According to the Czech Foreign Ministry there are now more than two million Czechs living abroad. The people making up the country’s expat communities in different parts of the world include those who fled the communist regime in several waves during the 20th century or those who escaped the Nazi threat. Some married abroad or used the opportunity to live and work abroad with the return of democracy close to 30 years ago. I spoke to the government’s special commissioner for expats Jiří Krátký about the process of renewing broken ties after 1989, the concerns of Czech expats today and how the profile of Czech expats has changed in the past 30 years.
“The Czech Republic did a lot in the 1990s to get back in touch with Czech expats, because during the communist period they were what I would call a forbidden category of people. The 90s were full of enthusiasm to welcome these people back, but in the years that followed Czechs living abroad became like a category outside of the Czech perspective. And I am really sorry about that.”
Why was that?
“That would necessitate deeper discussion, and it is probably a question for a psychologist and sociologist. But, personally, I think that the Czech society is oriented that way, like a self-sufficient cultural community. We are satisfied with the situation inside of the community and we do not feel a special need to be in touch with people outside.”
So you think Czechs did not appreciate enough what Czech expats living abroad could bring, were eager to bring?
“Exactly, it is a kind of blindness. The Czech Republic could benefit so much if we were able to build a stronger bridge between our society here in the Czech Republic and Czechs living abroad. I have found myself in many situations when it was immensely difficult to explain to people how much the profile of Czech expats has changed since the Velvet Revolution.”
In what way?
“Before 1989 expats were people who decided to live abroad, it was an expression of their desire for freedom and they thought they would live there forever. But now things have changed and if you ask a Czech expat living abroad today if he or she think to come back to the Czech Republic, then 95 percent of them will respond: Definitely, we are still Czechs and we do not want to stay abroad forever. We want to come back, but we want to participate in what is happening at home, to see what kind of Czech Republic we will be coming home to.
“And that is a big difference, this active interest of Czech expats in what is happening at home. I would dare to say that people living abroad are more interested in what is happening in the Czech Republic than people who are living in the country. It is a natural instinct – to know what is happening when I am not present. I want to know because one day I want to come back and I want to know to what kind of ambience I will find. These people are really motivated to be helpful somehow, to create a modern vision of the Czech Republic, to participate actively in social life.”
And do you feel they are being given that chance –or is it difficult for them to do so?
“Some of them do, they find their own way, they do business with the Czech Republic, many of them work for international companies that regularly do business with the Czech Republic and I am sure that they introduce into their work the Czech influence, so what they do is not visible at first glance, not as obvious as the state may want to see it, but those people are really promoters of the Czech economy, Czech research, Czech business, Czech education, Czech culture –only it is difficult to see this, officially.”
Difficult for us to see?
“Yes, difficult for us to see. But those people are doing a great deal for the Czech Republic in promoting our good name abroad and I would say they are real ambassadors of the Czech Republic abroad.”
The Czech Foreign Ministry annually awards a number of Czechs for promoting the country’s good name abroad. Is this your way of saying – we recognize what you are doing, we respect what you are doing and we are glad for it?
“Yes, that’s right. The Foreign minister annually awards 15 to 17 people for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. In the past we usually selected people who bravely opposed the communist regime, who were perceived as heroes, but as the years go by the focus is turning to people who are leaders in their field. Every community needs to have some icons, people who are like the pillars of a temple. The people who were perceived as such in the past, because of what they did in the years of the communist regime, are slowly passing away, unfortunately. And we need to find new leaders who will and are promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad.
“One such leader is Bohdan Pomahač, a young man who succeeded professionally in his field of activity and who is always willing to participate actively in promoting the good name of the Czech Republic. And that is something we really need. Let me give you one example. If someone wants to talk about classical music, it would be difficult to omit the Czech names from the list – Smetana, Dvořák, Fibich, Janáček, Martinů, etc. Those people are like a palace of the Czech culture abroad. And we need to have people who sustain the feeling of the importance of Czech identity. This identity is becoming even more important the more multi-cultural the society is. This feeling of knowing our roots, where we are from, why we feel things as we do – this is really important, and I think that the people living abroad feel this need much more.”
Do you think that this will change with the generational change? That young people, more cosmopolitan people will be more appreciative of this?
“Yes, I would say so. It is like a boomerang. The more cosmopolitan you try to be at the beginning, the more important your identity will be to you later. It is like an added value that we can bring not only to our community but even to the hosting community of the country which we are living in. And that is my objective: I would like to highlight the importance of Czech expats both for the Czech society here and the hosting community of the states where they reside abroad.
