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The Czech Republic at a crossroads

The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) has in recent months adopted increasingly nationalist policies. Euroskeptic views, which were originally associated primarily only with OS Chairman Vaclav Klaus, have now become an official party line. A shift in ODS views represents a potentially dangerous development, as it comes at a time when the Czech Republic struggles with meeting criteria for membership in the European Union.

The ODS has in recent weeks repeatedly voiced doubts about the Czech Republic's ability to meet EU membership criteria by the year 2003. Such doubts would not be of serious concern if they were not combined with increasingly aggressive nationalist statements and attacks on the EU in general.

At a recent conference, ODS leaders warned against "eurofetishism", calling instead for "eurorealism". They said the Czech republic needs to defend its national interests and adopt a though negotiating line vis-a-vis the EU. ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus has called for "nation state building" and patriotism. Shadow Foreign Minister Jan Zahradil has proposed that the Czech Republic could stay outside the EU and focus instead on renegotiating its association agreement.

There may be several reasons for the change in the ODS's attitudes. After the last year's general elections, the ODS and the Social Democrats (CSSD) signed the so- called opposition agreement , under which the ODS allowed the CSSD to form a minority government in exchange for receiving important state posts. The minority government has been unable to carry out reforms that the EU is demanding from the Czech Republic. The Czech public increasingly sees the ODS as being partly responsible for the Czech Republic's bad performance. In fact, recent opinion polls indicate that the popularity of both the CSSD and the ODS is declining.

The ODS's nationalist and anti-EU policies thus may represent an attempt to explain its lack of resolve in pursuing pro-EU policies. The party has been repeatedly accused by its opponents that it keeps putting its own interests above those of the country. A nationalist ideology may be used as a means of deflecting such criticism.

Moreover, hoisting the flag of "national interest" and "national pride" is a good way of improving any party's political standing in most post-communist countries. ODS leaders have probably realized that they could use nationalist sentiments to attract voters of far-right voters.

When it was founded the ODS defined itself as a liberal and conservative party. After some prominent politicians left the ODS at the beginning of 1998 to found the Union of Freedom (US), a liberal party, the ODS started gradually to move toward conservative policies. Its current opposition toward early EU membership and the talk of national values is part of such a process.

It seems that in opposing a fast movement toward EU membership, the ODS is trying to preserve its current privileged position in Czech politics. Once the Czech Republic adopts EU standards, various non-standard economic and political recipes are bound to disappear. Such change does not appear to be in the interest of not only the ODS but also various lobbies that the party became connected to during its six year tenure at the head of the Czech government.

Nationalist and anti-EU policies of the ODS are dangerous because they echo fears of many Czechs who are afraid of EU competition. The failure of the "Czech economic miracle" has been followed by a visible loss of self-confidence on part of Czech politicians and citizens. The ODS is basically tapping into such fears, telling the public the Czech republic can afford to live without EU membership.

The ODS may find a receptive ear in the ranks of the increasingly demoralized CSSD, whose government is viewed by the public with suspicion. Nationalist politicians in the CSSD may easily embrace the ODS's defensive attitudes toward the EU in an attempt to come up with ideological explanations of a lack of progress in meeting various EU criteria. The Czech Republic is at a crossroads. Should nationalist sentiments prevail, the country may be sidelined for many years to come.

Reuters, Prague Business Journal - 23. 6. 1999