In Czechoslovakia, Social Change Comes More Slowly than Political Change

BEN BARBER

August 23, 1992|By BEN BARBER

Brno, Czechoslovakia -- We were sitting in one of the new, private cafes in central Brno, discussing openly the things that we had whispered about in the past, before the 1989 velvet revolution: freedom, the government, the impending Slovak-Czech split into two states, the likelihood of democracy taking root.

But the bubble burst when I asked the waitress if the menu had anything beside meat on it, perhaps a salad. The response was a somewhat hostile "No! We never have salad." It seemed a flashback to the days of government-run restaurants, indifferent to the public.

This sparked a lecture by my companion, sociologist Ladislav Rabusic, who saw the tastefully-appointed cafe, with its quiet, .. smiling Czech patrons and salad-less menu, as proof that the path to a non-totalitarian future is to be a long and difficult one.

"You see the attitude of the waitress -- it reflects the basic problem of our country," said Dr. Rabusic. "There are hundreds of vendors of fresh vegetables every day in the main square below the cathedral now that it is summer. Yet no one thinks to add them to the old menus. Or even for the waitress to say that she'll suggest to the manager that they serve salad. If I wanted to make a success with this restaurant, I'd send someone out now to get vegetables for a customer."

After 40 years of socialism, "the whole society is in an adolescent stage, expecting decisions to be made by a parent -- the state," said Dr. Rabusic, a professor at Masaryk University here, who recently spent six months at the University of North Carolina.

"People need re-definition of the codes of behavior. And they are not aware of this. They just want prosperity. But they must first have a civic society -- the Protestant ethic. To know that each person's fate and the nation's fate are in his hands."

In Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia and other former Soviet-bloc countries, as well as Czechoslovakia, the challenge of ripping away the legacy of socialism and substituting what Dr. Rabusic calls "civic society" has created a panic, especially for the naturally conservative elements such as middle-aged parents and elderly retirees, frightened by unemployment and instability.

When told they must find jobs, housing, money and new skills, many react with nostalgia for the certainties of the past -- state control or even nationalism and anti-Semitism.

"It's not so easy to change the psychology or behavior of ordinary people," said Dr. Yveta Radichova, a sociologist at Bratislava's Komensky University in Slovakia. "People are still waiting for some hard hand or tutor or paternalism to solve their problem. They are waiting passively.

"We are in the process of teaching ourselves to speak openly and not to evaluate every dialogue as a conflict and not see everyone as an enemy. Our people are not ready for normal dialogue."

In the past, even the casual mention of forbidden names such as Alexander Dubcek, ousted by the Soviet invasion of 1968, or Thomas Masaryk, who founded the state in 1918 but rejected Communism, would cause people to turn pale with fear. If one of the hundreds of thousands of Communist informants overheard, could ruin one's career or chances to get a visa or college education for one's child.

This fear -- which some say is returning in Slovakia with the victory of nationalists in the June elections -- may continue to color the thoughts and actions of all who were brought up under socialism for decades.

"The education system must be changed -- elementary schools are terrifying," said Dr. Rabusic. "They are too authoritarian. These 40- and 50-year-old women teachers just want the class quiet. They don't want the kids to ask questions or think for themselves. They plant the idea that authority is always right."

Both Czechs and Slovaks voted in June for strong leaders -- capitalist Vaclav Klaus in the Czech lands and leftist Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia. The two agreed to divide the nation and lead each republic on its own economic and political path. But both oppose putting the separation issue to a referendum, knowing that the majority of Czechs and Slovaks in polls have opposed division.

Both Czechs and Slovaks told me that after the divorce, the two countries could continue economic relations and later rejoin in a confederation. And President Vaclav Havel, whose re-election was blocked by Slovak delegates to the federal assembly, said "If Czechoslovakia decides to split, then we should take it as an historic challenge to show that such an operation can be done peacefully . . . without civic conflict."

But there remains a real danger that totalitarian values will reappear when neither democracy nor having separate states can ease the painful shock of rising prices, reduced social programs, privatization and unemployment.

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