Czech Radio: Interview with Michaela Bakala

18. January, 2016

Our guest on today’s Radiožurnál is Michaela Bakala – Good evening…

Good evening.

Indeed, let me begin with the issue of your surname – I know that you don’t like adding the female [“ová”] endings to names, but doesn’t it sound a little too unusual and exotic [the other way]?

I agree with those to whom it may sound exotic. It took me some years before I changed Maláčová to Bakala. But that was a natural step with regards to our children, who live with us abroad, and also for the [ease of] documentation. We live in a country which doesn’t change name endings based on gender, and our children likely won’t be using the “ová” ending in the Czech Republic either. Which means that our family is called Bakala. We travel as Bakala; we live as Bakala. So it is really just a very practical decision. If I lived and worked primarily in the Czech Republic then I would likely also use “ová”.

And have you ever tried to find out the origins of your husband’s surname? 

I think that he is interested in finding out about them one day, but I believe that there are a number of Bakalas in the Czech Republic. I believe it means cod in Spanish. Bacalao – I am not sure if I am pronouncing it correctly, but, yes, the fish, perhaps…

And you seem to enjoy remaining at the start of the alphabet – because all four of your children have names beginning with “A” – Adele, Aron, Aram, Anabel. Is that a coincidence or by design?

It began when I was pregnant. Given that I was 35, I was ecstatic to be expecting. So I spent much time pondering what I could call my firstborn child. Only later did I find out that I was expecting a girl. My first idea was that it was logical that since I was Michaela Maláčová, or MM, perhaps the girl’s name should be BB. But I didn’t find any name that I liked. A few days after giving birth, the nurse was pestering me that she wanted to fill in the forms and needed a name. So I said: fine, she will be called Anabel. So that first name simply came about on a whim because I liked it. When Aron was born, then that was down to my grandfather, an evangelical vicar. I had a number of choices, and my grandfather was ill at the time. There is much for which I am grateful to him for. I said to him: Grandad, which of these three names would you choose? And he said: I like Aron; he helped to lead Moses’ people out of Egypt, and served as his translator. He was also a very notable figure. So, thanks to him, I chose Aron. Aram came about because our closest family friend, Milan Jelínek – sadly no longer with us – who had been a dear friend of ours for many years, once told us that his favourite book was My Name is Aram, which was published in California. And he said he had read it during his childhood. So he said: I would like it if you had a boy named Aram. And because he had never had children himself, I told myself it would be nice to accommodate his wish. The name Aram actually suits my son. And then the last name, Adele; I must admit that I was somewhat inspired by the singer Adele. I liked the name in itself. And it seems to complement the surname Bakala very nicely. And when I discussed with my children the idea that she would have a name other than one beginning with “A”, then my eldest daughter said: But that would be unfair. We are all “AB, AB” and she might end up feeling left out somehow!

Which brings us to the first complication. According to our experts, I should correctly be saying “Bakalovou”. Yet in that first case, you don’t use the female ending. But fine, I can get used to it.

Feel free to call me “Maláčovou”. I think that is how most people know me.

Fine. As you gained your Miss crown as Maláčová. What were the benefits of that win? I don’t want to bring up the fact that this was some time ago now.

I believe it was in ’91 – so that makes it 26 years ago?

Something like that – 25, I believe.

Isn’t that terrible? That alone shocks me. That was a life-changing moment. I remember that my fellow contestants and I spent much time afterwards talking about life before and after the Miss competition. Let’s not forget that this was a turbulent year for our country, and we were still in a period of huge socio-economic and political change. So we were all living through that with great excitement. We felt very privileged to be able to travel. I believe that was the key thing.

The fact that this title enabled me to think for the first time about what I wanted to do with my life; to make use of the fact that suddenly I have the opportunity to travel, to see new lands, gain new experiences, and to meet interesting people. That really was a turning point in my life.

Last week you served as patron for a project called Top ženy Česka [Top Czech Women]. What attracted you to this? 

