Vaclav Fischer, a 45-year-old millionaire businessman, is the embodiment of a deep disgust with established party politics here. A kind of sartorial and mild-mannered Jesse Ventura--he likes cool-cat black clothes and is not given to bluster--Fischer was swept into the Czech Senate this summer as an insurgent independent.
To win, Fischer survived a brutal campaign in which he was accused of being both a dilettante with deep pockets and a Communist-funded stooge. His acknowledged bisexuality was a matter of supreme indifference to Prague voters despite the efforts of some of his opponents to smear him with it.
"Voters are very dissatisfied with the current situation and in me they invested a certain hope that things could change," said Fischer, the owner of a successful travel agency and a niche airline, who describes himself as a free marketeer and social liberal. "I don't know if I can meet their expectations."
Whatever he may achieve in Parliament, his election has already signaled the disillusionment of many Czech voters and a growing concern that the country is dangerously adrift. The Czech Republic is in recession, its government is immobilized and accession to the European Union, the yardstick of post-communist economic progress in this part of the world, is no longer the cinch it once seemed to be. The country now faces the real possibility that it could be left behind by Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia when the EU decides which countries to accept as its first members from the former Soviet Bloc.
As a report by the European Union this month made clear, the transition to a free-market economy has stalled in the Czech Republic, which a few years ago was among the most prosperous and fast-changing post-communist states in central and Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic quickly privatized industries after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Exploiting its strong industrial base, mature banking system and developed infrastructure, it experienced sustained growth as a new democracy. In 1995, for instance, its gross domestic product grew by 5.9 percent.
But in the mid-1990s, the right-leaning government of Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party lost its nerve and postponed economic reforms. When elections were held in 1997, a weak Social Democratic government lacking a parliamentary majority was installed in a back-room deal, and it has proved incapable of passing major legislation. Profligate loan-making by Czech banks, 30 percent of whose debts are now bad, led to a credit crunch that has squeezed local entrepreneurs.
Last year, the economy contracted by 2.3 percent and official unemployment figures in rural areas touched 15 percent. The Czech Republic is in the third year of recession, and while an economic upturn is projected for next year, growth is expected to be anemic at best.
It is difficult to remember that the Czech Republic once lectured the European Union on how to put Western Europe's economic house in order. Unamused EU officials had to remind Klaus, the author of the criticism, that it was the Czechs who wanted to join the union--not vice versa.
This month the Czech Republic found itself at the wrong end of a fresh tongue-lashing from the EU. The EU said in a report that Czech progress toward accession was "unsatisfactory" and laid out a host of needed legal and structural reforms that would require an ambitious and speedy legislative agenda. The report also said the country needed to "combat discriminatory attitudes in society" toward the Roma, or Gypsy, community, but on the same day the report was released the city of Usti nad Labem began erecting a wall to separate Gypsies from their neighbors.
"We have nine months to make serious changes," said Jiri Pehe, head of New York University's branch here and an adviser to President Vaclav Havel, noting that the EU will publish its formal classification of first-rank candidates in the middle of next year. "This latest report was a serious, warning but with the current situation in Parliament, nothing may happen."
After the 1997 elections, Klaus's Civic Democratic Party agreed to let the minority Social Democrats form a government in exchange for key parliamentary posts and the promise of electoral reform that would favor larger parties. The agreement between the ideological foes was viewed as deeply cynical by much of the electorate. One of its effects, as the EU noted, was to create a government unable to push through difficult legislation, such as agricultural reform, the privatization of major state-owned industries and changes to the swamplike legal system.
Last week, Klaus proposed a grand coalition between his party and the Social Democrats, which was quickly rejected by the government. But it raised the possibility that the Civic Democrats could bring the government down and force new elections just as the country is entering a critical period for its EU application.
Fischer is not the only beneficiary of political turmoil and economic stagnancy. Space is also being created on the left. The unreformed Czech Communist Party, successor to one of the most insidiously repressive communist parties in the former Eastern Bloc now stands at 20 percent in the polls, making it potentially the second-largest party in a new Parliament.
"In some ways, Fischer's victory and the resurgence of the Communists are part of the same phenomenon," Pehe said. "Voters are looking for someone or something to break the stalemate."
On the Slide
The Czech Republic is in a recession and many Czechs feel that their nation is adrift.
Population 10 million
Annual income (gross domestic product; adjusted to purchasing power) $12,000
Income as percent of European Union average 61%
Investment as percent of GDP 27.5%
Gross foreign debt as percent of GDP 19.9%
`99 Jan.-June -1.9