Czechs wince at capitalism's glare

In a country where light bulbs were once scarce, parliament is now trying to curb light pollution.

In 1992, I stepped off the train into a bleak landscape of coal smoke and concrete, lit by a few flickering streetlamps. Three years after the anticommunist Velvet Revolution, the narrow streets of Prague were still shadowed and gray. The few shops were stocked with rows of generic canned goods, and little fruit. Light bulbs were still hard to come by.

It's a bit ironic that 10 years on, Prague is so brightly lit that parliament is debating light pollution for the third year running. The urban glow is so high-wattage that city dwellers cannot discern even the brightest star's flicker.

Thanks to lobbying by a couple of popular astronomers, the Czech Republic became the first country to pass national light-pollution limitations in 2002. This year a stricter law is pending that would mandate dim, shielded streetlights and ban much of the new capitalist glitter.

Today, when visitors get off at Prague's main station, they are greeted by flashing casino lights, beaming billboards, and nightclubs shooting lasers into the sky. The razzle-dazzle and other trappings of capitalism have in fact become so familiar here that they have lost some of their gleam.

While most of their neighbors have struggled with the free market in fits and starts since 1989, the Czechs underwent a relatively smooth transition from a state-controlled economy to a diverse mix of local entrepreneurs and foreign investors. The country's economy has more than doubled in size, and industrial output has quadrupled. Today, most Czechs dress much like their Western European neighbors and even drive the same cars - although they tend to be used rather than new.

In the rosy glow after the Velvet Revolution, my Czech friends were delighted by the new openness of society, by the novel possibility of buying bananas without a bribe - or even a car, if you had the money.

There was excitement in the air, along with the nagging fear that it would all be taken away again. When I invited Czech friends to the US in 1994, they told me they had to see every national park immediately because the Iron Curtain would surely fall again and this would be their only chance.

As the 1990s unfolded, uncertainty persisted. There were plenty of bumps in the road - the cowboy capitalists who stripped privatized companies, the corrupt state officials and, not least, the breakup of the optimistic Czechoslovak federation. Although average household income has quadrupled since 1990, the cost of housing has risen sevenfold and unemployment has gone from near zero to 10 percent.

For many Czechs, the transition has been more like swapping one set of problems for another, rather than the salvation they envisioned. Now, Prague has to cope with huge traffic jams because its roads were not built for a society in which everyone can own a car. Strip malls are drawing shoppers away from the city center. Meanwhile, the old communist-era cement housing blocs are becoming ghettos for those who have not coped so well with capitalism.

Yet, the dim grayness has steadily lifted. The choking coal smoke that used to blanket everything in fine acrid dust is mostly gone. There is now more than enough electricity to go around, and the streets are no longer shadowy.

Most strikingly, the uncertainty which used to permeate Czech life has ebbed away. For about a year now, I have not heard people voice fears that the Soviet Army will return. The Czechs now take for granted that they are part of Europe, and, with the Czech Republic set to join the European Union next year, Western Europeans appear to reciprocate.

Now I often hear ordinary Germans and Britons here say, "Well, obviously the Czechs are just like us." Certainly, Czechs now have "normal" Western problems, like light pollution.

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