For me it is… In my life I am able to come across things that truly interest me. And I must say that in this regard I would describe myself as a happy and contented person. It is part of my personality to try to get the most out of all I do. Now perhaps I have too much on my plate. But I do believe that the Top ženy Česka poll is something that is worthy of attention. It is organised by our publishing house, but only last year, thanks to my position on the board, did I begin to pay closer attention to this event. And I realised that given that this poll was now in its 11th year, it deserved to get more and more attention. Because each year, I am finding out that the standing of women is improving in Czech society, in politics, and in business. But the Czech economy, and also the country’s participation in EU politics – here many shortcomings can still be found. All my life I have viewed this as a call to arms; more so after I began working as a Miss. So I am not viewing it in a negative manner, but rather it represented a challenge for me. You have to show them that you are not here because of your good looks, or long legs, or your crown, or, who knows, because you slept with, or didn’t sleep with, so and so. Basically, whenever I found myself in the studio, or in other workplaces in the Czech Republic, I felt that – and perhaps no-one will say this to your face, but you do hear it on the sidelines – some were wondering: what is this young girl doing here? Why is she here? You have, in essence, a greater responsibility to prove that you are there because of what you know, and the skills you have, and because you can work hard. So this served as a positive motivation for me, to prove to men, and to society, that I wasn’t getting a free ride. And there are many positive stories to be found from the women in the Top ženy Česka poll. And that is not just useful for women, but also for men. I consider myself to be a contented woman, mother, wife and also manager and businesswoman for the reason that I believe that my life is well balanced, and because I enjoy working with men and women equally. And then I [got out of] a kind of closed greenhouse effect by deciding to go into business for myself, and taking responsibility for my own actions. To this day I continue to hear stories across various fields, be it finance, banking, science, or even the high-level academic world, that when women try to assert themselves, and there is no question about their education and qualifications, that they are still somewhat oppressed and have to work far harder. As, for example, I had to at the start, when I had to show that my business activities weren’t simply the result of my being a Miss.

I recently read somewhere that women have to decide whether they want to be top managers or mothers. You are a mother with four children.  How do you view this idea of either/or? Is society pressuring women into choosing, and can Czech women balance both work and motherhood?

I believe that the real question is: do women want to create a balance or not? Then the question arises as to how to achieve this. I believe that it is important. I belong among those women who want to create a balance. I have said that I built up my career up to the age of 35 only because I was unable to have children up to that point, and I spent much time waiting to find the right partner with whom I could have children. Because I am a workaholic, it may have appeared that I was solely focused on my work – but I was just waiting for the right moment. And I am very grateful for the fact that I have my children. I was never the kind of ambitious manager-type willing to forgo a family. There are women who miss the boat. They work, and don’t meet the right father and partner with whom they can share their lives. And so they have to find another path towards fulfilment. Then there are women who decide that they want only to be a mother – and derive their joy from that. Such a role works for them. There truly is much work to be done in the home, so when someone wants to be a mother, wife, and works as a housewife to ensure the smooth operation of the entire family, then I have huge respect for that. But I do want to say that I believe that if a woman wants to be both, then she should be able to be both. Those are the kind of women I am referring to. I am not saying either one or the other. Certainly it can be either/or for some, but most of the women in the poll have children and families, and many also have many grandchildren, and are grateful for the fact that the men who assisted in their realisation of things stood by them all these years and were tolerant of such ambitions. I heard an interesting interview not long ago with our former minister, [Daniela] Kovářová I believe she is called, who works in the field of domestic law. She offered up the thought somewhere that we can often have the sense that the legislative side of things has basically been settled, but that in the home environment dysfunction is common across the Czech Republic. There a woman remains in a subservient and disadvantageous role, and she advised women to get married and then battle to put things right. I don’t think that even the best-intentioned legislation can solve the issue. It is about upbringing; about all of us gradually learning to change. I also acted differently in my first relationship when I was 18 than I do now with my partner, who grew up and worked in the US. After all, he automatically views me as being a partner. It is still going to take some time in the Czech Republic, and each family is set up a little differently. Nor am I so radical as to be forcing anyone to adopt such a liberal and different approach to their lives. But I do think that the idea of partnership is important. To realise that we need men in our lives as much as they need us. To find a balance both at home and in the workplace – that is actually the aim of this poll; or to [help] women who are trying to, or are talking about, doing this. The point is not to suddenly create a reverse 90:10 ratio, because then we would end up having to do polls to find the best men.

