Darkness in Prague—and Beyond

From without and within, democratic institutions and ideals are under threat.

   Old town Prague. Photo: Getty Images

I visited the Czech Republic last week for the first time in more than two decades. It was not an entirely happy return.

In 1995 I could still pass for young, and Europe was young again. As we convened in Prague for an international conference on civic education, everything seemed possible. If history had not quite ended, it was moving in the right direction, and more rapidly than sober analysts had thought possible. With Vaclav Havel in the Castle, the idealists had turned out to be the true realists.

Prague was still struggling to remove the accumulated grime of four communist decades, but the surface didn’t matter. Spirits were high. Music was everywhere, in churches as well as bars, announced on huge placards that magically appeared each morning before breakfast. Students thronged the squares. The ancient buildings were more than reminders of the past; they had become part of a new drama written and staged by a generation that had prevailed against all odds. As Wordsworth wrote of a similar moment: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

I landed in Prague this time under different circumstances. The surface was gleaming, but the spirit had darkened. Milos Zeman, the current Czech president, has adopted Vladimir Putin’s analogy between Kosovo’s independence and the annexation of Crimea; Mr. Zeman calls the conflict in Donbass a “civil war between two groups of Ukrainian citizens.” Like populists everywhere, he sharpens longstanding ethnic tensions for short-term electoral advantage. Students and intellectuals who spearheaded the Velvet Revolution sporadically demonstrate against him.

As I walked the streets, I saw throngs of tourists for whom Prague was a charming visual backdrop and a fine place to shop. Dulce et decorum had given way to Dolce & Gabbana. The Prague Spring had become a museum exhibit; the lines were short.

Along the banks of the river, Chinese brides shivered in their thin white wedding dresses as videographers barked orders. As I looked down from the Gothic-era Charles Bridge to the waters below, I pondered, not for the first time, the ancient wisdom of Heraclitus : panta rhei—everything flows. We cannot step into the same river twice; certainly not the Vltava.

But I was not in Prague to lament a vanished past. Under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy and Forum 2000 (an organization Havel co-founded in 1996), a group of scholars and activists from around the world convened to explore current threats to democratic institutions and strategies for countering them.

Despite our differences, we agreed on the big picture. The democratic wave that began in 1974 crested in 2006, and democracy has been on the defensive ever since. Democracy is now challenged from without, by increasingly self-confident and aggressive autocracies, and also from within, by ethnic antipathies, terrorism and sclerotic political institutions. These internal forces have built support for what Hungary’s Viktor Orban memorably dubbed “illiberal democracy”—an unfettered majoritarianism that is hostile to minority rights and political liberties and is conjoined with broad executive powers.

Though vitally important, free and fair elections are only a part of what we must now defend.

We must also shine an urgent spotlight on would-be autocrats’ use of majoritarianism to attack the outer ramparts of liberal democracy—constitutional courts and the rule of law; political freedoms of speech, press, assembly and association; and the rights of individuals and minority groups, including freedom of religion and conscience.

We agreed on another key point: Although some citizens will value democracy as an intrinsic good, come what may, most will judge it by its performance over time. When economic growth slows and traditional sectors decay, when household incomes stagnate and large numbers of young adults cannot find jobs, when floods of immigrants and refugees appear to threaten the prosperity, security and even identity of longtime citizens, doubts about democracy’s capacity to meet public needs are bound to deepen. If existing domestic and international institutions are seen as standing in the way of effective responses, demands for political change will only intensify.

We agreed, finally, that while each country must work out its own solutions, a new organization—an international coalition for democratic renewal—can help provide a more supportive context for these national efforts. Such an organization could help revitalize the democratic ideal, wage the battle of ideas against democracy’s adversaries, and serve as a forum for exchanging ideas across national borders about the best ways of meeting today’s challenges to liberal democracy.

We memorialized our agreement in the “Prague Appeal,” to be released this week. As we adjourned, mindful of the magnitude of the task we confronted, we drew strength from those who preceded us. As Havel once said, “The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle.”

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