18 November 1999 - Democracy not a quick-fix in former Soviet countries

18 November 1999 – Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of democracy in the Czech Republic, but prosperity promised by the West remains a fairy tale. No matter, Bush, Thatcher, Kohl and Gorbachev are in Prague celebrating the success of democracy, offering pats on the back to one another and select Czech leaders. Few of the 10 million Czech citizens joined in sipping the champagne.

At the “Ten Years After Conference,” officials and past officials talked of the need for foreign investment, along with the need for faith in the Czech Republic. The former Minister of Industry and Trade (Vladimir Dlouhy) even suggested foreign companies must have patience when investing in the Czech Republic. Time, he said, is a necessary investment in order to re-train the Communist mentality, still alive in many Czechs, like an incurable disease. I kept wondering, If companies are in business to make money, then why do they want to spend time teaching a country how to business. That is not good business.

Mostly, though, as we travel, instead of listening to chief executives and government officials tout official propaganda, I talk normal, average people, without hefty titles or incomes. Then, I hear tales of life, how things really are. Life is troublesome in the former Soviet republics, where few have prospered, and many people, young and old, yearn for the security of the old regime. Today, 18 percent of the Czech people would vote Communists back, says The International Herald Tribune. People admit they had few choices back then, but Prague citizens talk about having less prosperity now and not being able to afford the new, more abundant choices made possible through the past 10 years of democracy.

A 30-year-old man, who cut my hair, charged only 200 Czech crown, US$6.25, and told me the Czech nationalism is re-emerging as Czechs dislike foreign corporate intervention, even though this brings investment. Foreign owned means local companies are robbed, he explained. I have heard this rhetoric repeatedly. The former Soviets who watched “Dallas” on television had unreal expectations of democracy and now are unhappy when they cannot afford a car or worse a basic sweater.

A 40-year-old woman at the grocery store, who showed me how to use an old-fashioned scale, told me, “Yes, there are more options in this store now, but who can afford them?” The answer is not foreigners or tourists, since this market she ridiculed is geared to locals. I bought two bottles of Pellegrino sparkling water, three Chiquita bananas, two large handfuls of grapes and two medium grapefruits for US$3.79. Price this out at any local grocery and see how cheap things are in Czech, yet what we deem inexpensive is exorbitant to the majority here.

When I commented to a cobbler, stitching my worn belt and broken suitcase for less than US$2, that he should increase prices, he responded, “I have no customers then. Already they complain I go too high.” And two cab drivers, each charging less than US$4 for 10-and 15-minute trips, both said life was better before the revolution. One worked fewer hours back then, having more time for his family, and the other remembers having had plenty to eat, and asked me, “What good is democracy when few get rich and people do not have food?”

The main post office in Prague is a huge, sterile cement block, with many window stalls manned by old babushkas, but I lucked into one, where a pleasant, 20-something woman spoke beautiful English. She helped me send four large packages to the US for only US$20. During the process, she told me democracy has not lessened bureaucracy. “We have just as many rules, regulations and forms as when the Communists were in power. We will never be efficient,” she explained, complaining too about the lack of technology. A computer would almost eliminate the forms I signed in triplicate.

I do not stack the deck. I do not seek negative comments. Democracy is being blamed for everything wrong in this country. I longed to find someone, an ordinary person, thriving and flourishing. After six days in Prague, I finally met Irena, a 28-year-old woman working in a health club. Irena said her life is better. “We have freedom to do what we want. We make our own choices. We won’t go back.”

Vaclav Havel, the celebrated playwright who became the president of the Czech government, told his devoted followers a similar message. “The people of Czech need not fear Communism any more. What they must fear is their own belief in their ability to solve their own problems.” Havel, a star among the Western press for saying the right things, promised freedom and prosperity to his people, but his government has not delivered on solving their own problems. Privatization, which Westerners expected, has progressed painfully slow under Havel’s regime, and the European Union, which the Czech government vigorously courts for entry, just published a 90-page report admonishing the Czech government for not doing enough to encourage democracy to flourish.

At dinner a couple of nights ago with a Czech-born banker, I learned of an absurd case of government protectionism. One Czech car manufacturer produced nine cars in 1998 and the company expects to produce fewer this year. How can a country rationalize this kind of propped-up government company? Perhaps Havel and his followers want to keep unemployment (almost 9% nationally) at an acceptable level, but that does not make sense. How many employees does it take to build nine cars? Perhaps, they think – no, they could not – that this company will turn around. Or perhaps someone important in the government is involved or getting kick-backs from the factory, which would have gone belly up as soon as the Soviets left office if free markets had emerged.

But democracy does not mean free in every realm, Czechs are learning. The Soviet mentality did not disappear because a wall went down or people succeeded in a government topple. The minds of the people of the former Soviet Union have been shaped by a bygone era of government, supposedly, taking care of every need – work, education, property, healthcare and religion. If that means supporting an unprofitable company in order to supply jobs or solely because the government-owned company has been in business for 50 years, then let it be.

When I began this trip around the world and initially traveled through the Stans (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan) I decided that workers in the former Soviet Union were just plain lazy, as I saw a glaze in their eyes and a lack of drive in their strides. I heard no, or not possible, to every request or question I asked for months. I have sworn on several occasions that I could place a $5 note in front of these people and none would make the effort to pick up the hard currency. Now, after more traveling through former Soviet republics and two-and-a-half months in Russia and the Baltics, I admit I was wrong. Granted many lack a strong work ethic, but people are lazy in Rocky Mount, Rome and London. I have since decided the odds are against these people and they lack confidence in anything – government, God, and, most of all, themselves. The older ones are not wanted as employees, and ads in newspapers even read, “No one over 30 need apply”. The younger ones work long hours making miserable amounts that are sometimes held for weeks or months when the governments or states or companies run out of money. After a while, people lose hope. People lose ambition. People lose drive.

I do not have the answers. I struggle with how to solve the many problems I witness as we travel. The more I see of the world, the more I realize simple solutions do not exist. I am a keen believer in free markets and view protectionism as a Band-Aid for countries that lack competitiveness, but my black and white view of the world becomes grey when I look at the struggling former Soviet countries. Bulgaria and Romania, former Soviet strongholds, struggle to survive. Now, with open markets, cheaper Turkish goods flood their markets shoving locals into an unnoticed abyss. Food products and agricultural crops from other countries force local farmers into conditions where they are unable to sell their produce and cows. I begin to understand the resentment as I see, hear and live the reality.

Instead of expecting life to be one way, or my way, where everyone works hard and prospers, we, no I, must know things are not this simple. People lead lives based on complicated histories and distant beliefs, and I cannot impose my own notions on them. We in America want every country to flourish under democracy, but is this possible? Why is our way the right way? A visit through Yugoslavia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Kyrghyzstan, Turkmenistan, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia shows firsthand that our way is not working. Many of these countries are horribly corrupt pseudo- democracies, in name only, receiving billions of dollars from the West, insistent on steering all toward democracy.

If only there was champagne for all.