WASHINGTON - Czech Senate Leader Milos Vystrcil was little known to the world until he led a Czech parliamentary and business delegation to Taiwan in autumn 2020, defying threats of severe retaliation from Beijing. And that is just how his late father would have preferred it.
"He would always insist that we live a normal, average life, not too visible," Vystrcil told VOA during a visit to Washington last week.
Vystrcil was born in the town of Telc in 1960, 12 years after the Soviet-backed local communist party took control of what was then the Czechoslovak Republic. In order for him and his sister to lead as normal a life as possible, "my father created this sort of bubble," Vystrcil recalled. "To me, it wasn't right."
Not until he was about 15 did his father tell him their family was on the wrong side of the communist revolution because Vystrcil's grandfather had established a factory that produced agricultural machinery and fire extinguishers. Consequently, theirs was a family of "exploiters" and was closely watched by the nation's new guardians of supposed equality and egalitarianism.
"My father was afraid all his life that somebody would come and ban us from doing things or they would actually force us to relocate to somewhere else," he said.
Vystrcil's father became so pessimistic about life that "he didn't even want to get married at one point because he knew that his children would have a very difficult life," he recounted through an interpreter. "My father was afraid that his children would suffer just by being his children."
On Nov. 17, 1989, everything changed. Or almost everything.
That day marked the beginning of a series of mostly peaceful demonstrations known as the 'Velvet Revolution," culminating 11 days later when the Communist Party announced it was ceding power.
A father's fear
The 29-year-old Vystrcil started out on a new path - a path his father watched with considerable unease.
"I remember writing an article after 1989. My father read it and he came to me and said: 'Why are you doing this? What will they say now?'"
The younger Vystrcil forged on and rose from a high school teacher to principal to mayor of the city of Telc, where the family had resided for generations. He went on to become governor of the region.
By the time his father died at age 92 in 2017, Vystrcil had been elected as a federal senator; three years later, he became leader of the Senate.
It was in that capacity that he led a delegation to Taipei in 2020, showing his nation's support for another victim of communist intimidation, and later invited Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to Prague, prompting fierce Chinese threats of retaliation.
But, Vystrcil said in an interview with The Diplomat during his Washington visit, he personally did not feel added pressure from Beijing upon conclusion of the trip, partly because "the entire democratic world had actually stood up for us and stood up behind our mission to Taiwan once we were threatened by the People's Republic of China."
"On the other hand, this certainly does not mean that the Chinese have forgotten or will not do anything," he added.
In the same interview, he stated that being able to "keep our backs straight" and not yield to pressure is a politician's inherent duty to help build a "strong and proud nation" capable of withstanding challenges.
Asked by VOA whether his father ever overcame his anxiety as he watched his son's political ascent, Vystrcil shook his head. "To answer your question, I'm afraid he did not manage to let go of his fear, even to the end of his life, he was not able to do it."
Vystrcil said his father "was always afraid, because [he would say] 'the more you go up the ladder, the stronger your enemies are, you're more visible.' He would always warn me: 'Be careful.'" Vystrcil's eyes grew wet as he recalled his father's warning, and love. But he did not allow himself to dwell on it.
"Now that we have discussed this here together, that's probably one of the reasons that convinced me that 'never again' - we mustn't ever let it happen again," he said of his nation's period of one-party rule.