The new Prague: A city Clinton will hardly know CLINTON IN EUROPE

January 11, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE -- The last time Bill Clinton visited the Czech capital, relief for a Big Mac attack would have been hundreds of miles away. Now it's just around the corner.

The arrival of the Golden Arches is only one small sign of the shock wave of change that has shaken this city since the "Velvet Revolution" four years ago, and since Mr. Clinton visited here as a student 24 years ago.

When the president touches down today for meetings with East European leaders, he will see a city that has transformed itself almost beyond recognition since the end of communism in the region in 1989.

Gone are many of the smoke-filled pubs where surly waiters refused to serve clients without a hefty up-front tip; gone are the dreary storefronts where clerks specialized in service with a scowl; gone is the constant concern that your neighbor, colleague or even spouse might be informing the secret police about you.

These days, the city center glows with new electronics stores, boutiques and posh restaurants. High-powered Mercedes and BMWs edge out Czech-built Skodas and East German Trabants in the streets. The facades of the city's countless historic buildings have been spruced up and repainted in near-constant renovation.

And -- not least important for the U.S. president -- McDonald's has opened four restaurants, one of them a two-minute jog from the Atrium Hotel, where Mr. Clinton and his entourage have reserved more than 700 rooms.

Of course, the circumstances of Mr. Clinton's visit as president are a far cry from those of his last stay in Prague in January 1970, when he spent six days here. Unable to find one room -- let alone 700 -- in any hotel, Mr. Clinton stayed with the family of a Czech student he had met while studying at Oxford University in Britain.

This week, Mr. Clinton will be escorted by President Vaclav Havel and will meet with the presidents and prime ministers of Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.

Part of his tour will take him across the 600-year-old Charles Bridge, on which souvenir vendors, painters and musicians generally ply their trade. But they won't be there for the president; they have been cleared away for the duration.

From a relatively unknown backwater even five years ago, Prague has grown to one of Europe's top tourist destinations. Estimates of the number of visitors last year stretch into the tens of millions -- a huge number for a city of just 1.2 million inhabitants.

The changes, however, haven't come without cost. Certainly, almost everyone is pleased that the police state has passed away. And most are happy that service these days is more likely to come with a smile than a scowl.

But gone, too, is the social safety net that guaranteed Czechs a job, a bed and adequate food from cradle to grave. Not far from the Charles Bridge, Mr. Clinton might find hundreds of prostitutes working the streets to feed their families. Or he could stop by the city's main railroad station, which is scheduled to be disinfected this week because of an outbreak of hepatitis among the scores of homeless who sleep there every night.

When Mr. Clinton visits the department store that was renamed Kmart after the U.S. retailing giant bought it last year, he might notice that the prices on many items are as high as or higher than those in Western Europe, even though the average salary in the Czech Republic is only about $200 per month.

Nonetheless, few here long for the old days. Of all the countries in Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic is the least likely to see a communist backlash. The coalition government, headed by conservative Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, may be the most secure in the region, with a solid majority in parliament and a mandate that lasts another two years.

With a sweeping privatization program that has made shareholders out of nearly three-fourths of all adults, the Czech Republic appears to be the most stable economy in Eastern Europe and has become the hot spot for foreign investment in the region.

Volkswagen has bought a share of the local automaker, Skoda; Philip Morris has a controlling interest in the cigarette maker, Tabak a.s.; Kmart owns six stores here; Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken are scheduled to open this year; and McDonald's is planning an ambitious expansion program throughout the country.

So the next time Mr. Clinton visits, he may not even have to jog two minutes to relieve any Big Mac attack.

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