Do you not feel that here the old adage of “Beware men who fall under the thumbs of their wives” prevails? It’s an old Czech fable, which even [the ancient mythical figure of] Libuše had to hear…

You should ask men that question. But there are many men with whom I have worked to whom I must express considerable gratitude. For example, when I studied at FAMU [the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague], I was the only women taking production, and the only one in my year group. When I worked with directors, be it in the field of documentary or fiction films, then most of them were men – as were most cinematographers and the rest of the crew, too. When later I entered the field of politics – I worked for three years with the Civic Democrats [ODS] – at that time I could certainly count on just one hand the [number of women], and the entire management, including the chair, was comprised of men. So I was moving in a largely male-dominated environment. When I was still working at Motokov, the firm also had around 35 male directors, and I was one of two female ones. I was the youngest. So I don’t believe that women should rule, but the smart men know to allow women to fully participate in the workplace.

Among other things, you serve as the chair of the board of administrators of the Bakala Foundation. Your main focus is providing scholarships to gifted Czech students. Why is it so?

I believe that we should be making a conscious long-term investment in the future of our country. And I am convinced that if we come across something in our country which we do not like – be it in politics, society, communication or in the media – no doubt, you come across it in your own line of work – then the long-term solution for each country is to be educating and explaining, and enabling those people to have the correct approach to information and its interpretation. I believe that over the past 20 years, we have gained the ability to become informed about as much as we want. We are saturated with information, and bombarded with marketing campaigns, and if we don’t teach young people to think for themselves, to put things in context and learn to think critically, then we will all have major problems, and we will end up experiencing a rise in extremism – the kind which I already sense brewing in certain public debates. Which means that my husband and I support students, because both of our successes can also be attributed to a quality education, one which actually lasts an entire lifetime. I believe that just as the proverbial “Czech Honza” went out into the world to gain new experiences, then our best students should also have the opportunity to go to Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and many other universities. They deserve it, and it will mean we have people returning to our country with more open global viewpoints regarding how to tackle various issues. And for me personally, whenever I am confronted by something in the Czech Republic, I am helped enormously by being able to foster a sense of detachment from a given problem. To understand that many things which we in the Czech Republic believe are major problems have already been solved elsewhere; people moved on, and are actively debating the latest challenges – and you really sense that as a breath of fresh air. You place issues in a wider context. Which is why I believe that an investment in young people and their education, as well as in teachers, fostering new life approaches and critical thinking – that only education can blaze such a path. Even the notion of returning to our modern history, and assisting those teachers who were impacted by the change of systems, and who were themselves educated under the former regime. To help them so that they are unafraid to explain the background to events, and to relate the impact of our history on the present day. As someone who works in the media, you will know the dangers of the excessive abridging of events – because today’s problems require a more detailed analysis in order to cultivate the necessary solutions. It will take some time; it’s a process. And I believe that education will play a key role in that.

What is your take on the concept of philanthropy?

