Translation: Martina Hošková; Photo: Tomas Fungus and Zuzana Bonisch
At a ceremony marking Czechoslovak Independence Day on October 28th, President Petr Pavel (for the first time during his term in office) handed out the high state awards to 62 people for their outstanding services to the state. We would like to present the President‘s full speech, which he delivered on this special occasion at the historical Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, as well as share the list of all awarded personalities, and show the photos to illustrate the festive atmosphere of the day.
„Dear Mr. President Klaus, Dear Mrs. Klausová, Dear Mrs. Havlová, Dear highest constitutional officers, Dear honorees, members of the diplomatic corps, Dear guests, Dear fellow citizens,
For the 105th time, we celebrate the founding of our republic. It is remarkable how much it has changed in that time. Today we are basically a different state, half the size. Yet we still look back at the first republic of Czechoslovakia.
Its 20 years of existence are still a powerful inspiration to us today. We were one of the most advanced economies in the world at the time. We were an island of democracy in fascist-wracked Central Europe. The country had a responsible and morally strong leadership in the person of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. We have almost reached the top. Of course, not everything was perfect, but we were on the right track, and we were fulfilling the vision of our own democratic state.
Since the end of the First Republic, our territory has gradually diminished. But that doesn‘t mean we should feel like a small country. Today, we are the eighth most populous country in the European Union. And we are committed to continuing to grow our presence in Europe.
We should look at the past with fairness and confidence. We often go back to our historic defeats, 1938, ́48, ́68, and the period of unfreedom that followed. But let‘s focus more on the achievements, particularly in 1918 or 1989, but also on our joining NATO in 1999 and certainly on our joining the European Union in 2004.
But there are also dark moments in our history that we cannot be proud of. The solution is not to turn a blind eye to them. We must find the courage to accept them and move on. Only an open acceptance of the past in its true form will lead us to a complete reconciliation with it and a sense of our own liberation.
Perhaps also because of our complicated modern history, we sometimes tend to underestimate ourselves, to lack confidence in our own abilities, and to lose hope for a better future. I would like to emphasize here today, in this place so symbolic for us, that we have many reasons for healthy self-confidence. And to do that in the presence of dozens of honorees who are the best evidence of that.
Neither Russia‘s war on Ukraine nor the Islamist terrorism Israel must respond to is contributing to a positive outlook for the future. But we have the strongest security anchorage we have ever had in our history. The knowledge that we are part of the strongest defense establishment in the world, one that commands real respect and in which we have an equal voice with our allies, is the foundation of our security. At the same time, we cannot rely only on the external guarantees of our allies. Because even in NATO, too, it is true, first alone and then together. That‘s why we must strengthen our security first and foremost with our own forces.
Our country lies at the heart of Europe, and it is only natural that we should be part of the European Union. A project that brought peace and prosperity to Europe. For centuries, Europe had been torn apart by a number of wars, but since its gradual integration into the European Union, its member states have not been at war with each other.
The Union gives people opportunities we never had. Our companies have a free market 45 times bigger than the Czech one. They can sell their products there under the same conditions as in our country. The common European market also gives jobs to people in the Czech Republic. And those who want to try it abroad can work in any of the member countries without restriction. Common European rules guarantee us the safety of the goods and foods we import. They also result in a significantly better environment or protection of individual rights in the digital world.
It is the European Union that is investing the most in bridging the gap between poor and rich regions. And actually, a lot more than our governments have spent from national resources. We can travel freely in Europe. We can also study freely and feel at home anywhere in Europe. Europe is our home.
The common European project is not flawless, but it is the project with the best motivations and objectives. We are part of it, and we too have the right and the opportunity to participate in it. It is not Brussels deciding about us without us. It is the Slovaks, the Polish, the Dutch, the Danes, the Portuguese, the Czechs and all the others who together decide on our common Europe. We have in our own hands many tools with which to influence the shape of the European Union in the right direction. We have similar chances as all the other member countries. It is not us and them. We are both Czechs and Europeans. I am a proud Czech, but at the same time, I feel a strong sense of belonging to Europe.
The Czech Republic is heard abroad, and increasingly in good terms. We should be proud of that. After a long time, there is consensus among our top constitutional representatives on the direction of foreign policy, and I am pleased that it was possible to find consensus in this field even with the strongest opposition party. We don‘t need to assure our allies in the Union, in the Alliance and in the UN that they can rely on the Czech Republic. They know.
Our greatness and credibility are also proven by our actions. Our assistance to Ukraine is an expression of the values that we share with the free democratic world. I am proud of the Czech society that has shown solidarity and humanity by accepting almost half a million refugees from Ukraine and when people were able to collect incredible amounts of money in various collections to help Ukraine. In addition to the knowledge that we are willing to help those in need, it appears that our openness has other positive effects. Today, refugees from Ukraine are involved in the Czech economy, paying taxes and helping where we have long been short of labor.
