Tag Archives: communism

From doctored weather reports to media freedom champions

11 Nov

A quarter of century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a number of post-communist countries have made impressive progress towards media freedom. From doctored weather reports (in the USSR and Romania, according to Herman Ermolaev, an expert on Soviet censorship), party propaganda, strict censorship and jamming of Western broadcasts, they have moved to the top of press freedom indexes.


Some of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 have trumped long-established Western democracies such as Britain and France in the index launched in 2002 by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Slovakia was joint first in 2004 and third in 2007 in the RSF index, in the same league as northern European paragons of media freedom such as Finland and Norway.

In 2006, six post-communist countries came in the top ten and RSF praised the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia as havens of freedom of expression.

Many of these countries have since hit a few snags, which led to their fall in media freedom ratings. However, some seem to be on their way back. Four post-communist countries came in top twenty in the latest RSF index, ahead of the UK, France and Italy.

But the picture is uneven: Hungary made impressive progress only to fall back dramatically in recent years. A law passed in 2010 established a new regulatory body with sweeping authority over all media and drastically curtailed the independence of public-service broadcasters.

The only EU members to fare worse than Hungary in RSF’s 2014 index are post-communist Croatia (65) and Bulgaria (100) as well as Greece (99).


Czech presidents: Welcome Mr Zeman!

8 Mar
Klaus a Zeman

Milos Zeman (R) and Vaclav Klaus (Photo zemannahrad.cz)

A small country rarely features on the world news agenda. However, CzechRepublic with its population of 10.5 millions has hit headlines many times, mostly because of its presidents. A new man has taken office today, following the first direct presidential elections in January. Like his predecessors, Milos Zeman has the potential to get onto international news pages. The following is a brief summary of what Czech presidents have been famous for abroad.

Vaclav Havel

The international community had known dissident playwright Vaclav Havel even before he became the first Czechoslovak post-communist president. His plays, banned in his own country, had won him recognition in theatres around the world.

When Czechoslovakia split into two countries in 1993, CzechRepublic kept Mr Havel as a head of state and gained with him the prestige that Slovakia has never had.

He was nominated several times for the Nobel peace price and collected a number of other international awards for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience.

Mr Havel’s death in December 2011 was mourned around the world. The news of his passing away was shoved off front pages only by the dead of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, announced around the same time.

Vaclav Klaus

Mr Havel’s heir in the office has never shared the world’s admiration for his predecessor. There was a lot of tension between the two men, dating from the time Mr Klaus was a prime minister and going on when he became a president and Mr Havel, although retired, continued to comment on the Czech politics.

Mr Klaus has played down the part dissidents, such as Vaclav Havel, played in bringing down communism, suggesting the regime collapsed on its own. “The role of individuals is usually exaggerated,” he was quoted as saying on the Czech news website Novinky.cz.

The British weekly newspaper The Economist included Vaclav Klaus in its list of controversial Eastern European leaders, who tend to dismiss conventional diplomacy and seek negative publicity. Mr Klaus, for example, has refused to talk to foreign journalists unless they have promised to print his answers in full.

Mr Klaus has been especially noted for his views on the EU and global warming, existence of which he denies.

“I have never seen any sings of the Earth being destroyed. I don’t believe any serious, intelligent person could say such a thing,” he said in 2007.


Mr Klaus has also used one of the harshest eurosceptic parallels for the European Union. “The EU and the RVHP (an economic organization under the leadership of the Soviet Union) are very similar, not ideologically, but structurally. Decisions are not taken in your country,” he said.

Because of Mr Klaus’s long refusal to sign the Lisbon Treaty, CzechRepublic – one of the smallest EU member states – delayed the streamlining of the block’s administration.

Perhaps the greatest fame for Mr Klaus came after his visit in Chile in 2011 when a video of him pocketing a pen adorned with a semi-precious stone got viral on Youtube.


Milos Zeman

Former left-wing Prime Minister Milos Zeman was the presidential favourite of Mr. Klaus.

Although the two men come from opposite sides of political centre, they have much in common. Mr. Zeman made a comparison in his memoir:


“We have differed as followers of Keynesian and neoliberal economic models… I speak better Russian and much worse English. My poor German cannot be compared to that of Klaus. I believe to be a better speaker… but I have read Klaus’ published texts with a lot of interest. We have completely disagreed over European integration, where I have backed federalism. Klaus likes jazz, I like Abba. Klaus is a sportsman, while I am a lazy fat guts who at the very best goes on bike or cross-country ski. We both like bread with pork grease and onion… I could go on with similarities and differences… The important thing is that Klaus is suited to be a president and I dare to say that he is in this office much better than I would be,” he wrote in 2005, two years after he lost presidential vote by parliament.

