In Czechoslovakia, Social Change Comes More Slowly than Political Change


Brno, Czechoslovakia -- We were sitting in one of the new, private cafes in central Brno, discussing openly the things that we had whispered about in the past, before the 1989 velvet revolution: freedom, the government, the impending Slovak-Czech split into two states, the likelihood of democracy taking root.

But the bubble burst when I asked the waitress if the menu had anything beside meat on it, perhaps a salad. The response was a somewhat hostile "No! We never have salad." It seemed a flashback to the days of government-run restaurants, indifferent to the public.

This sparked a lecture by my companion, sociologist Ladislav Rabusic, who saw the tastefully-appointed cafe, with its quiet, .. smiling Czech patrons and salad-less menu, as proof that the path to a non-totalitarian future is to be a long and difficult one.

"You see the attitude of the waitress -- it reflects the basic problem of our country," said Dr. Rabusic. "There are hundreds of vendors of fresh vegetables every day in the main square below the cathedral now that it is summer. Yet no one thinks to add them to the old menus. Or even for the waitress to say that she'll suggest to the manager that they serve salad. If I wanted to make a success with this restaurant, I'd send someone out now to get vegetables for a customer."

After 40 years of socialism, "the whole society is in an adolescent stage, expecting decisions to be made by a parent -- the state," said Dr. Rabusic, a professor at Masaryk University here, who recently spent six months at the University of North Carolina.

"People need re-definition of the codes of behavior. And they are not aware of this. They just want prosperity. But they must first have a civic society -- the Protestant ethic. To know that each person's fate and the nation's fate are in his hands."

In Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia and other former Soviet-bloc countries, as well as Czechoslovakia, the challenge of ripping away the legacy of socialism and substituting what Dr. Rabusic calls "civic society" has created a panic, especially for the naturally conservative elements such as middle-aged parents and elderly retirees, frightened by unemployment and instability.

When told they must find jobs, housing, money and new skills, many react with nostalgia for the certainties of the past -- state control or even nationalism and anti-Semitism.

"It's not so easy to change the psychology or behavior of ordinary people," said Dr. Yveta Radichova, a sociologist at Bratislava's Komensky University in Slovakia. "People are still waiting for some hard hand or tutor or paternalism to solve their problem. They are waiting passively.

"We are in the process of teaching ourselves to speak openly and not to evaluate every dialogue as a conflict and not see everyone as an enemy. Our people are not ready for normal dialogue."

In the past, even the casual mention of forbidden names such as Alexander Dubcek, ousted by the Soviet invasion of 1968, or Thomas Masaryk, who founded the state in 1918 but rejected Communism, would cause people to turn pale with fear. If one of the hundreds of thousands of Communist informants overheard, could ruin one's career or chances to get a visa or college education for one's child.

This fear -- which some say is returning in Slovakia with the victory of nationalists in the June elections -- may continue to color the thoughts and actions of all who were brought up under socialism for decades.

"The education system must be changed -- elementary schools are terrifying," said Dr. Rabusic. "They are too authoritarian. These 40- and 50-year-old women teachers just want the class quiet. They don't want the kids to ask questions or think for themselves. They plant the idea that authority is always right."

Both Czechs and Slovaks voted in June for strong leaders -- capitalist Vaclav Klaus in the Czech lands and leftist Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia. The two agreed to divide the nation and lead each republic on its own economic and political path. But both oppose putting the separation issue to a referendum, knowing that the majority of Czechs and Slovaks in polls have opposed division.

Both Czechs and Slovaks told me that after the divorce, the two countries could continue economic relations and later rejoin in a confederation. And President Vaclav Havel, whose re-election was blocked by Slovak delegates to the federal assembly, said "If Czechoslovakia decides to split, then we should take it as an historic challenge to show that such an operation can be done peacefully . . . without civic conflict."

But there remains a real danger that totalitarian values will reappear when neither democracy nor having separate states can ease the painful shock of rising prices, reduced social programs, privatization and unemployment.

