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Assignment: The West for Trade

Assignment: The West for Trade

Assignment: The West for Trade


After more than two decades of freedom and independence, Czechs embrace constitutional democracy as an ideal but remain cynical about the existing political system and the politicians who run it. And for good reason: the Czech party system is fragmented (no fewer than nine political parties contested the 2010 elections), the Czech parliament is fractious (five parties claimed seats in the new parliament), and coalition governments are often unstable.

In 2012, the Czech parliament passed a constitutional amendment providing for popular election of the president. Previously, the president was chosen by parliament. This first direct presidential election in January 2013 required a second round runoff, in which Milos Zeman was elected president. But he soon fell afoul of public opinion for cozying up to Russia and China, among other things. Zeman is combative and vulgar by nature—the very opposite of the soft-spoken, diplomatic, and conciliatory Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic’s first president, a playwright famous for choosing his words carefully. In November 2014, during celebrations in Prague commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, an unruly crowd pelted Zeman with eggs, shouting, “Resign! Resign!” True to form, he vowed to stay in office, and his exact words don’t bear repeating.


In 1968, the same year as the ill-fated Prague Spring (“socialism with a human face”) in Czechoslovakia, the Budapest government launched the New Economic Mechanism (NEM). The NEM, aimed at limited decentralization of the economy and other market-oriented reforms, was a promising experiment in the early going. Production of consumer goods (always a low priority in Soviet-type economies) rose, and the quality of life for Hungarians generally improved. But hard-line Communists at home and abroad (particularly in the Soviet Union) opposed these reforms, and in the 1980s the NEM was abandoned.

Even so, as the economy steadily declined, Hungary turned to the West for trade, aid, and investment. The liberalization that accompanied this policy included a new tolerance of private businesses and partnerships with foreign multinational companies. Thus, Hungary’s reform efforts—though limited in scope and scale by a combination of politics, ideology, and Soviet interference—gave it a head start when Communism self-destructed at the end of the 1980s.