Czechs Meet Capitalism

February 09, 1992|By ELIZABETH POND

PRAGUE — Prague. -- "Czechs have forgotten how to be responsible, to work hard, and to take risks," says Josefa N. in her soft way. She is retired, a widow, a yoga exercise enthusiast, and as of this month a suspicious founding member of the first Czech Association of University Women -- suspicious because the association's pledge of solidarity with the world's women smacks too much of the old Communist ideology for her taste.

"But never mind," she adds, more hopefully, "we'll muddle through somehow."

She remembers personally the years in the 1930s when the Czechs were among the world's ten or 20 most productive countries. Precisely because of the contrast with that disciplined era, she is dubious about how well today's spoiled Czechs, after 40 Communist years of sloughing off and stealing from the state, will adapt to the more stern requirements of the new market economy.

She does grant that various tradesmen now work in the afternoons as well as the mornings, an unheard-of industriousness in the days prior to the "velvet revolution" of November 1989. And she observes that the East Germans too lost their work ethic over the past four decades, "so the Czechs are not the only idiots."

She also knows that the Czechs are better off than the Poles or Hungarians -- the country has relatively low foreign debt and inflation, German investments are pouring in, and Prague at least has only 2 percent unemployment -- in effecting the transition to a free market.

Josefa speaks sadly, but with a glint of dead-pan humor. She loves the city she has lived in for 50 years and the people who have roots here. She related the story of a young Czech her husband shared a prison cell with in the 1950s; the man fled the country as the Communists took over in 1948, then became homesick, returned and got caught. She understands that youth's fateful wish to see once more the Prague Castle crowning the city, and she regrets that none of the children of the emigres she knows ever wants to come back here to live.

With an unusually high pension of 3,200 crowns and a supplementary 1,860 crowns a month from teaching English part-time, she is relatively well off, above the average monthly wage of 3,500 to 4,000 crowns ($125-$143). Her rent has already gone up from 600 to 1,000 crowns ($36) a month and will go up again after the June election. This year her income tax will double to 30 percent. Some of her retired friends complain about the tax hike, but she assets, "I don't mind. I gladly pay for freedom."

So far she doesn't mind paying the other rising prices of the market economy either -- and she appreciates having her choice expanded from the old wilted carnations and wrinkled apples to include fresh irises and orchids and kiwis and pineapple. The cost of shoes is outrageous, however, and so many neighborhood shops are now being converted into tourist discos and boutiques and Slender You Figure Studios that all the dry cleaners have vanished.

Still, she is spared the vexation of an acquaintance who lives in the Letna district; there shoppers have to pay a crown more than in downtown Prague for every item, since restitution of Communist-confiscated property awarded all the grocery stores there to one owner, who now charges monopoly prices to captive local customers. Equally offensively, the friend in Letna also has to put up in her own building with the conversion of the old Czech-Soviet Friendship Society headquarters into a sex shop.

Josefa welcomes the return of Count Kolovrat and the Bata heirs and various other emigre capitalists to Czechoslovakia. The nonagenarian Count Kolovrat has reclaimed the building across the street from her, she explains, and although he is charging rents too high for any Czech to pay (except for patent lawyers), he is admirably lending a palace in another part of Prague to a theater for one crown a year for ten years, and letting an old people's home remain in a second palace of his under the same arrangement.

Bata, for its part, will shortly reopen a shoe store in its old property around the corner on Wenceslas Square and is advertising for persons up to the age of 30 to train as salespersons. It brings back a certain amount of Czech entrepreneurial pride; both its training program and the employee housing it built were exemplary in the 1920s, when it also pioneered a country-wide network of outlets. By the 1930s and 1940s its high-quality footwear was so well known that in one grisly tribute the Gestapo regularly identified Slovak Jews who had fled to Budapest to escape the Holocaust by their Bata shoes.

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