Minister of Rock

By Anna Porter
Maclean’s, December 15, 2009

Czech Michael Kocab is part revolutionary, part pop star

Michael Kocab, the Czech Republic’s minister for minorities and human rights, has not enjoyed a good year. It should have been: 2009, after all, has been a time of celebration, marking the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime—a revolution in which Kocab, as a dissident and famous rock musician, played a leading role. Instead, he has been dealing with some of his country’s uglier elements. Far-right extremists have been parading through towns with significant Roma populations; someone threw Molotov cocktails through the windows of a Roma family home in Vitkov, near the Moravian-Silesian border, injuring three people. David Duke, the infamous former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, was invited to give a speech in the Czech Republic in April about the superiority of whites over all others (he was arrested and expelled). The Czech translation of his dreadful book, My Awakening, was published by Prague’s Kontingent Press.

There have been neo-Nazi gatherings, including one where participants marched through the small town of Usti nad Labem to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth. As the financial crisis has deepened, the ultra-nationalists have attracted more of the young, who share a sense of frustration and anger. And even as Czechs celebrate 20 years of democracy, the times are reminiscent of a darker side two decades ago, when discontent followed the new government’s stiff economic measures and the Roma became the scapegoats, with one 17-year-old Roma boy killed in the town of Pisek, and Usti nad Labem eventually erecting a wall between its Roma and non-Roma populations.

Even the Czech liberal press has become critical of the Roma, who receive taxpayer-funded benefits, blaming them for using their “excessive free time,” in the words of one commentator, to commit petty crimes and irritate their neighbours. Emigrating to Canada may have seemed like a happy solution to some Roma, but earlier this year a sharp rise in the number of Roma seeking asylum prompted the Canadian government to impose visa requirements on Czech citizens. Kocab, meanwhile, has blamed local governments for failing to support their Roma, but has also accused his fellow federal politicians of marginalizing the minority. In parliament in June, he presented a declaration against all forms of extremism, signed by the leaders of all parties, the chairs of both the lower and upper houses, and ex-president Vaclav Havel.

Kocab’s office is in Straka’s Academy, the seat of the Czech government, a massive baroque building stretching along the River Vltava in the centre of Prague. In its formal entrance foyer there is a marble statue of a young girl; she is larger than life-size and completely naked, which may account for the fact that she seems somewhat uncomfortable. The minister seems equally uncomfortable in his vast office on the second floor. Still a musician, he is in his mid-50s, tall and loose-limbed, wearing slim-cut blue jeans and a black jacket over a black T-shirt.

Until 1982, when his rock band, Prazsky Vyber (“Prague selection,” a humorous reference to a cheap Czech wine), was forbidden to perform or record because authorities deemed their attitude “non-socialist,” Kocab had paid scant attention to politics.

Censorship changed that. When the band returned with a live televised show in 1989, he had the opportunity to speak his mind from the stage. “Every nation gets the government it deserves,” Kocab told the audience. “This nation is at a crossroads. We are more than ever responsible for what happens now.”

That speech had an effect on many, perhaps even Ladisav Adamec, the last Communist prime minister of Czechoslovakia. In November 1989, at the beginning of what came to be known as the Velvet Revolution, Kocab, by then a high-profile member of Havel’s Civic Forum coalition, was summoned to the government offices for negotiations. He would enter through a side door, to be led upstairs by one of the prime minister’s trusted men. Nothing had been decided yet. But “we were talking about the handover of government,” Kocab says. “He still thought there was going to be a role for him. That we would devise something like the Polish round table, that there would be a gradual transition.” There would not be, of course, but here was Kocab, conversing with the head of one of the most repressive regimes in the Soviet bloc, negotiating for democracy at a time when “the hard-liners were still urging military action against us.”

Kocab also assumed the task of dealing with the army. He remembers going to army headquarters with Vaclav Klaus, currently the Czech president, to have a tense but cordial meeting with chief of general staff Gen. Miroslav Vacek. The general agreed that troops would not fire on Czech civilians if the leaders of Civic Forum ensured there would be no mob attacks against soldiers.

Given the long years of suppression and the brutal beating of students just days before in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, this was a tough demand, but Havel’s extraordinary credibility ensured a non-violent revolution.

When did Kocab realize that the old regime had ended—that they had won? He tells me the story of his 1990 visit to the Kremlin, as the member of parliament charged with engineering the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia, accompanied by Alexander Dubcek, hero of the 1968 Prague Spring, then the speaker of the Czechoslovak parliament. All the way to Moscow, Dubcek, understandably nervous, worked on his speech to the Supreme Soviet. The last time he had been in the Kremlin was in August 1968, after Soviet tanks had crushed his reform movement, and he was called on the carpet by the Politburo for his liberal ideas. Soon afterwards, he lost his position as first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist party’s central committee, and sent into political exile.

Dubcek had been preparing this speech for weeks, but he felt it was still not perfect. This was probably the only time that a Slovak would have the opportunity for such a speech, and for this Slovak, who had briefly defied the Soviet Union with his ideals of Communism “with a human face,” it was a historic moment. Alas, when the moment arrived, Dubcek was nowhere to be found.

“We stood at the entrance to that vast hall—we had all seen it on our TV screens so many times, the very heart of the Soviet empire—and we waited,” Kocab recalls. “I went down the hall, opening doors, looking into every toilet cubicle, taking my time, still hoping he would turn up. He didn’t.” Eventually, the Soviet hosts urged Kocab to speak instead. “Suddenly and inevitably,” he says, “I was standing at the podium where Stalin had once stood, murdering history.”

Kocab’s first word was “Hello.” A sea of severe, immobile faces looked up at him. He imagined every one of them as a hostile, disapproving Leonid Brezhnev. Then he tried a few tentative sentences and a joke. The interpreter was so terrible that a few of the stone-faced men started to smile. Thus encouraged, Kocab tried another joke, and the room erupted into laughter.

At the time there were some 200,000 Soviet soldiers in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. One of their top secret facilities stored nuclear warheads on Czechoslovakian territory. Shortly thereafter, the facilities had been dismantled and the soldiers had gone home.

At the time of the Moscow trip, Kocab had been involved with a movie about his band at the state-owned film studios in Prague’s Barrandov buildings, which had once belonged to the Havel family (and would again). Today, the members of the band have changed, the video quality has improved, the venues are more professional as are the recordings, but the sound is the same. They still fill theatres and bring huge audiences to their feet. Indeed, the minister recently returned from a sold-out gig in Bratislava, now the capital of an independent Slovakia. He shows a video of the band and one of its lead singers: Michael Kocab, in white wig, black T-shirt, white gloves and trademark dark glasses. He is prancing about the stage, waving his naked arms (are those real or instant tattoos on his upper arms?), shouting into the mike as the music thuds and the audience has risen to its feet, screaming the words along with the minister of minorities and human rights.

Kocab says there is sometimes a crossover between the two halves of his life. When earlier this year he asked parliament to vote for a Roma Holocaust memorial, his colleagues reminded him that there was an economic crisis, that this was a time for cutbacks, not for new projects that would cost 120 million koruna ($7.3 million). In response, Kocab sang them a song about a man who has lost his memory, and all he can remember is one song.

It worked. In May, the government agreed to fund the creation of a memorial at the site of the notorious Lety concentration camp. It’s expected to open next year. Kocab, who does not like the “game of politics,” says he took his portfolio because he believes strongly in human rights. Perhaps a reminder of the horrors the Roma experienced in the past will force some Czechs to re-examine their current prejudices—and advance Kocab’s cause.