For over 30 years, we have been living in a democracy again. And yet, in the long run, our support for democracy is weaker than in the countries to the west of our borders. Thirty years ago, we had great expectations. Many, however, have been disappointed by their dreams of democracy. They feel that democracy is the cause of what has gone wrong in the past decades. But that is not the case. Democracy is the rule of the people, and it is the rule of all of us for all of us. And it will only be what we all, the citizens of our country, make it. Therefore, it is not only a great opportunity, but it is also a great collective responsibility.
We all have the right to choose our representatives, our politicians. And then also monitor them closely to see how they stand up for their positions and whether it is really in the interest of the citizens. Be tough on your politicians, including me.
In Europe, as elsewhere in the world, the temptation of populism and strong-arm rule is spreading. A populism that promises, scares, and plays on national intolerance and mistrust of everything that comes from outside. Let us find the courage not to support the seemingly easy way. Do we want to be a country of free and confident people, or do we give up a part of our freedom and put ourselves in the hands of someone who promises to take care of us?
Democracy is not an easy road, and it certainly doesn‘t end with elections. Everyone has a chance to contribute. Some join a political party or a local movement in their community because they want change. Others may contribute through civic engagement, concrete actions in their neighborhood, lobbying politicians or organizing events in their own community. It is a collaborative project in which everyone can and should play their part. Only in this way will we remain a society of free, responsible and active people, what Václav Havel called civil society.
The greatest wealth of the Czech Republic is our people. I see this in my travels to the regions, but also in my meetings with Czechs abroad. They are university students, entrepreneurs, innovators, but also doctors and nurses, soldiers and policemen, teachers at all levels and those who work with their hands. In short, all those who have a positive and honest approach to what they do. If we can develop this human capital properly, we are going to be able to play in the world‘s premier league.
Most of us remember the early ́90s. At that time, society was literally overflowing with energy, expectation, and determination to change. We wanted free elections, democracy, freedom, and a market economy. We wanted to go west, to the European Union and to NATO. And when it all came true, it was like we lost our direction and our determination.
Our economy has, in part, exhausted some of its original advantages, such as the willingness of the West to invest here for cheap labor. Therefore, we have to look for new ways to succeed and grow. We need a new direction, a new plan for the future of this country. We need a direction that the majority of society will accept as their new common goal. As it has been many times in the past.
We need an educated and skilled society that can meet the demands of tomorrow‘s labor market. And an educational system where every child, no matter what background they come from, will have an equal opportunity to succeed.
We need an economy that is much more based on innovation, linked to the results of our research, to change the orientation of our economy from manufacturing to education. It is not enough to know how to make good products. We can achieve the greatest benefit if our people first design, manufacture, complete, sell and service them. We need to prepare for new challenges, such as how artificial intelligence or climate change will impact our lives.
We need to be able to close the gap between the impoverished regions and the rest of the country more quickly. We can‘t just sit back and watch as one part of the country grows and other parts sink into problems over the long term. We need to motivate municipalities and regions in all parts of our country to try to attract promising companies that offer people well-paid jobs. Public administration needs to be more efficient, and we need to create the legislative conditions for it to be able to move forward quickly with the implementation of important projects, for example, in the field of housing or transport.
There are many changes ahead of us to become more competitive, to make our country a better place to live. To succeed, we should suppress our nationally specific, often unnecessarily, skeptical thinking a little bit. It is not that complicated, all we have to do is say, we want, we can, we do. And if it doesn‘t work the first time, we will try again and again until we succeed, or as the father told young Bruce Wayne in the movie Batman, we fall down to learn how to get up again.
That courage, determination, effort, and diligence produce results is demonstrated by the stories of the people to whom I am about to award the State Awards today. They are all proof that overcoming obstacles makes sense. Vladislav Hall will never be big enough to hold all such stories. The award would also be well deserved by all children who are not afraid to defend their classmates against bullying. Single parents who manage the care of their children without the support of a partner. All those who care for loved ones with disabilities and those who help those in need, who they often even don ́t know. All those who choose the path of goodness, justice, and honesty, even if it is not by far the most comfortable path for them.
It is a great honor for me to be able to welcome and personally honor at Prague Castle today dozens of people whose lives have inspired many of us and whose personal stories have rendered extraordinary service to our country. These personalities are the best role models and inspiration for finding the common story of our country, and for naming the path we want to walk together.
Thank you for your attention.“
Petr Pavel, President of the Republic, Prague Castle 28 October 2023