thought this is the way it is supposed to be done. Today, those who are currently powerful?, are proving me wrong. They are in charge of big companies and simultaneously involved in top politics. I do not trust them. Based on my own experience, I believe that if someone is to perform a task on 150%, he cannot have any other responsibility. However, then I had nowhere to return…At last, there were few people who respected me, who were aware about my expert experience, contacts and reputation. I delivered some good work on consulting contracts; those eventually resulted in a management position in Ostrava. I had to travel a lot. Dozens of trips to Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and Far East. Especially in Africa, many countries were not considered safe and so people do not to travel there often. I was in Angola, Uganda, Ghana, South Sudan where the war broke out just after signing a contract, North Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia. Then came Egypt, Moldova, Vietnam, Ecuador, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Turkey and so on… I enjoyed it and I was bringing a visible added value. And now I could make the cut and use the fairy tale sentence: and suddenly I met Dan Křetínský. (laughter)
Dan had the courage to face the Czech stereotypes – he gave me a big chance and responsibility. At first, I started as the Chairman of the Association of District Heating, then I covered Slovakia, being at NAFTA company. During the last two years, I have been a member of the Board and Expert Director of the Foreign Relations at Eustream company, a key player in the gas transit in Europe. I do not travel outside Europe, but constantly within Europe. By the way, coming from Prague Chodov to Prague Holešovice is as demanding as travelling to Bulgaria or Romania. The work is truly interesting; I am grateful to Dan for the opportunity. I am able to devote myself to the energy industry as the topic that I have been pursuing for my whole life and I have my freedom. I make my living and I am fulfilled.
You seem to enjoy travelling a lot, you make a living and it is fulfilling at the same time. Do you miss the special air plane? Do you fly economy class?
You cannot possibly imagine the difference. There is a special bed, shower, comfortable seats in the special air plane for the prime minister and there is a red carpet awaiting you on the arrival. You do not have to take care of anything and no one searches you nor touches you at the airport. I think I could write a book “Pains and pleasures flying in economy class” with the subtitle “How to become a terrorist fast and easy”. As an experienced traveller, I try to secure the business class for the poor – the emergency seat. Now, you have to pay extra. Instead of the airline companies paying me for bearing the responsibility in case of an emergency, they charge me extra. There are security checks everywhere. Barefoot, with falling trousers I show my hands for the anti-explosive detection test. Usama Bin Ladin won. The failure of the Western civilization is evident. We made it difficult for ourselves, since terrorist attacks nowadays take place in a different form, in different places, as we could witness in Berlin. My book on travelling would include the stories about how I was about to be arrested, denied a flight, where I was checked, touched or had to take my shoes off. As I work in Bratislava, I tend to perceive most of the travels within Europe just as commuting to work. I learned how not to get disturbed. I have my own rituals, I tend to write a lot, read or listen to music. Whenever I feel the bump as the airplane touches the runway, I feel I need an extra hour to complete all the tasks. My wife pressures me to wear compress socks as I turned 60 as embolism prevention, but I tend to disregard it. Yes, I still enjoy travelling.
Do you miss politics?
It is rather abroad where I am asked this question. I say: I am not powerful anymore?, I am only a little bit influential.” That is a big difference. I do not miss politics. I miss the power. I admit that when I was active in politics, I did not know how to make use of it. On the other hand, gas and the connected issues are political and geopolitical. In this sense, I have never ceased being involved in politics.
By Linda Štucbartová