Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999
THE CZECH REPUBLIC, PART IX
Czechs versus Word-charm
One of the stereotypes that held up until the end of Communist rule, involving not only Czechoslovakia, but all of the erstwhile "socialist camp," claimed that these countries had excellent, universalistic systems of education. Indeed, illiteracy was not a problem in the Soviet bloc, and those specialists who managed to defect to the West were welcome with open arms by universities and research laboratories worldwide.
Therefore, it may have come as a surprise that soon after the collapse of the regime, the people of the post-Communist countries showed an astonishing amount of naivete, falling prey to the first wave of financial speculators, crooks and impostors. Snake oil, usually an assuredly Western brand of it, became one of the most sought-after commodities in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Sergei Mavrodi's MMM "Bank" in Russia, pyramid games that almost brought down the economy of Albania, Viktor Kozeny and his "Harvard" investment funds resulting in a net loss of almost 1 billion dollars for the Czech Republic - these were the symbols of the newly won entrepreneurial freedom.
Should that mean that under Communism, no one lied to the people of the former Eastern-bloc states? Not at all: the problem is that no one ever told them the truth.
The information universe of ordinary Czechs, Poles or Russians was strictly bipolar.
The mendacity of the official propaganda was so evident and the image of reality in the Party-controlled mass media so twisted, absurd and out-of-sync with real life that even the sternest supporters of the regime admitted its falsehood.
The limited sources of information coming from the West, mainly the US-funded radio stations Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, also trimmed up their broadcasting, molding it into pragmatic and simplistic counter-propaganda: democratic countries were presented as a paradise; the sophisticated and, in many respects, imperfect political system of democratic government was interpreted as the mere absence of the Communist system, or, which was worse, the lack of Communists.
The reasoning of homines sovietici was straightforward, and disastrously wrong. Because one side evidently lied, the other side had to be telling the truth. As simple as that, with no room for any shades of gray.
Some argue that of all the Central and East European nations, Czechs are most prone to be charmed by words. Judging by the relatively large number of buzzwords they have successively fallen in love with in the 90s, this hypothesis seems to be well-founded.
The first love-affair, and the most durable one, concerns the notion of the fabulous West. Czechs had been denied the West, Western goods and Western consumer delights for as long as fifty years, and they found forbidden apples tasting real nice. This is, in fact, nothing new. Czechs have never come to terms with their own Oriental or semi-Oriental patterns of behavior, and what came from the West has always been automatically regarded as admirable and worthy of imitation.
Hand in hand with the Western, and supported by its paramount power, came the triad of the West-European countries, the traditional democracies and the developed world. If you are at a loss what argument to use when talking with a Czech, you can never be wrong if you say: "I wouldn't recommend any third-way (i. e., the antonym of "Western") experiments. This is the standard Western approach, this is how the most developed democracies do it." And your point has been proven: only an utter fool would speak against the standard, Western way to do things...
However, it is not enough to be Western; one also has to be right-wing to be acceptable for the Czechs. Communists were leftist, and they were villains, so being right-wing was an absolute prerequisite of human decency. In theory, Czechs knew that democracy meant a competition of different political currents; practically, they were so fed up with official Communist-era slogans, such as "Alongside the Soviet Union for All Time and Never Otherwise!", that they intended to stick with self-styled Thatcherites who promised to keep the wily left-wing ill-doers at bay.
While all the other countries in the region managed, more or less successfully, to establish a system in which the Right and the Left took turns clutching the reins of power, Czechs had stable right-wing-only governments until the elections in June 1998. When the former "Right" and "Left" concluded a hidden coalition later that year, voters perceived the new arrangement as an enormous betrayal. It took almost ten years for a Czech voter to realize that the trenches on the post-Communist political scene were dug not only between the true-blue Right and the Left, but other dividing lines were equally important: the one between the populist and the responsible, and between the pro-European and the isolationist.
Czechs, responsive to the disappearance of Party-decreed style sheets and the long-awaited freedom of speech, were soon charmed by the names of new professions as well. While the entrepreneur (the local species being a thuggish figure, equipped with a purple jacket and a heavy gun) was the symbol of the early 90s, later in the decade, the manager became king. In an economy that worked on the principle of steal-before-your-neighbor-does, managers were more powerful than entrepreneurs, who were mere owners. Managers spent other people's money, often running their own side businesses or "tunneling" (asset-stripping) the enterprise, investment fund or bank in which they held managerial posts, to the benefit of their private ventures.
Their paychecks were huge, perks enviable, and when they were eventually fired, the company, instead of suing them for their fraudulent practices and mismanagement, were obligated by their contracts to give them hearty golden handshakes.
The fact that a significant portion of today's senior management held similar positions under Communism, typically being active and reliable Party members, tops all that.
Consequently, a new love-affair is in sight, the object of Czech longing being social justice this time, meaning nothing less than a society without entrepreneurs (and owners, for that matter) nor affluent managers.
Two generations ago, similar catch phrases brought on the yoke of 40 years of totalitarianism and destruction of traditional values. Let's wait and see what price the Czechs are willing to pay this time.
Tomas Pecina, 30 August 1999
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