“The young generation GIVES ME HOPE”
Czech and Slovak Leaders readers know that our objective is to bring you interviews which remain relevant and hopefully offer a positive perspective. Although I often incorporate my personal experience into my interviews, I also try to distance myself from the topic. My interview with Vít Rakušan was held during the days we were commemorating the first anniversary of the lockdown imposed due to the pandemic, and in this regard it was different and highly personal. I’m still recovering from a severe bout of Covid-19 which knocked me out of my normal routine for more than three weeks. Schools have been closed for more than a year with the exception of a few brief periods of respite. Did you know that last year students in their second year of gymnasium secondary school spent just 33 days in school?
As a proud Czech, it pains me to see that many of my foreign friends who have chosen the Czech Republic as their new home, or who are residing here for work, have begun to question their choice. We’ve become a country which isn’t safe, and at the current moment neither is there an optimistic vision of the future.
I asked for an interview with the leader of the STAN (Starostové a nezávislí – Mayors and Independents) political party, Vít Rakušan, who alongside Pirate Party leader Ivan Bartoš currently heads the largest opposition bloc.
Where can we find that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? How well has the opposition done over the previous year? And does he want to become our future prime minister?
I met Vít Rakušan in person in 2019 at the Hana Greenfield Memorial Swim in Kolín. Hana Greenfield, a native of Kolín, survived the Holocaust. There was a prosperous Jewish community in Kolín before the Second World War. Hana Greenfield regularly took swims in the Elbe with her Jewish and non-Jewish friends and neighbours. In 1943, alongside other Jews from the town, she was deported to Terezín, and then to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
My first question is to Vít Rakušan the citizen, not the politician. How is citizen Vít Rakušan during this period?
As a citizen, I’m really busy and I’m neglecting my family and my two small children. My wife doesn’t see me very much at home. Like everyone, I also miss contact with friends. If there’s one thing I need in life, then it’s my friends whom I’ve known for many years. I also miss contact with my parents, something I have cut back on because my parents are over 70 years old and have health issues. Today we are all sharing in the experience that the world is lacking the usual anchors we cling to when we’re tired from working, and we feel we’ve had enough. I try to gain energy during activities with my family, but under the current circumstances it’s more difficult than usual.
I read your reflections on our year with Covid, which didn’t sound particularly positive. That traditional saying that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history comes to mind. Some of our readers include the so-called expat community, who have chosen the Czech Republic for their second home. I see great disappointment not just amongst Czech citizens, but also amongst our friends from abroad. Where do you personally see grounds for optimism?
I deeply regret the way the Czech Republic’s reputation is now sinking. At the current time, our country is acting as an unreliable state, chaotically managed, a state in which its people are neither responsible nor respectful of each other, and do not care for the health and space of others. It’s hard to build up a good reputation, and it takes a long time. It takes just as long to build back confidence once you have lost it.
For me, the young generation gives me hope. I would also hope that they will improve the Czech Republic’s reputation. They are responsible; they have got involved in volunteering; they are endeavouring, often despite the state apparatus putting obstacles in their way, to stand up to the crisis and move their country forwards. I think a generational change is coming amongst our elites in the Czech Republic. The middle generation will gain the upper hand, and I don’t mean in a partisan way of thinking, and this generation will base itself on how young people view the country’s further development.
I hope that we gain control of this spring crisis too, and that people carry on observing all the restrictions we have here. And then we’re going to need to undertake some reputational repairs. The fact that this crisis will end gives me my primary hope. My secondary hope is my belief that the elites who have failed in this crisis will go. And a new generation will arrive and they will build a free and liberal country which is modern and more open to the world than we are today.
Let’s move on to the post-pandemic period. What are you looking forward to once you’re not dealing with matters linked to the Covid-19 crisis?