I believe that philanthropy is a very broad concept, which applies to people who have built up their own resources and are able to devote their energies to such activities. After a good few years of activities, my husband and I could presume to call ourselves philanthropists, and many of our private resources go towards various projects and institutions and primarily towards education. It is not an easy task. I was able to enter this field thanks to the assets which my husband was able to bring into our family. He said that since he was focused on making money, he needed a partner, because in the past his philanthropic efforts supporting various projects around the world had been conducted in a somewhat haphazard manner. We thought about how to best target our help. So I believe that a philanthropist is a person who realises that life is not just about spending money or making money, but rather that they can also help in some places; that it can reward and satisfy a person to help in this way. It requires the right project, the right people, and it also requires a certain degree of humility. It is a project for the long run. It is something which our society is actually still learning to do. It isn’t entirely easy to decide upon which field one’s family will choose to spend tens or even hundreds of millions [of Czech crowns], as is the case with us. Because these aren’t company foundations – that is a different area. Different rules govern there. Our own personal philanthropy represents the use of our own taxed income, whereby my husband and I ask ourselves the question of whether we might buy, or not buy, an additional house, or spend on our children, or leave the money to earn interest, or if we will take our taxed income and then spend it to support some kind of project. I personally try to target as much as possible to the latter. But I need to be fully in the picture over the nature of such contributions and why our assistance can help. Because such philanthropy is important, and is something that outlives the donor. Whether it is the Václav Havel Library, or something like the Aspen Institute. Today we already have 100 Bakala Foundation student alumni, and within a few years that number will grow by several dozen more. In such projects one takes on board a certain degree of responsibility, and you have to know why you are doing it. Right now, philanthropy is very important to me.

It appears that in recent months, your husband has become the Czech state’s public enemy number one. Not long ago, the president described him as a scoundrel. Is it tough to listen to such criticism?

You don’t have an easier question for me?

I have to ask.

I know, I know. It is tough to listen to. For one, because it pertains to my family, and my husband, and I am his wife. He is the father of my children.

But is it surprising? If we go into it in greater detail – the sale of more than 40,000 miners’ apartments. That appears to be a clear breach of a previous promise. 

Ask the politicians how many promises they make to people before elections.

But this was a commitment in a privatisation agreement. 

Not his, though. He had nothing to do with the privatisation. For one. Secondly, as far as I know, then the issue at hand was a personal promise, not a contractual one – and there is a big difference. But I have to say that I am not a spokesperson for my husband. I believe that when he believes the moment is right to make a statement on this point, then he will do so.

And is it not a fault of his – a tendency to not explain his actions enough? 

Look, what I am saying is that this was his investment, along with foreign partners, and this is not our family’s business. It is not something that concerns me directly; I am following it from afar the same as you. I was not a party to it, and because I am his wife, my hands are tied with regards to expressing myself on this issue. All I can do is comment on this as the wife of the man involved; one whom I know personally and professionally in other capacities. Logically, once the entire affair is sorted out and explained, then I can offer my opinion on whether I might have done something differently. Because whatever I say now in his defence, then some people will say: of course she has to say that, she is Mrs. Bakala. On the other hand, we must look at this without emotion. With regards to the promise, I was beginning to date Zdeněk at that time, and was keeping an eye on his public statements. You have to realise that it is one thing to want to do something, but he was never the sole owner or sole decision-maker. He always said that within three years a decision would be made as to what was best for the company. And after three years it proved that the situation was such that it was better for the investors to administer the apartments in question than to sell them. It isn’t entirely straightforward. If the law said very simply that it had to be otherwise, then the company would comply. Rather than to only turn on a personal promise which everyone interprets differently. Which means that the privatisation contract which you mentioned must be viewed in this manner. He had nothing to do with that. That was drafted by and for I don’t know whom. He was not part of that process. The contract is publicly accessible. And it changes nothing with regards to the rights of those people to those apartments. But these are legal questions, issues of interpretation, and it is very difficult to be taking such a complicated issue out of the overall context, and to have to either explain or defend it. It pertains to his promise – so I know that there would have tended to be the inappropriate, at the time optimistic, words of someone, who was at the same time telling himself: I am inclined towards one variant, but three years down the line this need not be the case, because the situation must be re-evaluated. It was a huge investment and a huge project which carried many risks. Those apartments were added to the project at the start of the 1990s. Today, no-one has anything more to do with that, be they in politics or business – that was basically decided by our earliest governments. And it wasn’t just mines involved, but also transportation, and apartments, and, in fact, the investors focused on the mines. Quite logically, the transportation and apartments were separated from that and were run separately. And I say that my husband was not the only owner; or the only person who made decisions, and that is an important factor to keep in mind.

