Morning After in the Czech Lands


Prague, Czech Republic.--There is an odd sculpture on the grounds of the German Embassy here: a small car, bronzed, standing on giant human feet.

It is a Trabant, made in East Germany and abandoned on the September day in 1989 when thousands of East Germans, who had come to Czechoslovakia on vacation, charged past Communist guards to climb over the fence onto the embassy grounds to claim political asylum in what was then West Germany.

The Czech guards, a tough bunch, stepped back. They did not fire their guns. The Cold War was over. Before the year itself was over, the Soviet Empire was collapsing and a political dissident named Vaclav Havel was the president of Czechoslovakia -- a playwright, no less!

Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end. But they have. After "the Velvet Revolution," President Havel's country broke in two, becoming the Czech Republic and the separate country of Slovakia. The gross domestic product of the Czech Republic has dropped 30 percent. Since then, the government has gone back on its promise to end arms manufacturing -- including the making of Semtex, the favorite explosive of terrorists around the world.

Prague is a lovely and lively city, attracting young Americans as Paris once did 75 years ago, but it is the capital of a country of only 10 million people -- smaller than Indiana, with a per capita income of something like $2,500 a year. It is in competition now not only with rich Western European countries, but also with the next wave of Asian giants, Thailand, Vietnam and China.

The Czech situation was summed up for me in a charming but sad note in the window of one of the city's best restaurants under the old regime, Slavia:

"Just like the country, Slavia is in the process of putting on a new face for the future. It will take time. We ask that you give us understanding. We will reopen Slavia in the new style of service, motivated by customer satisfaction."

New customers are the hope, because like the other "post-socialist" countries, the Czech Republic has lost its old ones, the other countries of the protectionist Soviet Empire, beginning with the Soviet Union itself.

But the new customers, beginning with the Americans, have their choice of goods from anywhere and everywhere in the world. The new customers demand quality that the post-socialist countries cannot yet deliver after shabby decades of communism.

There are "things" in the stores now. Capitalists are good at making and bringing in things but, so far, the prices are beyond the reach of Czech workers -- some of them beyond those workers' imagination. The Maje department store, operated in partnership with K-mart, displays Sony television sets at 26,270 Czech crowns ($900) and Barbie dolls at 699 crowns ($24) -- the doll costs, after taxes, a week's average wages.

(The most useful American products I saw at Maje were the 3-M plastic storm windows priced at $5 a window.)

"Life is rough," says a character named Michael in Vaclav Havel's play "Private View," which is running in Prague this summer. Then says Michael: "We're a small country in a world that's divided. The world doesn't give a damn about us and nobody's coming to our rescue. We're in a nasty predicament, and it will get worse and worse."

Havel wrote that in 1975. The world is no longer divided in the same way now, but the Czechs still have to make it on their own. They will probably do that, with the help and power of Germany, which is now united again as Central Europe's superpower.

But how long will it take? How much time will be required for the Czechs to overcome the effects of communism? I have asked that question again and again traveling across Eastern Europe. The answer, before the day of the storming of the West Germany Embassy in Prague almost four years ago, was usually "five or six years." This year when I asked the same question, the answer was usually "twenty years."

"Life is rough . . . "

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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