I will definitely be focusing on the education system in the Czech Republic, which is connected to a lot of things, whether in science and research or in the future of industry. At the current time, 52 % of jobs in the Czech Republic are under threat in the Czech Republic, more than in other OECD countries, because overall our workforce is cheap and involved in manufacturing. Our current education system does not reflect the fact that we are now 21 years into the 21st century. It does not prepare young people for the change in terms of competencies. Life today comes not just with rapid changes, but also with huge flows of information. Schools are not teaching critical thinking regarding information, information literacy or how to work with information. I really believe that investments in schools will be reflected in future economic parameters.
Other challenges relate to the environment and energy sustainability, and modern governance. This crisis has shown us that the state and civil service have failed. It has shown that they operate slowly and unfavourably. At a time of boom, plenty and peace, this can be weathered in one way or another. At a time when it is literally people’s lives that are at stake, and people need to communicate quickly, efficiently and remotely with the state, it has been shown that the state cannot continue in this way. Because of the coronavirus crisis, but not just because of it, a large number of challenges have arisen.
Following on from when you said the state and civil service have failed, your original profession is as a secondary school teacher. So what grade would you give the opposition in this regard, specifically your STAN and Pirates grouping?
Certainly not an A. I was quite a strict teacher, so I do see some errors. We too, like most of society, succumbed to our optimism prior to the summer, and we thought the pandemic was behind us. But in contrast to the government, we learnt our lessons and in autumn we were extremely cautious, warning as early as September that we were heading for disaster.
The fact that we were submitting proposals the entire time I do perceive positively. Our “five minutes to twelve” concept incorporates specific proposals for dealing with this crisis. If I were to give ourselves a school-equivalent grade, then it would be a B minus.
Moving on from a macro-level political perspective, let us focus on individual citizens and the highest-risk population groups. For some citizens, it’s already five past twelve, and for others it’s perhaps three in the afternoon. On television, we see reports of overcrowded hospitals and also large queues in front of food banks. Since the beginning of this year, a record number of the self-employed have gone out of business. How do you perceive these reports as a politician?
I perceive the severity of the situation from a number of perspectives. My brother is a doctor; an intern. He works with patients who have Covid. He says that the medical view of the situation on the ground is different to what they had all been used to previously. Healthcare workers are suffering from enormous mental and physical exhaustion. I always call on people to take individual responsibility. Protect yourself and your loved ones. Keep to the basic rules and do not succumb to a feeling of false security that if you and your loved ones are not sick, then this disease is not real.
I’m sorry that awareness and education is not promoted here. We don’t have a face of the pandemic. We do not have somebody whom a broad swath of the population can trust and who can explain the facts in an understandable way. I really appreciate the work of the young Czech Television reporter Daniel Stach, who has been the only one who has managed to explain the situation as we begin vaccinating in an understandable way. But it shouldn’t just be him communicating like that. The government and the Health Ministry should also be expressing themselves in an understandable way. It is important to explain to people what the way out of this situation is. And once again we’re back at observing instructions, personal responsibility, not taking risks, protecting the old, sick and underprivileged, and last but not least vaccination, which can get us out of this crisis.
Another perspective is the fact that I am still available to citizens in my parliamentary office, naturally while observing all hygiene measures. People come to see me whose business dream, which they had built up over 30 years, has collapsed. Single mothers come to see me who can no longer meet their basic needs.
So I try to translate my work as a member of parliament into specific proposals. It took me over four months to get my bill for one-off support to single parents to the floor of the Chamber of Deputies. I’m able to make any number of compromises to get it discussed. Single mothers and single fathers are truly no longer able to meet their basic needs.
As a politician, I don’t like getting into debt, and I paid off my town’s debts. But now, as a state we’ve got to invest in our people. We’ve got to help our entrepreneurs, we’ve got to motivate people not to be afraid to remain in quarantine and report any contacts, and we’ve got to help single parents. These are investments in the future, in contrast to the Danube-Odra-Elbe Canal. We’ve got to invest in a future which includes businesses such as the cafés and small shops which we enjoy. We’ve got to invest in people so that they don’t get into spirals of debt and insolvency. With the Pirates, we have proposed that the parliament only look at Covid matters at the current time. Even the Building Act and the “Lex Dukovany” low carbon energy bill can wait. We should be sending our people the message that when the Parliament is in session, and so we’re breaching current restrictions, then we’re dealing with matters that have a real impact on the lives of citizens. Unfortunately we have been unsuccessful as an opposition in this regard. To my regret. Our priorities, both financial and material, really are elsewhere.