Nonetheless–  (MB interrupts)

It means that when I deliberately said that about politicians… look, each party has a political programme. And politicians clearly explain what they would do once they are in government, or are prime minister or a minister. They tell you very specifically what they will do. But at the moment that they actually enter office, you discover and they discover that it’s impossible. That certain legislation will not get the approval of their party, that it is not feasible, that coalition partners are raising objections. And this is exactly the same kind of story.

I understand…

[The investor] says what they would like to emphasise and focus on; what he believes can be achieved, and when later the company and investors looked at it as private individuals, operating in the environment in which they found themselves, and in the legal environment in which they were, then they found out that at that time it quite simply was not advantageous and so decided to act differently, and I believe they had that right. And my husband likely did not promise something at that time which could not be said, if you understand what I mean. And I think for politicians to be picking up on that now is somewhat dubious.

Fine, but even, for example, the approach towards the NWR crisis is hardly generating sympathy. The request for CZK 4 billion from the state to preserve the roughly 13,000 jobs. Perhaps that is for a long discussion. Are you preparing… [MB jumps in]

Hold on, hold on. My husband is not requesting that. Just a minute…

He is part of it. OKD is a part of NWR.

But he no longer works at or runs NWR. Today that is in the hands of someone else entirely. He is not negotiating with the state, and it is clear that no such aid would ever end up in my husband’s hands in this situation. Which means one has to separate these issues.

What I want to say is that since someone is negotiating in his name, would it not be advisable for him to distance himself to a greater degree?

But that is the fault of those people. I believe that they have sufficiently explained this. It is a question of inertia. It has been a number of years since my husband ceased to have a management role at either NWR or OKD. Nor does he have control over the current situation in which, basically, the price of coal is what it is; the price of oil is what it is, and the situation is very dramatic. It is completely different, but we should also not forget that during the entire time that the company was doing well it carried out all of its commitments. It paid all its bills, all of its taxes and insurance – and you know what I am alluding to, right? It means that today’s negotiations are now taking place beyond the influence of our family and my husband.

You once worked as a spokesperson for the Civic Democrats [ODS]. How do you view the situation in the party today? They recently held a congress in Ostrava. Do you believe this party can win back its former voters?

I honestly don’t know. It is a very different party now. I left my post as ODS spokesperson in April 2003. And I think that back then the party was in a completely different situation – both politically and socially – than today. I left at a time when I was telling myself that many things had not succeeded, but some have succeeded. Mirek Topolánek was taking over the party at a time when the party could have disassociated itself from many past things and said: That happened under the old leadership headed by Václav Klaus. I believe he could have started with a clean slate in terms of developing a right-of-centre party based on his own ideas. But I am not sure about the degree to which he succeeded, because at that time I was beginning to follow politics less and less. I believe that the Czech Republic needs political parties. And ODS was one of these.  I am not sure about its chances today, but I do believe that a certain battle of concepts should take place, rather than of movements – if you understand my meaning. I believe that the ability to have parties with clear policies, and also histories, is important for people. Because as soon as people are fired up for a good thing, you will know that it is, in reality, far more complicated than that. And so I think that I tend to be more of an advocate for clear, or to use a word from Václav Klaus, “readable” programmes coming from political parties. Whether we like it or not, as a voter or as the media you can examine, and even forecast the impacts of the proposed policies. When certain “hooray” actions emerge, which may work on a regional level, then one can observe how ordinary people whom you come across suddenly feel that politics is a functioning craft of sorts, too, and requires rules of the game. It isn’t just about having a good idea and being the right person. Because you may encounter some kind of factor and be forced to adapt to particular circumstances.

So it is a craft like any other.

I would say it is a very tough one. Which is why I decided that I would go into business instead of politics.

But I imagine that at home, for example, you discuss politics with your husband. Will he once again be financing Czech political parties in the same manner? Because we have elections coming up less than a year from now. Let me just point out that during the era of the Nečas government, the media used to refer to a “Bakala coalition” because he had supported ODS and TOP 09 and Public Affairs [VV].

