Friday, November 13, 2009

PRAGUE - Down the street from our apartment in Prague is where the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution” got its spark twenty years ago.

Students had gathered on November 17 at Charles University to mark the killing of own of their own by the Nazis decades ago.

Events were not taking place in a vacuum, however. Tectonic shifts were underway across Eastern Europe. East Germans were fleeing in the thousands to the West. The Solidarity trade union under Lech Walesa was taking power in Poland. Hungary was dismantling its one-party rule system. The ultimate blow to the bankrupt system, however, was the crumbling of the Berlin Wall on November 9.

With revolution on their mind, Czech students marched to the center of town where they were met by a phalanx of grim-faced police in riot gear. It is common lore that the overthrow of Communism in Czechoslovakia went smoothly, peacefully, hence the “Velvet” tag. But that day, police were at their brutal best, attacking with batons protesters who approached them with flowers.

The crackdown was a catalyst. Angered by the police action and sensing the system was on its last leg, Czechs took to the streets in massive protests, jingling keys for change. Less than two weeks later, the Communist system was unraveling, and, Vaclav Havel, a playwright, political prisoner, and Lou Reed fan, would soon become the first president of a free Czechoslovakia.

Today, a small plaque commemorates the site where that fateful crackdown took place, but few take notice. Many are busy rushing in and out of a nearby supermarket. Capitalism is firmly entrenched here.

The cobble-stoned streets of Prague are lined with restaurants, pubs and upscale boutiques. With its architectural heritage given a needed scrubbing after decades of Communist neglect, Prague has become a top target of the camera-clicking crowd. The city’s roads are clogged with more and more upscale cars, pushing out the old boxy, Skodas, the Czech automaker.

Skoda, like most of the country’s industrial gems have either closed down or been snatched up by multinational conglomerates. Skoda is now part of the German giant Volkswagen, with all profits sent to Wolfsburg, its corporate headquarters.
Pisner Urquell, the Czech’s "King of Beers", from the city which gave the world a breakthrough in brewing and a beer type, Pilsen, is now just one brand of many of a South African-based beverage behemoth.

On the other hand, what has remained in Czech hands, has found navigating the free market waters tricky at best, treacherous, at worst. Czech glassware, renowned around the world, has taken it on the chin with most glass works either shutting down, or radically scaling back operations. In the town where my family has a summer retreat, the country’s oldest glass works, dating back to the 16th century, has closed its doors forever, not only throwing about 100 people out of work, but consigning to history’s scrap heap another part of the country’s industrial heritage.

But overall, Czechs are working, especially in the capital Prague, where go-getters equipped with better-than-average English face a favorable job market where unemployment is still just about 3% even with the current economic crisis. With a very good salary considered about $2,000 a month, it’s no wonder multinationals have flocked to Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest to cut costs.

Not all, however, have been embraced by capitalism. Homelessness is on the rise. Police have been ordered to push the unwashed, drug-addicted and unemployable out of the city center and out of the gaze of tourists, cherished for the needed coin they put in the city’s coffers.

That’s not the only relatively new ill Czechs are confronting.. “Night clubs” that hardly hide the prostitution going on inside, can be found on the back streets off the famed Wenceslaus Square, site of massive anti-Communist protests back in 1989. Those looking for cheap booze and sex have made Prague a top destination, leading one English paper to call Prague one of Europe’s sleaziest cities.

Outside the cities, change and prosperity has come, but at a much slower pace. As I mentioned the country’s oldest glassworks where our summer home is located near the border with Germany has shut its doors. A friend there had a scare years ago when the German owners of the thread factory where he works announced they might be moving operations further east to Romania, where wages are even cheaper. My friend makes about $700 a month.

The end of Communism has been good for the environment with some of the worst offending smokestack industries shutting down or upgrading to more environmentally-friendly equipment. Ironically, when we head to the country for fresh air, we get a lung’s full of coal grit. It’s like a time warp back to Pittsburgh when the city skyline was blanketed in grayness. With gas just too expensive for many, Czechs turn to burning coal, wood and whatever else is flammable -- even tires -- to keep warm in winter. Stocking up wood becomes a necessity bordering on obsession for some.

With all it warts, few here or elsewhere in the former East Bloc want to trash the free market and return to the past, despite the sense of security it did offer along with the cruelty and limitations.

I asked a friend who lives in Chribska, site of our rustic retreat, whether the current credit crunch had shaken his faith in the free market. Pepa had just had his hours cut back at the thread factory. He looked at me like I was kidding, before answering with a heaping dose of sarcasm, “Oh, sure we could go back to the way things were, when the shops were full, and we all drove Trabants,” the tiny clunker once churned out in bunches in East Germany.

The Trebants are gone as are the Soviet troops. The Czech Republic and other former Warsaw Pact nations are now members of what was the enemy, NATO. Membership in the now not-so-exclusive European club, the European Union, means the Czechs and other eastern Europeans are out of Moscow’s orbit, although the Kremlin is still reluctant to see it that way.

That partly explains why Moscow stomped its feet over U.S. anti-missile shield plans to deploy ten missiles in Poland and build a radar in the Czech Republic, ironically on the site of a former Soviet military site.

Vox populi in both Poland and the Czech Republic showed little support for the plan. However, the leadership in Warsaw and Prague believed it would further anchor them in the Atlantic alliance.

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced those two components would be scrapped in a rethink of missile defense, political leaders and thinkers here felt betrayed, and fear that Obama is caving to the Russian bear as Washington looks to “reset” relations with Moscow.

A former foreign minister, Jiri Dientsbier, told me such thinking is nothing more than scaremongering.

He has a point. Obama is not “abandoning” missile defend (whose genesis dates back to President Reagan and his “Star Wars” plan) but merely tweaking it. Mobile missiles are in and Poland may still get them, something Russia will not like, feeling already hemmed in by NATO which has swallowed up all of its former Warsaw Pact allies, and now sits on its borders in the Baltics and may some day encroach further in Ukraine and Georgia.

The Czechs have also been assured by Vice President Joe Biden that the Czechs could get in on the project too. He gave them that assurance on a recent trip to the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. In the U.S. press, it was called a ‘mending-fences’ tour to reassure allies that Washington is not abandoning them in exchange for warmer ties with the Kremlin.

As noted, Washington has no plans to abandon missile defense, still pushes for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, despite misgivings and opposition from many of their European allies, and the Pentagon is still at work to add to the over 1,000 military bases Chalmers Johnson says the U.S. military has around the globe.
Just before Biden arrived in Bucharest in October, the U.S. military announced it would be spending some $50 million to expand and modernize a military base in Romania. Neighboring Bulgaria will get $60 million of Pentagon money for a similar task there.

James Robbins, a senior fellow in national security affairs with the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council think tank, said “the U.S. efforts in Romania and Bulgaria are part of a global redeployment strategy started in the early years of the Bush administration to shift U.S. forces out of Germany and move them eastward.”

That would put them closer to the Caspian Sea, whose abundance of oil and gas, has put the region in the cross hairs of Washington’s Machiavellian mandarins. Moscow, and increasingly China, are wary to say the least.

For some here, Eastern Europe has thrown off one master from the East and is being saddled with another from the West. At least this time, the shops are full.

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