I know that seats are allocated after the election, but still, according to some opinion polls you are either the largest political grouping, or second after ANO. What is the likelihood that I’m currently talking to our future Prime Minister?
Small, I think. I have no ambition to be Prime Minister. According to our transparent published agreement with the Pirates, Ivan Bartoš is our candidate for Prime Minister. My name is allocated the position of Deputy Prime Minister. You mentioned in my personal profile that I focus on issues of security and military intelligence oversight. So I’m closest to the Interior Ministry. I wouldn’t want to see this particular ministry as the Ministry of Fear, or Police. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for digitalisation, administrative procedures, a simple civil service and election legislation. There are loads of challenges where the Interior Ministry has the potential to make life more comfortable in the Czech Republic, deal with matters faster, and give us a feeling of security without engendering fear or making use of cheap populism. So if we are going to be in the government, I’m personally going to be seeking this department.
How do you perceive a situation where the police, instead of helping and protecting, crack down on our citizens? This situation pains me greatly as a participant in the 1989 demonstrations.
A year and a bit ago, I couldn’t have imagined that we were going to be looking at whether to allow travel into a neighbouring district. I repeat: the situation is grave and reduced mobility certainly does have some impact. I regret that we’ve reached the point, a year on, where measures have to be enforced in a repressive way. If I was told that I can go anywhere within a 20-kilometre radius of my home, where I can take the kids for a countryside walk, somewhere I can’t reach as someone living in the city, then I’d respect it without anyone having to check up on me. When people lose confidence, repression must ensue. Repression worsens reputation, and so also the position of the police officers or soldiers because they are taken as the enemy, and not helpers. That’s a missed opportunity in a crisis. Because in crises such as floods or other natural disasters, the reputation of the police and army has always improved. In today’s crisis, measures are perceived as repressive regardless of whether they make sense or not. I’d rather see the army deployed to hospitals. I receive very positive feedback from our regional governors on their deployment. Our male and female soldiers in particular have undertaken the hardest job under difficult circumstances, and they have been a great support for their overworked staff.
You often espouse the legacy of Václav Havel, and I see a portrait of him in your office. What is your favourite quote of our former President, and during what occasions do you remember him?
I immediately recall his maxim, “Truth and love prevail”, of course, and I’ve never considered this quote a cliché. I entered politics believing this would happen one day, and I still think it can. I appreciate Václav Havel’s humanity and the human dimension of his politics. Although he came from a particular background, he was able to talk to anybody, and he gave people hope. Today we miss the moral corrective of somebody who is able to think about things in a deeper context, not just the short-term political context. We also lack a vision of where our country should be going. And somebody who can give the people a reason to smile, and not just make threats and pass the blame on to others. A person like that is born once every 50 or 100 years. I firmly hope and believe that we will find one in the upcoming generation of politicians. We have people who grew up in a free country, often with experience living abroad. They don’t suffer from organisational blindness. I refuse to criticise the young generation. I see my role in politics as being a kind of ferryman. To try to remove the old guard and endeavour to hand the state over to people who are not deformed by the past. In my opinion, this represents the greatest hope for the Czech Republic.
Proud former mayor of Kolín, amongst other achievements worked to improve the Elbe’s water quality and was also involved in restoring its swimming tradition. His original profession is as a secondary school teacher. He has been a member of the Czech Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies since 2017. He is the Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies’ Permanent Commission on Oversight over the Work of Military Intelligence, and is a member of its Foreign Affairs and Security committees. For many years, Vít Rakušan has promoted the idea of a modern and effective state which should serve its citizens and not impede them, and he has consistently espoused the legacy of former president Václav Havel. In 2016 he was included in a list of the 100 greatest innovators in Central and Eastern Europe by the Financial Times, the prestigious English international newspaper.