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Czech Republic and Poland: Neighbours! And Friends!

English Pages, 30. 10. 2013

Mr. Rector, Professors, Students, Ladies and Gentleman,

Thank you for the invitation to visit your well-known University and for giving me a chance to speak here today. It is a great honour for me to address this distinguished academic audience. I am sorry for not being able – due to my unexpected illness – to come here four weeks ago at the beginning of your new academic year. It was really not possible.

I want to start by mentioning my past visits to your University which happened already more than three decades ago. At that time, I was at home, in Czechoslovakia, for political reasons pushed out of the academic sphere and the possibility of attending an academic conference was a great pleasure for me. The atmosphere in both our countries was very different from now. It would be a tragic mistake to forget it. Also Łódź was different at that time. It was more a city of Władysław Reymont and his – also in my country well-known book – “Ziemia obiecana”, than a modern, rapidly growing city as we see it now. Communism made everything grey and gloomy but a specific spirit of the city, augmented by the ever-present huge quantities of vodka, was noticeable here in spite of all the irrationalities of the communist system. The friendliness of those I had a chance to meet here was overwhelming. The academic quality, as well as the political openness of our Polish colleagues, were very high.

In these dark communist days, darker in my country than in Poland at that time, the university and especially Prof. Welfe and his young collaborators were able to organize – year by year and with great success – a very interesting international econometric and statistical conference and to bring together experts from the field of economics, statistics and econometrics from many countries. Putting together such a group of people would have been unimaginable in my country, in Czechoslovakia, which was in those years still deeply shaken by the 1968 violent crush of the so-called “Prague Spring”, of the hopeful era of radical reforms. As some of you perhaps remember, the Soviet communist bosses called our reforms a counter-revolution which was for that matter a fair label.

In my country, it was absolutely impossible to pursue a free and serious economic and social science research in that era. When I recall the great movie “Barwy ochronne” by Krzysztof Zanussi, which used to be very popular in Czechoslovakia, it seems to me, however, that the problems here were very similar. Words were a priori considered dangerous and subversive and as a result a whole generation of economists moved from economics to econometrics, statistics and mathematical modelling.

I am sorry to say that I interpreted it as a form of escapism. Nevertheless, after being fired from the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, I myself did – involuntarily – more or less the same. Not to be misunderstood, I want to stress very rapidly that I consider empirical testing of scientific hypotheses by means of statistical methods a necessary and irreplaceable part of our discipline.

Putting it even more strongly, I still hope (but am often disappointed when facing the reality) that every student after completing his or her university studies should be able to read, understand and interpret the meaning of coefficients and statistical parameters when coming across a regression equation. I also wish that students would be able to automatically, subconsciously think not only in terms of averages but at least in terms of standard deviations as well. In spite of that I think that the massive investment of our efforts at that time into computer modelling was a blind alley.

I did not use the word “escapism” by accident. Something similar is – to my great regret – emerging again. We are currently experiencing a similar misuse of a theoretically insufficiently anchored computer modelling in another sphere – in the field of climatology. Without this repeated intellectual defect, the evident nonsense of the global warming doctrine would not have been possible to assume such proportions.

But let me turn to the main theme of my speech. My comments concerning the field of misused econometrics were just a digression. As a politician, first as Minister of Finance, then as Prime Minister, as President of the Parliament, and finally as President of the Czech Republic, I brought with me into all my offices the whole academic background accumulated during my pre-political era. It was of great help to me.

It helped me to systematically structure the problems, to clearly define relevant variables, to almost subconsciously distinguish exogenous and endogenous variables, to differentiate causation and correlation, to be aware of different time horizons, to think in terms of probability and uncertainty, etc. I must confess, however, that I did not find econometrics helpful in my political life. The decision-making in politics and even in the narrower – and slightly harder – field of economic policy asks for a more robust thinking than for the subtleties of coefficients with three digits after zero.

This brings me finally to politics and to Poland. I consider myself a good friend of Poland, someone who – in the communist era – visited your country more often than any other country in the world. That is why I was extremely happy that our two countries were able to build such a good relationship in the last almost 24 years of our post-communist era.

I think I have to mention – with some pride and satisfaction – that my first trip abroad after the fall of communism, as a newly appointed minister of finance, was to your country, to Poland. This happened, when I look at it now, in almost prehistoric times, at the beginning of January 1990. At a press conference, together with your Prime Minister Mazowiecki and Finance Minister Balcerowicz, I – answering a question – suggested to liquidate the COMECON, the socialist variant of an international economic, and in its full consequences not only economic integration. This innocent remark made headlines all over the world. Your both, then two highest standing and most important political representatives were rather surprised and uneasy after being confronted with such a radical and unexpected statement. But, fortunately, our future personal relations were not spoiled by it.

