Zdeněk Ondráček and the Legacy of Czech Communism
By Henry Robinson
Someone is beating a drum. The noise carries over a sea of demonstrators in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, chanting and waving fake police batons. A Czech flag flutters in the light of the storefronts. As the drumbeat speeds up, the news camera pans across signs bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle, crossed out with a large X.
Protests like this one have erupted across the Czech Republic. It’s the night of March 5, and 2,000 people have gathered in Brno (the country’s second-largest city) as well as in nine other cities and towns. They’re mobilizing against the appointment of Zdeněk Ondráček, a Communist Member of Parliament, to the chairmanship of Parliament’s general inspection of security forces commission – a body tasked with investigating police misconduct. During the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which led to the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia, Ondráček served in a riot squad unit that assaulted pro-democracy demonstrators. His appointment to the commission has sparked widespread public outrage. Within days, he will be forced out.
How did a country with such a strong mythology around its democratic, anti-authoritarian traditions come to have a former Soviet police officer in such a high position of power? The cause can be traced to a loophole in the Czech Republic’s “lustration” laws. “Lustration,” which comes from the Czech word lustrace (“to review/examine”), refers to a 1991 law which indefinitely barred Soviet-era Communist Party officials and collaborators from holding positions in the Czech judiciary, intelligence, or civil service. This law was one of the first of its kind, and although it paved the way for the adoption of similar laws in many other post-Soviet states (including Romania, Poland, Estonia, and Bulgaria), its penalties remain some of the most severe. In East Germany, Party officials and collaborators were barred only for 15 years; many countries require only that they acknowledge their Communist past before continuing in government service.
Till Hilmar, a Ph.D student in sociology at Yale, cites the severity of this lustration law as the reason that “the Czech Republic is generally considered to be one of [Eastern Europe’s] most extensive cases of transitional justice.” But not even this system is airtight. Almost the only part of government to which Czech lustration law does not apply is parliament – and even though almost every party in the Czech government imposes its own lustration tests on its candidates, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) doesn’t. Had he been affiliated with another party, Ondráček would most likely have been barred from service.
There are, in other words, cracks in the system. But Ondráček’s appointment to the committee chairmanship also says something important about the continued power of Czech Communists. During the March 5 demonstrations, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš came under fire for supporting Ondráček’s bid for the police-oversight position, a move the PM most likely made to ingratiate himself with the KSČM. Babiš’s ANO Party, despite winning handily in the last general election, has struggled to form a coalition, and the KSČM is the only party that’s held out the possibility of working with him.
Regarding its electoral support, the KSČM is also a major player – despite an unsuccessful attempt by members of other parties to ban it in 2009. Although it picked up only around eight percent of the vote in the most recent election, well into the 2000s it was polling between 15 and 20 percent, giving it significant clout. Muriel Blaive, Advisor to the Director for Research and Methodology at Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, writes that “the dominant narrative according to which the Czech Republic is vastly anti-Communist fails to explain how the [KSČM] could possibly get so many votes.” She notes that, outside the vigorously anti-Communist Prague elite, there’s a “less ideologized” sector of society in which “the current Communists are not necessarily seen as evil but as a left-wing force that might fight for people’s rights in an increasingly unegalitarian economy.”
Is the uproar over Ondráček’s appointment a sign, as Hilmar argues, “not of the strength of the Communist presence…but actually of its weakness?” Or is there more to the story? As Babiš and his party fight for their political life, shifts in the balance of power may give us the answer.
Henry Robinson ‘19 is an English major in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.