Czechs Still Reeling From Soviet Invasion of '68

Thirty years after tanks rolled into Prague, change to a free market economy remains difficult.

A giant communist-era statue of a Czech and a Soviet soldier standing side by side towers over Vsetin's main square.

Such outsized tributes used to be a common sight in the former Czechoslovakia, where officials were all too eager to stress the Soviet role in liberating their country from Nazi Germany.

Not anymore. Thirty years after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague on Aug. 21, 1968, to crush Alexander Dubcek's liberal reform movement, paying tribute to the Soviets has gone out of fashion. But the aftershocks of Moscow's 40-year domination continue to be felt.

The change from a state-run, centrally planned economy to a free market one has been difficult for the Czech Republic. And Vsetin, a blend of traditional housing and socialist apartment blocks nestled in a valley in the Beskydy mountains some 250 miles northeast of Prague, is a microcosm of the problems facing the new government in Prague.

By communist standards, the town used to enjoy reasonable prosperity on a mixture of tourism and industry.

The tourists used to come from East Germany. The local industry included an arms factory that dated back to the Hapsburg Empire and a glass factory that exported to Russia under the Communist bloc's free-trade agreement, Comecon.

Now the East Germans have become just Germans, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has allowed them to travel freely. The glass factory is shut down, the arms factory practically idle. Both were state enterprises and, with their markets gone, did not make the transition to private ownership.

An air of hopelessness hangs over Vsetin, and people like Jana Tomanova, a nursing supervisor in the local hospital, face economic hardship.

She holds the highest possible qualifications and is paid $220 per month. Her husband holds down three jobs to help pay bills for the family, which includes a daughter in high school and a son about to attend university.

While Ms. Tomanova values her new freedom, it has not brought a better life for many people in Vsetin. Unemployment has reached double digits; educated people are either not having children or having only one.

Silvie Janackova just retired from 40 years of teaching. She thinks the government is not paying enough attention to education. Starting salaries for teachers are about $112 per month.

Privatization's price

The result is that many are being lured away to work in the financial sector, or, if they know foreign languages, to work as translators at much better wages. She expects to be called in from retirement to fill in for the departed young teachers.

It's no surprise that northern Moravia, where Vsetin is located, voted in parliamentary elections last June for the Czech Social Democratic Party, which is perceived as left-wing. More prosperous areas like Prague voted for the Civic Democratic Party, led by Vaclav Klaus.

Neither party won enough seats to form a government alone. But despite ideological differences, Mr. Klaus's party agreed to give parliamentary support to the Social Democrats who formed the government. This left many voters disappointed. The Civic Democrats' support is reluctant: This week they walked out during a parliamentary confidence vote on the government's program. The abstention allowed the government to survive but showed disdain for the program.

Yet the need for politicians to work together has never been greater. The country's gross national product shrank by 0.9 percent in the first quarter of 1998, eliciting fears of a recession. The process of privatizing the economy - especially banks - needs to be completed, new laws are needed to regulate financial markets in order to attract more foreign capital, and the health and education systems are in need of reform.

Diminished clout

With people's attention riveted on how to survive under capitalism, the anniversary of the Soviet invasion is getting only spotty attention in the press.

Jiri Pehe, senior political adviser to President Vaclav Havel, says the invasion was a painful experience that many Czechs have not yet managed to cope with. "It was a very traumatic experience because of the 21 years of normalization that followed. It had a devastating effect on Czech political life," he says.

"We had perhaps 200 dissidents, rising to 1,000 before the fall of communism. The rest of society was totally conformist," he adds. "Meanwhile, the Hungarians and Poles were able to slowly liberalize and build a better base for a democratic society."

Most Czechs have moved on since the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe. Lucie Vopalenska, a musician in Prague and host of a national television panel aimed at young people, remembers life under communism. But her revolution was the one in 1989, when, in her late teens, she joined the students whose demonstration aided in the toppling of the Communist regime.

"Younger people think it was always like now," she says. "They forget that you couldn't travel, that there was nothing to buy, and that you had to be careful about what you said in public."

Not long after the edifice of Communist power crumbled in 1989, Czechoslovakia officially split in January 1993.

While the departure of Slovakia is rarely a subject of conversation in Prague, businessmen feel the country's clout has been reduced with its size. "We used to be a country of 15 million people. Some of our larger neighbors, like Poland and Austria, were afraid of our prowess," says Vladimir Zelezny, head of the Czech Republic's first private television network, TV Nova. "Now the Czechs are 10 million, the Slovaks are 5 million, and we are two small countries."

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