Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999
F O R U M 2 0 0 0:
High on a Hill
After the culmination of the second day of the Forum 2000 conference held at Prague Castle, I found myself waiting for a tram at Malostranska, with the Castle dominating the view on the hill above. I thought back to only moments ago when I was roaming the Spanish Hall with the likes of President Vaclav Havel, economist Jeffrey Sachs, His Royal Highness El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, historian Timothy Garton Ash. I realized that they were all probably still up there in the Castle doing what they had been doing for the previous two days: networking, promoting their new books, spouting and sharing their ideas, evading and sometimes giving interviews… Then, I looked around at the cars rushing through the ever-chaotic intersection, at the people rushing to catch their trams, seemingly oblivious to what was going on up in the castle; not one person even glanced up there.
This year's forum, the third of five scheduled, concentrated on global integration and the problems inherent in the changing structures of the global framework. The forum's goal, to promote dialogue and foster new ideas on how to better deal with volatile global realities, was looked at from many different perspectives throughout the three-day conference.
And, indeed, it seems that there are plenty of good ideas to be had. The practical implication of these grand ideas, however, is another matter and perhaps one out of the realm of concern for most of those who proposed them. To say that I am skeptical of the usefulness of such conferences would not be too far off the mark. Nevertheless, some of the ideas put forth at the Forum do warrant a mention.
Given the nature of the forum - a global dialogue on global issues - the majority of discussions did not deal with Central and Eastern Europe per se but rather took on a broader scope, with much of the concern centered on the situation in Africa and the oft-mentioned Third World.
Jeffrey Sachs, back in Central Europe after helping Poland administer the now-famous "shock therapy" and advising Boris Yeltsin into economic oblivion, for the most part avoided speaking of the region and rather focused his attention on the uneven distribution of scientific know-how which, in his view, was preventing many of the world's most rampant diseases from being eradicated. He called for new global institutions to deal with the plight of the Third World, as current structures such as the IMF will not be able to remedy the humanitarian crisis underway there. As an economist, with his mind on money, he called for an easing of debt first and foremost.
Perhaps most relevant to Central and Eastern Europe was former Polish dissident Adam Michnik's speech, in which he spoke of the last decade as one of both achievement and difficulty for the region; a period in which old authoritarian troubles were replaced by new democratic and market perils. He said that the quick transition had left not only a disillusioned population but also a nostalgia for the imagined security of the old regime. Michnik also stressed what he sees as the breaking down of the traditional dichotomy between left and right, which has, at the end of the 20th century, been replaced by beliefs in either open or closed societies.
But the problem seemed to be that when speaking of Central and Eastern Europe, nobody focused on the future but rather chose to concentrate on the past. Like Michnik, who praised the changes of the last ten years, Timothy Garton Ash also reiterated ideas that have been in circulation for some time now. He spoke of the lessons learned from Central and Eastern Europe over the last ten years, such as the importance of civil society, universal human rights and firm and enforceable market regulations. One question left in my mind after Ash was done speaking, however, was what he meant when he declared the transitions not only "over" but a "great success" as well. After all, he did say in the introduction to his speech that "in a sense, all countries are in transition."
Back down in Mala Strana, still waiting for my tram to come, I wondered if any of these people had bothered to talk to somebody such as the Czech pensioner I was sharing a bench with. Was the transition "over" for him? Did he feel that the last ten years had been a "great success"?
Robert Young, 18 October 1999
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