"The whole society needs a culture change that can't be done before several generations die off," said Dr. Rabusic. He and others compare today's Czechoslovaks to the Biblical Jews who were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years until those who had lived under slavery died off and a new, purified generation could enter the promised land.

"Fear for the future predominates now. In April, a poll showed that the least important priorities of people are democratic society and a free press," he said. "At the top of the list of priorities are free medical care, education and social services. A civic society is based on the idea that you can trust each other. But after decades of socialism, this society is full of envy."

In a paper to be delivered in late August at the First European Conference of Sociology in Vienna, on "Trends toward post-totalitarianism," Dr. Rabusic cites studies that show 90 percent of Dutch people generally trust their neighbors, but only 25 percent of Czechs and 20 percent of Slovaks do.

The impending split of the country into two nations is largely due to different ways of dealing with this distrust and the fear of the future. Czechs hope that the free market capitalism of Mr. Klaus's party will bring swift prosperity, while Slovaks voted for Mr. Meciar's party in the hope that it would slow down the privatization of heavy industry and keep the stability and social programs of the old regime.

What is frightening is the speed at which anti-Semitism, nationalism, moves to strangle the press and other authoritarian tendencies have found favor just two years after the revolution, especially in Slovakia but also in the Czech lands where skinheads are active.

"I am angry that since 1919 the Czechs pushed the Slovaks down," said a 62-year-old Slovak, a former state television department head who declined to give his name. Since 1989, "prices in the Czech lands are 30 percent lower and salaries are 20 percent higher than in Slovakia. I am not a chauvinist, but Havel put a lot of Jews into the government."

Czechoslovakia has about 6,000 Jews and 10 million Czechs, five million Slovaks, 500,000 Hungarians and 500,000 Gypsies.

"Things are even worse than they appear, because we are moving very smoothly back where we were three years ago," said Zuzana Szatmary, of the Charter 77 human rights foundation in Bratislava. During a reporter's visit last week she received a phone call from the mayor's office informing her that her group's lease was "unclear" and they might have to vacate the building, a former Communist Party headquarters and now home to several opposition publications and independent groups.

"This is one of the signs in the past days that make me afraid we will have a totalitarian regime and there won't be any democracy," she said. "The new government is firing people -- secretaries and clerks -- everyone who served the previous government" that replaced the Communists after 1989.

Mr. Meciar's government has also criticized the Prague-based national television news and threatened to unplug it in Slovakia. In late June, he launched a Slovak news broadcast and suspended all contributions by Slovak television to the national news show.

But even when Slovaks fall back from the democratic sentiments of the revolution into anti-Semitic statements and support for a strong man such as Mr. Meciar, they bitterly denounce any mention of it in the Czech or Western press as signs of the traditional contempt for Slovaks.

Indeed, Czechs do frequently admit they look down on Slovaks as country bumpkins who only recently acquired education and skills. Thousands of Czech teachers went to Slovakia when the nation was formed at the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. And while the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia were already heavily industrial before World War II, it was only after 1948 that the Soviet Union brought jobs and industry to Slovakia, planting huge arms factories in remote valleys far from the NATO forces poised on the Austrian and West German borders.

"The biggest mistake of the Czechs is to look down on the Slovaks," said Vladimir Tomcik, 42, a painter and writer who had taken his three small children to the park in Bratislava. "Why shouldn't we separate? It's the right of all nations. Look at the Dutch, the Norwegians, the Finns." An opponent of Mr. Meciar, he called anti-Semitic statements by his fellow Slovaks "stupid -- you may as well accuse blue-eyed people of making trouble."

The main danger is that big economic shocks will strengthen the forces of nationalism and submissiveness and lead people to believe "that we were better off back in the cage," said Dr. Rabusic.

"In sociology there is a saying that to have a political change can take six months. For an economic change, it takes six years. But for a social-cultural change, it takes 60 years."

Ben Barber, a free-lance journalist, has contributed foreign reports from Asia, Europe and North Africa to The Sun, the London Observer and other publications since 1980.

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