Cover Story -- Ten Years after the Wall
ONLINE ORIGINAL: Commentary: Hard Lessons in Freedom for the Czechs
There was so much hope. During the crisp days of November, 1989, a million Czechs gathered on Prague's Wenceslas Square and rattled their keys -- shaking the Communist Party regime so hard that it toppled within weeks. As their "Velvet Revolution" unfolded, the citizens of then-Czechoslovakia grew intoxicated with the possibilities of freedom and believed in the future as they had never before dared. They dreamed of the wealth of the West, a return to the mainstream of European politics, and the liberty to get to know the neighbors who had been cut off from them for two generations.
Today, a decade into democracy and capitalism, many of those early hopes remain little more than aspirations as the Czechs have learned that freedom also entails new responsibilities and challenges. True, in nearly a decade living in Prague, I met few who wanted to turn the clock back to the communist era. And the changes the country has undergone are real and almost certainly permanent. The economy works better, people are free to travel and do more or less as they please, and the politicians are responsive to their needs -- at least when compared to their communist predecessors.
Still, I know many who regret that the changes have brought out the worst in their compatriots: greed, racism, and nationalism. Given another chance, many Czechs would shape their current, capitalist system differently. FROM SOOT TO SHINE. The Czech Republic and its neighbors have been undeniably marked by the collapse of Communism, the decline of the Soviet empire, and the introduction of a more rational political and economic system. Prague is almost unrecognizable from the dusty, dowdy capital it was 10 years ago. In the spring of 1989, the city hunkered under a blanket of soot and a cloud of political oppression little changed since the Soviet invasion 20 years earlier. Today, the Czech capital shines as buildings have been reconstructured, facades repainted, and coal furnaces replaced with gas-fired ones. Its citizens seem happier, more assertive, and energetic. My friend Marketa quips that "even the weather has gotten better" since the Velvet Revolution.
The transformation is genuine, and there's no turning back. There has now been at least one peaceful change of government in every country in central Europe. The Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary are in NATO, and -- despite scattered grumbling on the part of some citizens and political leaders -- they fully participated in the alliance's conflict in Yugoslavia.
Companies that used to produce substandard goods for markets in the Soviet Union or other "fraternal" countries are now churning out cars, clothes, computers, and cameras of a quality that we once called "Western." Laborers have greater rights than they did under the communist system, entrepreneurs have an outlet for their energies -- and have taken full advantage of it -- and young people have far more opportunities when they finish their studies. LOST PRIVATE TIME. But scratch the surface, and you'll find much remains unchanged. While the Central Europeans have come a long way toward building a capitalist society, many yearn for the slower pace of life afforded by the ancien regime. The communist-era axiom that "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us" was largely true, and almost everyone I know says they had far more time for friends and family than they do today.
Ten years ago, everyone wanted economic change, although few believed there would be losers as well as winners. Now they better understand the equation. The elderly and the unskilled are often worse off materially than they were before 1989, and today even the middle class is struggling. While the Czech economy has made great strides, a grab-all-you-can mentality lingers among many in business -- a painful legacy of the bribing and scamming required to navigate the Communist system. That has given the country's capital markets perhaps the worst reputation in the region. The Czechs only last year got around to creating an agency to regulate trading -- in the wake of hundreds of scandals and scams that had sapped investor confidence in the country. Such low faith, in turn, is a root cause of a recession that saw the economy contract by 2.7% last year.
And few would have hoped for the juvenile political culture that developed
after the electoral vacuum of the communist era. The left-of-center Czech government -- which crept into power 16 months ago on the heels of a campaign-finance scandal that brought down its right-of-center predecessor -- has done precious little. The current administration, like the one before it, is characterized by infighting, disorganization, and dispute, which leaves Czechs waiting for any real initiatives that will bring their economy out of the doldrums. SCARED OF SKINHEADS. Furthermore, communism's collapse brought out an undercurrent of nationalism and racism that the totalitarian system managed to keep under wraps. The split of Czechoslovakia seven years ago into independent Czech and Slovak republics is the most obvious evidence of this. Less visibly to the outside world, an African friend, Tomas, tells me, "I'm afraid to take the subway at night because of the skinheads." He says he's considering leaving the Czech Republic. And inhabitants of the northern Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem are building a wall separating "white" Czechs from the Romany, or Gypsies, in one of the city's neighborhoods.
Despite these problems, the Czechs continue to believe in the future -- and most pin their hopes on the country's youth. A 21-year-old starting his or her career today was just 11 at the time of the Revolution, young enough to have largely escaped the ill effects of communist-era culture and education. These young people have often traveled outside of the country -- a privilege denied their parents. They use and understand computers, while the earlier generation had scant access to the latest machines due to a technology blockade imposed by Western countries. And they are learning foreign languages -- English and German -- in record numbers.
Yes, a lot has changed in the Czech Republic and its neighbors in the last decade, and much is for the better. But the region is still reeling from its four-decade experiment with communism, and plenty of the changes have made Central Europe a less hospitable place to live. Compared with the hopes of so many Czechs during those heady weeks in November, 1989, there's plenty of work left to be done.By David Rocks, a BW Atlanta Correspondent Who Spent Eight Years in Prague and before That Lived in Poland and Berlin