Like Mr. Klaus, Milos Zeman has had reservations about Vaclav Havel: “I would say that Vaclav Havel was an excellent dissident, but during his political career he did not prove to have the skills of a true statesman,” he wrote in the same book.

The media has often portrayed Mr Zeman as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking politician.

Notorious for his strong language, he gained a nickname “the vulgar prime minister” when he was a head of government between 1998-2002.

He caused uproar on several occasions, once for likening Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.

At an international conference in 2011, Mr Zeman called Islam an enemy and an anti-civilisation: “Two billion people live in it and it is financed partly from oil sales and partly from drug sales,” he said.

The new president shares his predecessor’s dislike of journalists, labelling them in the past “manure” and “hyenas.” However, he has often specified he meant Czech journalists in particular.

The election victory of Mr Zeman, was widely reported around the world. The news found its way not only to the BBC and The New York Times, but also to the media of countries, in which the interest in tiny Czech Republic would not be expected, such as the Iranian Press TV, Turkish Hurriyet, Pan-Arab Al Jazeera and Chinese Xinhua.

Milos Zeman vowed to take the presidency more actively than his predecessors.

“The president is not a ficus or an oleander (plant) standing in the corner of the room, whose role comprises merely being watered from time to time,” he said in an pre-election debate.
Combine this decision with Mr Zeman’s views and personal style and we can expect to hear more about him in the future.

A prediction made by respected Czech commentator Martin Komarek in 2003 might well fail. He said only Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus will be remembered in a hundred years time. “History will take no notice of Mr Zeman,” he said.

Who will profit from Cuba’s travel reform?

18 Oct

Although small businesses generate more income than state jobs, travel expenses are unaffordable for majority of the Cubans

At least one Cuban is probably thinking that the government has once again ruined his plans with its announcement to remove the need for permit to travel abroad.

I met him during my visit to the island this year. For the purpose of this blog I’ll call him Reinaldo.

He studied in communist Czechoslovakia during the eighties. Smiling, he told me about the parties with pretty Slovak girls.

Then he returned to Cuba – temporally, he thought. But meanwhile, the communism in Europe collapsed and Czechoslovakia was no longer an allied country where the Cuban government sent its people to study and work.

Reinaldo has never returned to what is now Slovakia and has never met his daughter, who was born there just after he had left.

After all those years, his Slovak was impressively fluent, as he was outlining the plan he had to get back to that country.

Spanish citizenship, that he had recently been granted, allowed him to get around the government restrictions on travel abroad. He just needed to find a rich Cuban to marry and share this citizenship with. In return, she would pay for his plane ticket.

Now, when the government will ease the travel abroad, Reinaldo will no longer have anything to offer. But a plane ticket to Europe will continue to be too expensive for his wage of a state employee.

Like him, most of the 11 million Cubans will have to satisfy their desire to get know other countries through TV documentaries. With an average monthly wage of 20 pesos convertibles (approximately 12 GBP), they will hardly be able to afford even the passport fees, which have increased from 55 to 100 pesos convertibles.

Then, there are well known Cuban activists, such as Yoani Sanchez, who are likely to have their travel expenses funded from abroad. However, even under the new migration law the government will be able to control who can and who cannot leave the country.

Although full of hope, Yoani joked about the extent of the travel reform in a series of Tweets: “There is a phrase which says: You cannot do this for “h” and for “b”. You can hear in the streets today: You cannot travel for “h” and for “d”… Letters “h” and “d” of the article 23 of the Migration Law are those, which enable the Cuban government to limit the travel of dissidents.”

According to the letter “d”, the Cubans can be denied a passport “for defence and security reasons”, or “for other reasons of public interest defined by authorities”, according to the letter “h”.

There has not been a considerable increase in chances of some professionals, such as doctors, to leave for other than allied countries, such as Venezuela. The government will continue to control their travel “in order to preserve qualified work force for the economic, social and scientific development”, according to the letter “f” of the same article.

So who is going to profit from the travel liberation? Most likely obedient (at least seemingly) citizens, whose income greatly exceeds the national average, having either the permission to offer accommodation to foreign tourists or a job that allows them to take bribes or steal from state property.