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Czech government keeps improvising

The besieged government of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus seems to get no relief. In recent days, an agreement between the Czech National Insurance Company and the Czech Doctors Chamber ended a standoff between doctors and the insurance company over how much doctors should be paid for their services. But before the agreement was reached, the chamber instructed doctors to ask patients to pay in cash for performed services--a step that plunged the Czech health care system into chaos.

On 6 July, a last-minute agreement between the Czech Energy Works (CEZ) and the Czech Railways averted the CEZ's threat to stop supplying electricity to the Czech Railways in Northern Bohemia. The Czech Railways owe the CEZ some 30 million crowns in unpaid electricity bills. Negotiating teams, including those from the ministry of transportation, in the end agreed that the CEZ will postpone its ultimatum. However, the problem of insolvency remains.

These two examples well illustrate what President Vaclav Havel has repeatedly criticized as a lack of concept , or a long-term vision, in the work of the Klaus government. The government, Havel has argued, moves from one Wednesday (the day of regular government sessions) to another. It has failed to tell people what it wants to achieve two or three years from now. It has also failed to present long-term, or even medium-term, programs for various areas of the economy.

This lack of vision has been especially problematic in the areas of transportation, health care, housing, and education. The president points out that the liberal-minded Klaus government has managed to privatize the economy. Although problems, such as a lack of restructuring or unclear ownership relations, persist even there, many privatized companies prosper. However, the public sector, or the areas where--by definition--the government has to play an important role, have been plagued with problems.

A lack of concept in such areas has partly been a result of the liberal attitudes of the government. Klaus has assumed that many problems will be sorted out by "the invisible hand of the market." Only now is the government finding out that efforts to reduce the size of the state does not necessarily mean that the state should become weak and ineffective.

Moreover, attempts to reduce the size of the state have been more rhetorical than real. The state bureaucracy has not diminished in the last few years; on the contrary, it has grown, causing Klaus to create a special "anti-bureaucratic commission." But, at the same time, state bureaucrats remain ineffective. Working without a clear idea of what the government wants to do in those areas where it remains extensively involved, numerous bureaucrats at ministries tend to complicate rather than solve problems.

Another problem is the government's style of work. The three coalition government parties, each of them espousing a different ideology, often find it difficult to agree on long-term visions. While Klaus's Civic Democratic Party officially presents itself as a liberal party, it is, above all, a party of pragmatists who often prefer to search for manageable short-term solutions rather than long-term visions. The conservative Civic Democratic Alliance of Michael Zantovsky has been more forceful in trying to "sell" its free market ideology but, being the smallest of the coalition parties, it has not always succeeded. The Christian Democratic Union of Josef Lux increasingly rejects liberal economic concepts and espouses the ideas of "a social-market economy."

As a result, the government sessions often focus on immediate concerns. As long as the overall performance of the economy and the political situation were relatively good, the failure of the government to outline its long-term objectives in various areas was not perceived as a big problem. It was assumed that the government will be able to find appropriate solutions to mounting problems in various areas in due time.

Under the pressure of the worsening economic and political conditions, analysts, however, began pointing out that the government simply does not have any long-term visions for the areas of education, health care, transportation, or energy; and that, in fact, it is often unable to come up even with effective short-term solutions. The government's activity in an increasing number of areas has simply been reduced to "fire fighting." Even some trade unions have been calling the government's attention to the need for structural reforms and have criticized the government's proclivity to deal with problems only when a crisis is imminent.

The leaders of three coalition parties recently began meeting every Monday for a working breakfast. One reason was that Zantovsky is not a member of the government. Another purpose of the meetings was to agree, ahead of the government's Wednesday session, on common coalition strategies in various areas. So far, however, the meetings, have not improved the government's style of work. They usually produce only such short-term solutions that all three parties can agree on, despite their ideological differences. However, as the criticism of this kind of improvisation mounts, it is clear that the coalition government will either find a way to outline, and start implementing, long-term visions or it itself has, in the long-term, little chance of surviving.

Reuters - 7. 7. 1997