“If you look back in history, you will see that this country was really successful when it was open to the world – as a state and society – and to the contrary, the worst moments in history came when we were closed and completely isolated. And the need for openness is something I want to promote. If we say that young people should travel abroad to gain experience, if we sustain the mobility of the young generation we should not only give them a helping hand, but invite them to come back and to participate from abroad in the Czech social life. Because, if they want to come back, they should have the right to say to what kind of country they want to come back. And we want to enable that.”
Give them the chance to take an active part in the decision-making?
“Yes, exactly. That is what we are trying to do with the possibility of long-distance participation in the Czech elections –we want to give these people a more comfortable way of participating in the Czech elections and taking an active part in the decision-making even while they are abroad, studying, working or gaining experience in a given field.”
And there is a big interest on their part, is there not?
“There is a big interest on their part. They have been pushing for this and when I talk to Czech expats abroad this is the first thing that they mention: Please give us more options to participate in the elections, and give us more opportunities to be active back home. We want to contribute and we want to do our best for the Czech Republic, we want to give something back, to help sustain the country, the society, the economy as much as possible – so give us the chance to do so.”
Why is it so difficult to bring this about? Do Czechs see it as interference from people living abroad? Is there a mood against it? Or are we just slow to change?
“I think we just underestimated the changing profile of the Czech expats abroad and their desire to be involved. We still tend to think that these are people who left the Czech Republic without any intention of coming back. But that is not true anymore. We are now celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. People born in 1989 are now past their graduation and embarking on their professional life. Moving from the Czech Republic abroad and back is something completely ordinary for them, it is their way of life and these people are questioning why it is so difficult to be active and to participate from abroad in Czech political life. They are creative, they are active and they have the power to do it and I really wish to have the possibility to give them that chance – to bring added –value from abroad to the Czech society.”
What about the people who fled the country in 1948, 1968 and before 1989. Do you think that we owe them a debt –that we did not accept them back in the way they expected?
“Yes, generally speaking, yes. I would say that the people who are 60 and older accepted it as something understood that once they left the rest of Czech society would take them as people who opted to leave their homeland without great regrets and fully aware of what they were doing. I think this is part of the Czech nature, this perception that what is abroad does not really concern us. But, on the contrary, it concerns us very much and we would like to repair this.”
In 2018 the ministry launched a web page with useful information for expats abroad. Do you have something similar in connection with Brexit?
“We do not have anything similar, although we are paying close attention to the situation of expats in Great Britain. We visited London, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and other places to give support to those Czechs who feel insecure about their future in the country. At this moment we still have no idea how it will all turn out, but we think there is no reason to panic. The Czech expats in Britain are firmly integrated in British society, they are there legally and respected all the rules put down – so there is no risk of someone coming and saying you did something wrong. Not all minorities in the country took that approach, but the Czechs did. They had an honest approach and did things the right way. So I would encourage them to stay where they are and not to panic, because if they were to leave the country before the real battle comes, they would be leaving Great Britain against their will. So we are saying, please do not leave the field that you conquered to other people who may not have made the same effort. Stay where you are and do not panic. We have your concerns at heart and will support you. So do not leave Great Britain, if it is not your wish to do so.”
You travel abroad regularly to meet with Czech expats the world over. Is there any meeting that sticks in your mind, that made a lasting impression on you?
“That is a really difficult question, because all the places I visited gave me the impression that they were in some way unique. But I would mention one recent experience. Two weeks ago I visited, for the first time, our Czech community in Romania, in an area called Banat. The history of the Czech population in Romania goes back to the first half of the 19th century when –still under the Austro-Hungarian Empire-part of the Czech community moved to areas conquered in the wars against the Turks. Banat is a beautiful area around the Danube, sitting on the hills above the river…I would compare it to Tuscany. But surprisingly you come to the small villages and the people there address you in the purest Czech, pure as we no longer know it here in the Czech Republic. It is a very touching moment and I completely understand why people who visit once return year after year in order to savour this feeling again and again.
“The Czech community in Banat is not really a big community. It was partly destroyed by an exodus in the 1990s when especially young people left Banat, looking for better living conditions and work opportunities in the Czech Republic. But we would very much like to sustain the Czech community in Banat because we want to give those who stayed the possibility to remain where they are happy and at home. We want to give them better work opportunities and a vision for the future, because that community is something we should not lose.
“We would like to help develop tourism to the area and I hope that this will give the people living there a reason to stay and that it will give Czechs here a reason to visit Banat, because visiting that community is like an identity experience. I remember when I was invited to the church of St. Helena on a Sunday morning. I was sitting there among the locals who were dressed exactly as they would have been in the 19th century …it was like a historical movie…the bright colours, the feeling of going back in time and the pure Czech culture that you would have great difficulty finding in Prague in this day and age.”
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