It was not only the dismantling of the old communist institutions – such as COMEON – that was important. We had to start rapidly building new ones as well. The establishing of the CEFTA, of the Central European Free Trade Area, was an important step forward. I have to thank your Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka for being very cooperative and helpful in this endeavour. This Czech-Polish initiative helped to save the trade among Central European countries in the critical years after the collapse of the old, entirely differently organized foreign trade flows. It was also the most productive contribution of the Visegrad Group cooperation till now. To my great regret, the Visegrad Group did not become a platform which would formulate and push through our common interests in the EU, but it turned – at least – into a useful platform for debating the regional problems. I would like to say that I was enormously enriched by a very friendly cooperation with your late President Lech Kaczyński whom I really miss and will always remember with great respect. We succeeded in having good relations with your current President Komorowski as well.

I am also very pleased to see that my views find some resonance in your country. I am fascinated by the fact that three of my books were published in Polish language: Błękitna planeta w zielonych okowach, Czym Jest Europeizm?, and Gdzie zaczyna się jutro. The University of Toruń published recently an unusually fair book about my political carrier with the title: “Idee w polityce Václava Klausa” (written by Martin Czyżniewski). There is no such book in any other language, not even in Czech.

As I said, I see the relationships between our two countries very positively. We are not only neighbours with similar historical experiences but also countries which have many things in common. There were attempts to make us rivals in the fictitious, absolutely unnecessary and unfruitful competition who would be the first in entering one respectful international organisation or another, which was, of course, a false competition. We have both become members of all those organizations.

As a side remark, my experience tells me that your country is more capable than mine to behave efficiently in those organizations, to use them and to use them to your advantage. This is not an accident. Unlike the Czech Republic, where foreign policy is only an empty derivative of domestic policy and domestic ambitions, Poland has a tradition of a consistent foreign policy in line with its national interests. You are far ahead of us in this respect.

I did hope, and in several episodes of our recent history it was that way, that we would work together in opposing the excessive, counter-productive and highly undemocratic EU centralization and bureaucratization because we should be – historically, based on our past experiences – motivated, if not obliged, to do so. Our very similar experience with communism, with its undemocratic political regime, with its inefficient economic system, with its unproductive and undemocratic integration model, should sharpen our eyes when looking at very similar – similar structurally, not as regards their size and depth – developments in the European Union. I still believe that we will have to start a more aggressively doing it – sooner or later. The situation in Europe asks for it.

It becomes quite common in Europe now to speak about the so called democratic deficit in the EU decision-making but I take this expression as a misleading understatement. It is not a deficit. It is the absence of democracy. We – with our past experience and sensitivity in this respect – should be in the forefront of attempts to make a change and to start returning to democracy again. This is something I feel very strongly about.

The already long-lasting European economic slowdown, in recent years even stagnation (not just the acute sovereign debt crisis in several EU member countries) is another phenomenon which should be taken seriously. We know it has systemic roots that are hidden in the European economic and social system. Again, Poland, and I don’t know exactly why, extraordinarily succeeded to avoid falling into the dangerous crisis trap, almost as the only European country.

We have to congratulate you. Your current economic growth is quite different from the situation in the Czech Republic where the economic stagnation still continues. Both our countries should cooperate in promoting rational economic policies, should defend the system of free markets as opposed to the contemporary European system of “die soziale Marktwirtschaft”, should keep their economies out of the non-functioning Eurozone project, should fight the irrational environmentalist’s measures as regards nuclear energy, renewable resources, cheap traditional domestic fuels, etc. Our communist experience should motivate us to explain again and again to our Western colleagues that politics should never dictate economics.

The same or similar systemic problems are hidden in the contemporary European integration model. The excessive unification, standardization, harmonization and centralization of the whole continent; the growing and more and more aggressive suppressing of the basic democratic institution – of the nation state; the shift of decision-making very far from the reach of individual citizens; massive and demotivating aid packages to irresponsible governments; etc. taken together form another reason for the European stagnation.

It is probably a wider problem. We experience not only the decline of Europe, but of the whole West. The traditionally strong adherence of Poland to the old traditional values and institutions that formed the West in the past should be of help to all of us. We count on you in this respect. The Brave New World of political correctness, of moral relativism, of the gradual disappearance of human privacy, of media manipulation should be strongly opposed. Last but not least by academic institutions.

After leaving my presidential office in March this year, I started to run a small institute, a sort of presidential library, which tries to deal with the economic and socio-political issues of my country, as well as of the outside world. Month ago we published our new book with the title: Czech Republic at the Crossroads – Time to Make a Decision, which discusses the main issues we consider problematic, negative, disappointing – especially as compared to the expectations we used to have in the moment of our Velvet Revolution 24 years ago. Our situation asks for a bold action, for a real change. Attempts to change something at the margin only are not enough. We should resist the temptation being reconciled with the new loss of our freedom and with the withering of our relative prosperity.

I do believe that Poland and the Czech Republic will continue to be friends. We need it and deserve it. Our region of Central Europe needs it. The whole continent needs it as well. I wish your university, your students and professors to play an active part in it.

Václav Klaus, University of Łódź, Rectoral Lecture, Łódź, Poland, October 30, 2013.


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