PRAGUE — Arriving in Prague’s Vaclav Havel airport, one is immediately swept into the present; not just a refurbished terminal but a new look where people actually smile, immigration officials don’t grimace, and police speed about on segways.
The post-communist transformation emerges wider in driving from the airport into Prague. This former Ladaland of exhaust belching Russian cars and retro-Skodas, and is now a congested traffic jam where streetcar-trams, Mercedes, new Skodas, and Audis vie for space and place.
Welcome to Golden Prague now nearly a quarter century since its liberation from the Soviet stranglehold in 1989!
Having been to the Czech Republic just after the opening and once later, the changes are now stunningly obvious; Prague’s magnificent baroque and Art Nouveau architecture once grey and worn, has been scrubbed and buffed. After all, pollution, slipshod new construction and sloppy standards were all an intrinsic part of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic as much as the government’s unswerving allegiance to Big Brother back in Moscow.
Today Prague’s landmark buildings mostly glisten, churches are repaired and open, and the magnificent Castle/St. Vitas Cathedral which overlooks the city helps evoke the name Golden Prague.
New shops and restaurants abound. Fashion stores seen in New York, Paris and Los Angeles all have their outlets in Prague, though commercialization in some places such as the central Wenceslaus Square sadly borders on garish while most other parts of the historic Czech capital present architectural gems.
So has the Czech Republic re-joined history as I once confidently postulated twenty years ago? In other words, have the Czechs (former Czechoslovakia until the velvet divorce in 1993), regained the positions they once had until 1938 when a prosperous and politically democratic country was first “annexed” by Nazi Germany land later “liberated” by the Soviets? Has one of Europe’s more advanced countries before WWII, with developed auto, aviation and machine tool industries, regained its position and place in the world of the 21st century? Largely so, for the Czech Republic’s 10.5 million people.
Following the 1989 “velvet revolution” where dissident playwright Vaclav Havel brought democracy to old Czechoslovakia, the political discourse at first experienced a gush of freedom and liberty. Naturally politics matured and governments of the center right and center left have since ebbed and flowed through free elections. Sadly recent political developments have lapsed into laughable and lamentable corruption scandals worthy of a P J O’Rourke novel.
Significantly both the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well are respected members of the European Union (EU) and NATO, thus offering the Prague government the ultimate insurance policy; membership in a democratic Europe as well as security guaranteed by the Atlantic Alliance. Who would have imagined that this once stalwart member of the old Soviet bloc, would today be a staunch friend of the USA and a supporter of global human rights from Cuba to Tibet?
Economically the Czech Republic has prospered under freedom with one of Central Europe’s strongest and sophisticated economies. Since 1993, over $100 billion in direct foreign investment has flowed into the country. Firms like Hyundai, Toyota and VW are in the flourishing automotive sector which now produces one million passenger cars annually.
Naturally the global recession has taken its toll with GDP growth rates now anemic.
East Asian investment plays a prominent role with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan companies among those in the auto, electronics, and the computer sector.
American business is strongly represented with the who’s who of U.S. firms based and operating in the Czech Republic. Importantly, two-way U.S./Czech trade has surged too from about $500 million in 1993 to $5.7 billion in 2012.
In recent years, American college students and British lager louts have turned Prague into a party hub for fun and frolic, largely attracted by the amazingly good Czech beers and affordable lifestyle. Though seemingly less interested in the architectural wonders which abound, they are attracted by an open Bohemian atmosphere which was simply unimaginable as late as the 1980’s.
Viewing Prague through the golden haze of history has its drawbacks. Despite good times today, the city and country has undergone a social and political trauma which only ended a generation ago. This nightmare seems nearly forgotten or unknown especially by the younger generation. Still, the Czechs seem back in stride and have proudly regained their place in a free Europe.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.