Battling with the system 10 years after the revolution


"The Communists are still there. They didn't even bother to change their name. They committed terrible crimes, yet they are perfectly legal and their support is rising - 20 per cent now, nearly equal to the biggest party. Step by step they're coming back. Ten years after the revolution, I cannot believe that today, I could hear a girl say on the radio saying: `You will have to fight for your freedom - and you might still lose'."

No, not the meanderings of a paranoid, old intellectual but of Misha, a 24-year-old woman with a secure, well-paid job in the centre of Prague.

Misha is thoughtful beyond her years, a little melancholy, like many of her generation in central and eastern Europe. Sometimes, she says, she is "ashamed" to admit to being Czech. We are in Prague's top hotel, where her polite query to a receptionist - in Czech - elicits an inaudible snarl. The same query from me, in English, gets a plastic smile. Such is Prague, "the gilded whore", a place where the streetwise wear their bags beneath their coats, a beautiful city with a dark heart.

But the disillusionment is not confined to Prague, or Misha or those turning back to the Communists. Alienation is widespread. Czechs trust no-one. Seven out of 10 distrust parliament. Intellectuals have launched Impulse 99, to fight a system they describe as corrupt and self-serving. But a similar campaign by former dissident intellectuals in 1992 saw them pushed into the wilderness with less than 5 per cent of the vote.

Jiri Pehe, a dissident forced to flee to the US, and up to recently political adviser to President Vaclav Havel, sees little hope for change as long as the current regime remains: "They are politically corrupted. They have got so used to power that they cannot think about the public interest anymore."

So is this all there is to show for the Velvet Revolution? In 10 years, the Czech Republic has gone from top to bottom of the front-liners in terms of EU accession. While for Hungarians, crippling debt dictated privatisation policy the Czechs, led by Mr Vaclav Klaus and the ODS, chose the "Czech way". Privatise yes, but keep it secure in Czech hands.

The result: joint stock enterprises involving millions of (Czech) owners with little western know-how, support or capital. The outcome, says Jiri Pehe, is that foreigners are snapping up companies at one-third of the price they would have paid a few years ago. The Czech beer brand, Pilsner Urquel - flagship of the industry - is now owned by a South African company, giving the latter total domination of the Czech beer market.

"And that's fine by me," says Mr Pehe, "because all of these problems go back to Czech nationalism. When I returned, I found a country full of pride and self-delusion and this was used by Klaus to create a great sense of Czech superiority, a sense that we were better than Hungary or Poland . . ."

A fatally flawed premise, he argues, in a country which had lost its best and brightest in the purges after 1968. While Hungary and Poland were liberalising gradually from within, Czechoslovakia was encased in a neo-Stalinist regime. By 1989, the country had suffered 50 years of totalitarian regimes, leaving only the very old with any experience of democracy. How could they be superior?

Meanwhile, unprivatised Czech banks - the only ones with the money - who snapped up public stock at inflated prices hit the skids as everything unravelled. Sixteen have collapsed in five years, the Moravia Bank being the most recent, from a region where unemployment is close to 20 per cent and where those who have a job are paid late or not at all by one-third of industries.

With bad debts at 30 per cent of total bank lending, the banks are notoriously shy of risk and fledgling companies are being driven to the wall through lack of financing. Corruption has flourished and investor confidence dented by a climate where company shares can be issued without evidence of the owner's identity. A thriving black market is reckoned to be worth more than 110 billion crowns a year. Crime has soared.

The first seven months of the year saw bank raids nearly double to 34 while August alone saw 20. Meanwhile, capitalism bites. Alvise Mesthene, a consultant writing in the Prague Tri- bune, notes that on a turnover-per-employee basis, the steel and engineering conglomerate Vitkovice employs 11 times as many employees per dollar sold, than Rouge Steel in the US.

And as Mr Mesthene consults, the inequities yawn.

Misha's friend is a nurse. She earns 6,000 korunas net a month (about £132) out of which 5,000 korunas (about IR£110) goes on rent. The nurse is married to a policeman. Both are terrified of falling ill or being suddenly unable to work.

Doctors, fresh from a one-day strike in October, are threatening more action. At 22,000 korunas (about £500) a month, they earn twice as much as nurses.

All around them, they see others thriving in the market jungle. "In a bank queue recently," says Misha, "a Russian lady asking to open an account opened a case with half a million crowns in it."

There is of course, some good news from the east.

Ten years ago, Karel successfully claimed restitution of the family perfume shop in Kladno, near Prague. Its confiscation by the Communists 40 years before, left the family as tenants in part of their own home, and his father working as a clerk at Poldi, Kladno's now defunct steelworks.

What restitution means in this context is that Karel got back a shell.

Vital bank loans to refurbish and restock incurred punitive interest; high unemployment and a poor economy took their toll. But the old family name is over the door again and they have turned the corner: "My only regret is that my grandfather didn't live to see this day", he says.

Hana, too, worked at Poldi. She was a lawyer there, valued at less than a manual labourer. Now she occupies a large suite of comfortable offices in a Prague suburb and employs five lawyers. Her new lifestyle provokes jealousy. "I sense it. They see my two cars and that I've renovated my house. But they don't see what lies behind it - the worry, being here from dawn till dusk."

It's a familiar theme, that the rewards are there if people will take the risks and work hard. But not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, says a weary-looking 50-year-old shop assistant. What is 10 years after all, after 40 of being sapped of any sense of responsibility, of not believing in yourself, or in anyone else?

Jiri Pehe is optimistic, but not in the short term. Change will come, he says, when a new generation, currently hidden in the parties, find their place. "People like Syril Svoboda, Patra Buzkova, Stanislav Gross, Patra Mecas or Jan Kasl, the Mayor of Prague. These are reasonable young people, pragmatic, ready to get on with each other, less devoted to old Bolshevik habits . . . They are my grounds for optimism".