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Aspen Institute conference Overcoming Barriers to Growth: Michaela Bakala’s speech

October 9, 2013
The Aspen Annual Conference “Overcoming Barriers to Growth” was held on October 9 – 10, 2013 in Prague. The event commemorated twenty years of the independent Czech Republic, recalling personal as well as collective failures and achievements. Michaela Bakala delivered a keynote speech:
Dear Guests, Despite the fact that I am here today representing a foundation that supports education, permit me to note the personal experiences I have used to evaluate development in the Czech Republic over the past more than 20 years. I am increasingly realising that if we are to talk about the present day, then we must understand and remind ourselves of our past. And if we are to talk of success and solutions for our society, then we must begin with the family. Only through a firm foundation of values can both individuals and societies build a better future. I come from a Moravian evangelical family of believers – and that is where I derive the foundations of my values. My family was instinctively and significantly opposed to communism. My grandfather Maláč died as a result of communist imprisonment in uranium extraction mines during the 1950s. My grandmother was left alone to bring up four children. My second grandfather, an evangelical minister, is living out his autumn years in Brno – he too certainly experienced his fair share of unpleasant chats with the communist state security services (StB). Such people would be best suited to standing before us and relating how they “overcame life’s obstacles”. Our parents and grandparents were the ones who had so many challenges to endure; who had to never give up and remain on the right path. I experienced 1989 as an 18-year-old high school graduate, and then as a student going on strike in Brno. Shortly after that, in 1990, I found success as a model in the US; and in 1991 I won the Miss Czechoslovakia title. I then studied film and television production at Prague’s FAMU, before specialising in PR and going on to work in business and politics. I founded a PR firm in 2003, and a year later founded Czech Miss. Next March, this competition will celebrate its 10th anniversary. I chair a family foundation which supports Czech students studying at prestigious global universities. I assisted in the establishment of the Prague Aspen Institute, which my husband and I continue to support. I am a member of the board of trustees of the Václav Havel Library; I sit on the board of directors at Economia media house, and I own a company focused on the luxury retail market. At the same time I am the mother of four small children. Quite frankly, I have a lot on my plate, and I am very much concerned with how life will look in the Czech Republic of the future. From all of my activities it is quite evident that I belong among those who fully utilised the opportunities that presented themselves after the events of 1989. And even today, I consider myself to belong among the guarded optimists rather than the resigned and depressed sceptics. I admit that at the start of the 1990s, I gave priority to love and the amazing opportunities of my homeland over studying abroad. Back then, it seemed like all you needed was to be young, speak a little English, to not be afraid, and to want to achieve something. I was proud of my country and proud of Václav Havel, whom I even had the opportunity of getting to know personally! And not only him, but also former Castle chancellor Karel Schwarzenberg, and – here today –  Michael Žantovský. I am extremely grateful to have experienced the post-revolution era so fully, and I consider it as one of the most wonderful periods of my life. Back then I had no idea that a few years later I would get to know Václav Klaus and would spend three years working for the Civic Democrats (ODS). It’s worth reminding that at that time, ODS was operating under an “opposition agreement” tolerating a minority Social Democrat government led by Miloš Zeman. From today’s perspective, certainly a highly educational experience! I had to learn to think and communicate politically, and to come to grips with the complex operations of a political party and the machinery of state. With some exaggeration I can say that this was when I began to dye out my first grey hairs, and realised that politics was likely not the profession for me... I believe that I have made the most of the past 20 years, evaluating opportunities, soaking up experiences, becoming happily married – that is also a major component of success. But why am I among those who are not complaining? From where do I derive the strength and determination to take my fate into my own hands? My parents passed on a great deal – mainly the right values, love, a healthy self-confidence and also optimism. They taught me to not be afraid (I may not look it, but since childhood I have had a constant fear of something, but fear is neither a good mentor, nor a good teacher). Which is why we should not fear work, competition, criticism or responsibility – that is something my mother taught me – to not give up; to carry things through to the end; to heed advice; to not let failure make you give up; and to always have more than one option for the future. To be able to communicate (my father loved to talk about our two horses...); to surround oneself with good people; and to be honest both towards yourself and your surroundings... Which leads to the question: why, after 20 relatively prosperous years, have deep divisions appeared in our society? And why, instead of celebrating 20 years of the Czech Republic, are we instead battling scepticism and discontent? A section of our society has become consumed with a kind of sense of injustice – that it missed out or was wrongfully deprived, or defrauded, of something. And now it feels a dangerous sense of uncertainty. In fact, I understand the reasoning and underlying feelings. The opinions of this section of society need to be understood and respected. At the same time, I see another section of our society – one far from small and insignificant – that is self-reliant, active, successful and relatively happy – BUT! which is not heard from today, and I believe that is a great shame. It seems to me that the successful and decent section of our society has been drowned out by those who are complaining, casting doubt on matters, and inducing fear. The media and public sphere is full of negation, affairs, lies and coarseness. If we managed to transform the power of this ubiquitous envy, negation and ill-will into positive motivations, courage, and determination, then we would all feel better right away. That would be wonderful indeed. But how to achieve that? Let us not fear good deeds and positive examples! Let us not allow ourselves to be discouraged or disheartened. After all, all of Czech society would suffer if our young, educated, successful and talented people again began to leave the country. There are enough of us with strong resolve, and we can influence our surroundings – at home with the upbringing of our children, through teachers via both academic and non-academic teaching methods, and also through social means and value systems. I cannot overlook the role of the Church, which is hardly talked about – and then when it is talked about, it is only with regards to restitution and property matters. Let us teach young people to not only work to make money, but to also be interested in what they are doing and enjoy it. The state should motivate capable people to not be afraid to work in the public sector. In other words, for people to not end up in the public sphere either only because they could not make it elsewhere, or for reasons of calculated self-advancement. Successful people can find their way into politics, but I would warn everyone that politics is a profession unto itself and has entirely different rules, and mainly aims, than business. And so, in theory, there is nothing standing in the way of success for the Czech Republic. And in my view we have nothing or no-one to blame, or to make excuses for, than ourselves. In the past we could point the finger at subjugation by a monarchy, or world wars, or occupation, or later the communist regime. Today, some continue to search elsewhere for the reasons for their failure other than in themselves – the system, politicians, parties, economic crises, capitalism, the European Union, all those abusing the welfare system, etc. I realise that today, after 20 years, we are again debating and deciding on whether to deny all the work which we have undertaken here over those 20 years, and to instead give in to easy, populist and extremist solutions. We face a decision on whether we are going to turn more towards the east and away from the values of western Europe and the United States. I understand that it is hard today to tell people that there are no easy, quick and painless solutions; that we need to get back on the path that we originally charted. We need to remind ourselves of the values of freedom and democracy, even with the mistakes and flaws that democracy inherently brings. To not seek to change or smash the system, but to better utilise it, defend it, respect it, and to not blight it through dishonest conduct. At issue are the people and not the system. Which is why I am hugely grateful for that which I have, what I am, and that which I am able to do, in part thanks to my husband. He isn’t among us today, but I do wish to express my thanks to him via these words. You can watch Michaela Bakala's speech (in Czech) below:

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