Mixed feelings

Old habits make it a struggle for Czechs to succeed in their first attempt at true democracy

“I’m from the Prague 1 district office and I’m looking for Mr. Stransky!” announced the portly woman to my secretary, waving a badge in the air. My secretary, long schooled to protect me against frontal bureaucratic attacks at all costs, gingerly closed the door to my office with her leg, put on her professional smile, and asked, “And to what do we owe this visit?” “Why, it’s his birthday of course!” came the reply, wherein the matron dug deep into the rucksack on her back and – just like Santa Claus – produced a beautifully wrapped gift. In it were three different ground coffees, three boxes of cookies, four chocolates (not counting a box of cherry bonbons) and a box of dried chocolate milk. There was even a coffee filter. So we decided to call the Prague 1 district office. It seems that Prague 3 similarly congratulates its citizens on reaching their 70th birthdays as part of a program that dates back to communist times. The average number of people so honored each year is about 2,000. Their reactions are extremely positive, especially if they live alone. We weren’t told how much the program costs, but with the modest estimate of 250 Kc (dollar 6.58) a package (not including time, labor and delivery), the yearly budget comes to about 500,000 Kc (dollar 13,200). The incident left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, this is a wonderful gesture. On the other, it’s taking 500,000 Kc from our taxpaying pockets each year; 5 million Kc in 10 years, not including interest. In any case, central planning is always full of flaws: The package was not even for me, but for my uncle, who had long since moved to southern France.

Setting priorities

That evening, I watched an upbeat story on the news: In a small, outlying Czech hospital, the department of surgery achieved such good results that it was invited to participate in a program of live video interactive conferences with elite departments of surgery throughout the world. However, our hospital’s participation isn’t funded by Czech crowns, but by Western euros. And so again, mixed feelings. After dinner, I took Vasek, my golden retriever, out for his walk. We stopped off at a local tavern. As is the habit of all Czech service establishments, my dog got a bowl of water before my presence was even acknowledged, never mind getting my beer. The atmosphere became progressively lively, and a group of regulars suddenly appeared, angrily pointing out that my dog had been cooped up and without fresh air for almost an hour. The fact that it was they who were smoking like chimneys didn’t seem to bother them at all. On top of that, the slowness of my exit almost elicited a swift kick from one. “If Czechs only treated each other as well as they do their animals,” said my American friend who was with me. And so again, mixed feelings.

Learning democracy

Czechs are in a period of enormous transition. The path of change is leading us through a process of reconciliation with a brutal and maladaptive past, one which has created the enormously complex shades that color Czech society today. Those forces can at least partially be traced to a past that centers on a survival strategy of adopting the path of least resistance, a strategy forced on a country located in a turbulent historical, cultural and geographic intersection of Central Europe. It is a past that starts with a defeat of the Czechs at the battle of White Mountain in 1620 and ends with two even more crushing defeats: one in 1938 when the world turned its back on the Czechs, giving the nation to Hitler in the Munich agreement, and the other in 1968, when the muzzles of Russian tanks snuffed out the Prague Spring. Our past doesn’t really include democracy. The new and free Czechoslovakia of 1918 was in many ways post -Habsburgian in nature and character, with democracy’s development being cut off just 20 years later. It is a past that includes 40 years under communism, with brother turning against brother. With the nation falling apart, its citizens retreated into their inner sanctums of family, self and a cottage mentality. It is a past that has resulted in a lack of faith and cynicism regarding officials and institutions. Most importantly, it has created a fatal absence of the belief that a higher order does indeed exist. At the same time, these very forces have led to a compensatory emergence of incredible individual resourcefulness and to overflowing intellectual and cultural talent in virtually all fields. For it is in the areas that Czechs don’t feel threatened that they seem to thrive the best: sitting in the local hospoda, controlling a hockey puck or a soccer ball, leading a symphony, writing a play or a book. Ten years after the fall of communism, the Czech nation is still post-communist, still very far from being democratic. Some say that the search for identity and the development of democracy will now begin. However, freedom is far simpler to acquire than is true democracy. A pointed question thus emerges: Is there an understanding of just what goes into developing and maintaining a democracy, and will there be a necessary change in some deep -seated character traits to get us there? Not yet. Not only hasn’t enough time elapsed, but Czechs might in fact prefer today’s state of affairs. On the one hand there is freedom; on the other, today’s top-heavy semi-capitalist state continues to provide socialist securities. True, there’s a lot of complaining, but there always was, with the result always being the same. It is exactly what Czechs are used to. So, all of the misplaced and inappropriate statements and habits that make this nation and its people both exasperating and admirable shall continue, at least for a while.

– The writer is a physician and publisher of Pritomnost (published in English as The New Presence).


The Prague Post5.7.2000

My priority is that patients recieve
and have access to the best care possible.