That was because back then, as a responsible citizen of the Czech Republic and as a noted investor, he feared somewhat the rise of the populism then coming from Mister [Jiří] Paroubek, leader of the Social Democrats. When his power was at its peak, it appeared that he would continue to redistribute and further indebt our country. And, if you remember, the [Nečas] coalition then decided to create a directly opposite programme, meaning to battle the impacts of the [financial] crisis which was manifesting itself at this time. And it has since been shown that his decisions were open and unconditional. And that is all I told him [Zdeněk Bakala], because my life experiences tell me to keep a distance from politics. But you can see that he (Zdeněk Bakala) is his own manager and a person who makes decisions and takes responsibility for them. I told him that I would prefer not to get tangled up in politics and to keep that separate. Because if we know that we have a notable political player here – one who is covering a number of bases – then to me that seems very complicated and maybe even dangerous and not entirely healthy. Which is why I told my husband: if we want to support something, then we should be very careful. And when I later saw the reactions to his support, which really never demonstrated any [quid pro quo], nor would my husband ever seek anything like that, because he is very wise and experienced. He did it publicly, because it would have come to light somehow anyway. And he explained why none of the parties ever had to do anything for him in return, nor could they, logically, do that. So I believe that this was a correct deed. But a correct deed is not always understood or appreciated. But in the end it turned out well, which means that we had a government which – however it ended – sought to do something about the budget. Even though we know that not everyone stayed the course in other areas. And then after our last support that related to the world of politics, I told him: Please, never again. So I hope now that we have calmed down with this. But that was support for the candidacy of Karel Schwarzenberg to be President of the Czech Republic. Permit me to put that in context, I understand the criticism of our family of our current president; I respect that. But on the other hand, I choose to comport myself in a polite and decent manner.

How important for you is your work on the board of trustees of the Václav Havel Library?

It is a huge life task, which I appreciate a great deal. Because I met Václav Havel as a young person in 1991 or 1992 during his first visit to Slovakia as president. At that time, I was sitting next to Michael Žantovský and Karel Schwarzenberg, so I was always moving among people of this kind of mindset. And I believed that the entire Czech Republic [sic] had realised that our role was to be firmly within the Western European culture of parliamentary democracy with close ties to the Unites States. Today, I am beginning to doubt that we really have a consensus on this in our country. But I remain realistic. I understand that my initial naive conceptions about what we have jointly experienced over the last 25 years are still shared by a majority. I realised a few years ago, however, that some people were actively re-evaluating these concepts. We can see it today in our foreign and domestic policy. Which means that for me my work for Václav Havel and the Václav Havel Library represents a kind of personal declaration of my life experiences, where I grew up, the circles in which I move, and I am convinced that [his] is a unique life story, and political story, which will continue to be celebrated for many decades. When we examine our own history, including the emergence of Czechoslovakia under [Tomáš Garrigue] Masaryk, then we also realise that this represented a unique alignment of the stars. Under different circumstances, it might not have occurred at all. So I believe that over the past 25 years we have managed to build up something unique, which we should neither denigrate nor damage. We should now use it as a springboard. And nor is the library there to be just a museum or library with people going there and borrowing some books. Of course that makes the very name of this library a little misleading. The people working there are trying to actively document, describe and explain what [Havel] meant for the Czech Republic and for our history. They organise meetings on various subjects connected to the legacy of Václav Havel. Naturally, major publishing activity occurs there. Today they even have a chapter in the United States, which is also seeking to further cultivate the legacy of Václav Havel. Because he was also unique in the fact that he was larger than our Czech politics. Today, we lack those kinds of people. I truly cherish the opportunity to have a share in this work, both in terms of participation on the board of trustees, and also remaining in constant contact with the founders of the Václav Havel Library, whether that is Dáša Havlová and her family, or Karel Schwarzenberg, in whom we can see that he has already handed over his legacy. And I cherish the fact that we can be a part of this and I believe that it will be incredibly important for our country in the future, even though today some commentators may sneer. But as I have said, our family looks to the long-term, and does not make decisions based on what society may or may not think at the present time.

We are a long way from having discussed all of your various activities. But nonetheless, thank you for your time. That was Michaela Bakala. A pleasant evening.

Thank you. Goodbye and a good evening to you, too.

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