Vol 0, No 27
30 March 1999
C Z E C H R E P U B L I C :
I visited the small town in the Czech Republic where I once lived for a couple years in the early 1990s and got to catch up with some old friends. Unfortunately, they relayed to me a great deal of bad news. It seems our Czech friends are rather depressed of late, and they have some pretty good reasons why. Of course, it was a week like few others.
Many of my conversations centred around the war in Yugoslavia. While Czech politicians on the national level debated to what degree to support the NATO bombardment of Serbia, I found most normal people simply worried that the war could spread. It is less than 500km to Serbia from the Czech Republic.
People condemned Milosevic and his treatment of the Kosovars (and Bosnians before), but they failed to see what clear goal the Allies had in mind. Without a clear goal, the bombing was judged to be potentially destabilising to the region. Bombing someone to the negotiating table seemed unrealistic, and many thought that NATO was only helping Milosevic's image within Serbia. People were also worried about Russia entering the conflict: "After all, what have the Russians got to lose these days?"
The people I spoke with were amazed that after only two weeks of its entry into NATO, the Czech Republic had enemies in the world. Politicians' attempts to comfort the population with declarations that the country was not at war were not believed. People knew that Yugoslavia had declared war on NATO and that the Czech Republic was a member of that Alliance.
One healthy aspect of the whole affair was people's attitude toward the media. No one believes anything they read in the papers or watch on TV. "In war-time, everyone lies," was the lesson several had learned from their grandparents.
This is not to say that people are hoarding food in expectation of an invasion. That would be a gross exaggeration. No one has adopted a war-time mentality just yet. But they are now worried that they might have to.
Another topic that came up quite often was the outrageous behaviour of certain bank CEOs. "These people have been ruining their banks, they are forced out of their positions because of their mismanagement and yet, they are still getting large parachute pay packets (odchodne)," I heard on several occasions. "I just can't imagine the kind of money these people are getting for doing a bad job."
The local economy of the small town I visited is nothing to get excited about these days, and this formed another common topic of conversation. Agriculture has been particularly hard hit. Producers cannot cover their costs, and for the first time since anyone can remember, excellent pieces of farmland are not being sown this spring, because their owners cannot afford seed or cannot afford to sow given the current projected price for their produce.
Local firms that have been successful for years suddenly have no orders and are laying off workers. People worry that the main factory might close down, and in this one-factory town that would spell the economic end of the area.
Several local businesses were closed down after their owners ran off with the money they borrowed from the bank. Those loans are looking more and more like political gifts channelled through state-owned banks after lobbying by local party politicians at their party central organs.
Even if there were no legal wrangles surrounding those properties, no one could buy them, as the banks are now making up for their irresponsible lending in the past with impossible lending conditions today. One notably empty building, a hotel, stands on the town's main square like a monument to corruption and failed privatisation.
Everyone now knows all too well what various experts controversially said years ago about the country's false privatisation and about the lack of real restructuring. One person told me wisely: "I don't know what will happen next in this society. In 1990 and 1991, everyone was prepared to suffer for a while and wait until things got better. We knew we had to sacrifice, and we were willing and ready to do it. Now, no one is ready to face that kind of disruption to his life. We lived too well for too long, without saving and without investing for the future. Now, no one is willing to undergo the kind of sacrifice that true restructuring would bring. If we only did it at the beginning like the Poles and Hungarians..."
A friend of ours met us and described a disturbing scene he had witnessed that afternoon. He was with his girlfriend in a pub in the district town of Havlickuv Brod. While they were sitting there, a group of Skinheads walked in and started harassing a Vietnamese customer. They started beating the Vietnamese man violently, and a larger fight followed. Our friend apparently kept low but still almost got a fist as well. The Vietnamese man, vastly outnumbered, got the worst of it and was covered in blood. The Skinheads left before actually killing anyone, and no one called the police. There is the feeling that the police wouldn't do anything even if they were called, and no one would dare to make a formal complaint for fear of reprisals from the Skinheads. The Skinheads are thus already stronger than the law.
Compacted into a few days, my visit was a quick overview of all the problems the country is now facing: public uncertainty in the shadow of a possibly wider war in the region, economic collapse bringing rising unemployment and random racist violence.
Although I should emphasise that my brief visit is not a sociological survey, I do not think that what I saw was completely out of the ordinary. Having known for seven years the families I spoke with, I am amazed at the wide-spread depression I witnessed this time. No one sees anything positive on the horizon. People are happy just to have some work this month and maybe for the next two months, but no one is looking much beyond that.
Andrew Stroehlein, 30 March 1999
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