Czech Republic

Happy Birthday Czechia: Medals for pop, poetry, and intolerance

The hundredth anniversary of Czech state - the real masterpiece of irony.

October 28th was a historical occasion for the Czech Republic – we celebrated the hundredth anniversary of a Czech state. Never mind the fact half of those were spent under one totalitarian regime or another or that 1918 was actually the start of Czechoslovakia, a very different country from the one we live in now. Look, it is a big deal. We get to wave flags.

The mainstream media celebrated with a full-on barrage of historical retrospective ranging from nostalgic through cautionary to downright psychotic, the last one being mostly courtesy of the ever-louder but sadly still not extinct Czech monarchist party determined to drag the last Habsburgs kicking and screaming to their not-exactly-rightful throne. Funnily enough, the man with a claim for the throne was in the country for the anniversary and expressed the need to move the hell on with the times. The exact number of monarchists who committed suicide upon reading this interview remains undisclosed but an educated guess would place the number at “nowhere near enough”.

The actually relevant political figures, on the other hand, saw the anniversary mostly for the charade it was and utilized it to score some cheap brownie points in the PR department. The President and PM had a TV debate that was nowhere near as entertaining as a TV broadcast based on the premise of a chat between a populist and a revenant should be; both, in fact, managed to say absolutely nothing of relevance apart from repeatedly reassuring each other that they need to stay buddies with Russia and that the EU is evil incarnate. A good measure of just how boring this debate was could be the fact that none of the opposition politicians even bothered with publishing an angry response in a liberal-medium-of-choice; besides, everyone knew that the real insults would follow when Zeman hands out the medals and state commendations to his supporters. They were not wrong, but the awards still bear mentioning because, in addition to simply raising controversy and rewarding lickspittles, they show some fairly dangerous political tendencies as well.

Medals for pop, poetry, and intolerance

Going through the list of people who receive the state commendations shows an interesting increase of the amount of medals being handed out in memoriam, presumably because they are in the unenviable position of being unable to refuse; after all, experts have declared that Zeman’s tenure as President has devalued the Presidential commendations, a shocking phenomenon that only took them five years to discover. While there were a couple of awards that could be considered acceptable under a normal regime – Czech soldiers who died in Afghanistan, for an example that cannot refuse – most of them were intended either as compensation or provocation.

The latter is perhaps most succinctly shown in the example of communist pop music sensation Michal David (do not click that link) who may have become a fairly respectable musician in his late years but still mostly lives from nostalgia for songs that make gouging one’s eyeball out with a rusty spoon a pleasant alternative to turning off the radio. It does not hurt that he has the right political ideas too, being one of the most famous Czech musicians still willing to perform with the Russian Army Choir. That being said, the intent behind this award was almost certainly just to piss off the few Czechs who happen to not be tone-deaf.

To make sure the message is heard by those musically disinclined, Zeman also handed a shiny piece of metal to Karel Sýs, a poet of rather dubious quality who happened to be one of the greatest communist propagandists before 1989. Interestingly enough, the award was suggested to the President by a Communist MP, to whom it was suggested by an association of writers that Sýs just happens to be the head of and that is domiciled at the same address as the Communist Party headquarters.

But the real masterpiece of irony – and yes, there is some grudging admiration for Zeman to be found here – was the medal for Ivanka Kohoutová, a school headmistress awarded for „combating intolerant ideology“. If this sounds suspicious coming from Zeman, it is for the simple reason that it should. In 2013 Kohoutová gained brief media attention for her school being the target of a lawsuit from a student who claimed she was forbidden to wear a hijab. The court dismissed the claim on a technicality Kohoutová used as a basis of her defense – the student had not filed all the papers yet and as such was not a student at the time – but the case nevertheless became a rallying point for every alt-right, anti-islamist, wannabe-Nazi crackpot in the country for a short while. Now, Kohoutová has happily received a medal for combating Islam by forbidding her student to wear a hijab that casts her defense of “this was really just an issue of missing paperwork” in a rather dubious light, but the real kicker is the fact she received the medal for “combating intolerant ideology” – for her own intolerance.

The fact that a medal also went to Rajko Doleček, a doctor who just happened to be a friend and public supporter of Ratko Mladic, is just icing on the cake. At least one of these people is guaranteed to piss off just about any Czech.

Medals for combating the truth

As is the case in the last couple of years, a good share of medals went to people who make their living by spreading disinformation. Ex-journalist, currently an MP for ANO and avid conspiracy theorist Jana Lorencová’s medal managed to effectively bury any faith in journalism that might have remained in a poor, befuddled reader’s head – and also serve as a sad monument to the career of a once good investigative reporter who did a lot of good work in the nineties.

A more interesting case is the award for the American journalist Erik Best who somehow still manages to claim reputation of a serious political commentator despite the fact very few of his speculations on the grim future of global politics came true or were based in any kind of reality. Best is an interesting figure that would deserve a deeper (and ideally painful) probing as one of the more cultivated faces of Russian propaganda in the Czech Republic, but the reason for his award is a story of its own: he is one of the group of medalists rewarded for opposing Zdeněk Bakala, a rather shady businessman whose real sin against the regime is owning a couple of liberal newspapers. The last nail in the coffin of integrity was provided by Zeman giving an anti-Bakala commendation “for fighting against economic criminality” to Pavol Krúpa, a businessman every bit as crooked and corrupt as the supposed economic criminal and a person considered untrustworthy even by the Czech National Bank.

And there is one more businessman deserving mention (although not the state commendation he got): the weapons manufacturer Jaroslav Strnad, owner of the Czechoslovak Group, a holding that – apart from making guns, cars, cars with guns and presumable guns with wheels – somehow manages to secure military contracts without having security clearance and having absolutely no issues with their products being smuggled into embargoed countries despite the company repeatedly having failed to secure permission to actually supply them there. Curiously enough, arms smuggling is not the reason the man was commended – that would be the fact he was the biggest donor to Zeman’s election campaign and very good Russian connections that helped finance the rest of it.

Provided the homunculus currently hosting Zeman’s alcohol-soaked brain lasts until the next year, we can fully expect the next year’s awards to be handed by Zeman to Zeman; after all, him doing it by proxy is not exactly news. However, this year might have a bit more significance, if only because of the attempts of turning the hundredth anniversary of, well, some kind of Czech state, into a historic occasion. In a way, it worked: the award ceremony celebrated a historic victory of corruption, clientelism, charade and, obviously, cretinism.


Michal Chmela
Michal Chmela is a translator and journalist.