In praise of émigrés
A prince returns to power, if briefly
“TO THOSE who in their homeland have no freedom, and to those who in their freedom have no homeland.” That toast was drunk by countless east European émigrés during the decades of communism, when few dreamed their captive countries would regain freedom so dramatically.
Even fewer would have imagined that, nearly 20 years after the collapse of communism, émigré communities would be supplying three presidents (in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and half a dozen ministers elsewhere.
In the early post-communist years returning émigrés tended to do well because they had contacts and clout, or because they had first-hand knowledge of the systems that their homelands wanted to emulate.
In 1990 Pauls Raudseps, a young American-Latvian, helped found Diena, his country's new Western-style daily newspaper, not because he was an experienced journalist, but because he had read Western papers and knew what they ought to look like.
Locals responded to those who came back with a mixture of admiration, envy and resentment. Stasys Lozoraitis, Lithuania's charming and able top émigré diplomat, returned home in 1993 to contest a presidential election after a lifetime spent representing a vanished country. But he was easily defeated.
Lithuanians, poverty-stricken in the wake of the Soviet collapse, doubted that a suave cosmopolitan, married to a sexy Italian aristocrat, could understand their problems. Instead they chose a reassuring, stodgy ex-Communist―a mistake that cost them dearly.
Sometimes suspicions were well-founded. Chancers, losers and nutters who had failed in the real world saw a wonderful chance to reinvent themselves as “experts” on security, finance or public relations. They were soon squeezed out by more competent locals.
Moments of friction arise still. The appointment of Karel Schwarzenberg as foreign minister in the Czech Republic's latest temporary government has infuriated the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus.
Mr Schwarzenberg is head of one of the old Hapsburg empire's grandest families. He has lived most of his life in Austria, where his family fled after the Soviet-backed communist putsch of 1948.
Arch-patriots for their lost homeland, the family continued to speak Czech in exile. The new foreign minister thus speaks a fine archaic Czech redolent of cultured, solid, pre-war Czechoslovakia, rather than the debased version that developed under communist rule.
Mr Klaus's vituperative attacks on Mr Schwarzenberg's supposed foreignness seem to come straight from the 19th-century heyday of Czech nationalism, when the country was struggling to reassert its identity in the Hapsburg empire, and the greatest enemies of a Czech patriot were Germans, priests and nobles.
Mr Schwarzenberg is not a priest, but in Mr Klaus's eyes he is something even worse. When he returned home after the collapse of communism in 1989 he became a senior aide to Mr Klaus's more engaging predecessor, and arch-foe, Vaclav Havel. For Mr Klaus that puts him in the camp of elitist, soggy-liberal, unpatriotic elements.
Too foreign a minister?
The new minister has been nominated by the Czech Greens, a pragmatic outfit quite unlike their woolly-minded Western namesakes. He is not a member of the party, but running the Schwarzenberg estates has given him an excellent knowledge of modern, environmentally sensitive forestry, he notes.
His gravitas, salty humour and encyclopaedic knowledge of the region deserve better than the brief appearance they look likely to make in the dreary saga of deadlocked and stillborn governments that has constituted politics since the Czech Republic's tied election in June.
The incapacity of the Czech system to produce a robust, well-functioning government exemplifies the condition of post-communist politics across the region. The politicians lose themselves in squabbling, self-interest and short-termism; the voters shun them. The best to be said about the resulting instability is that it does, occasionally, give class acts from the outside, such as Prince Karl XVII von Schwarzenberg (to give him his Austrian title), a chance to shine.