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Three years after filing his first Prague report for urban75, our resident Czech Republic writer and exiled Cardiff City fan, Danny Holman, comments on the 'globalization' of the city.
report © Danny Holman July 1999, photos by urban75
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a city under siege?
3 years further down the line and on the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, it is fair to say that the party is well and truly over.
The Czech Republic is quietly settling down into it's role as a C-League European country. With emancipation from communism has come assimilation into the mediocrity of a bland European 'superstore' where borders are blurring and culture, like everything else, is heading towards the mean average. In essence, Prague has become like every other European capital city- a bit poorer but with nicer architecture. Marks & Spencers, Dunkin Donuts, Benetton and Planet Hollywood form new jewels in the crown of the city centre and smaller independent shops are being forced out by the rising rent.
The lauded post '89 "Czech economic miracle" has ground to a halt with the realisation that the measures taken to ensure the swift transition from a state-run economy to a private one were short term at best. Foreign investment has dried up over lack of confidence and some hard economic action is having to be taken to sort out a deepening recession. The realities of a free market economy are being learnt quickly.
Recent elections resulted in a swing away from the right towards a more centre-left coalition (again following the European trend) which is too unstable to wield real power. The idealistic talk in '89 of a 'Third Way' - learning from the mistakes of the past and creating a new political system between socialism and capitalism have melted into the past. Even President Havel, the central icon of the Velvet Revolution, plagued by ill-health, is a shadow of the former figure he was. Outside of the Czech Republic, he is still portrayed as the 'hip, swinging, dissident playwright president'. Inside the country, where he is seen as a has-been figure who no longer has a grasp of the situation, his credibility is falling rapidly.
The 'Americanization of culture' continues apace but the shock impact has died down now. It has been accepted into the landscape so completely that nobody really bats an eye when a new fast food 'restaurant' opens. Indeed this culture has moved beyond America now. Late 20th century culture- with it's bright flashing lights, ubiquitous logos, homogeneous products and ever-reducing attention spans- is a multinational phenomenon that has now outgrown geographic boundaries. America still excels at it and leads the way but McDonalds and it's ilk is no longer American. It is global.
Noam Chomsky's predicted that the collapse of communism would lead to western countries treating the 'liberated' countries as third world territories- teeming with fresh markets to exploit and cheap resources to tap. The cigarette and alcohol companies haven't been slow off the mark to make their presence felt. Stifled by advertising and promotional restrictions in western countries, no such handicaps exist here and as a result, they are able to advertise wherever and to whoever they want. Marlboro Man adverts, not seen for over a decade in the west are shown in cinemas. Rave and club culture, currently enjoying a vibrantly optimistic period and spearheading the gradual reshaping of Czech youth culture, is sponsored unashamedly by cigarette and alcohol companies to unprecedented levels
It's not all doom and gloom. In respect to other post-communist countries, Czech Republic seems to have adapted better than most of it's neighbours to drastically new economic and political upheavals. Prague is still one of the most richly endowed cultural cities in the world. Theatre, art and music is still thriving. Unemployment is still low. The public transport system is still unnervingly cheap and efficient.
But there is no denying a pervading sense of regret that an opportunity was missed. Perhaps the bitterest pill revolves around the word 'freedom'. For decades the Czechs found motivation and purpose in the belief that perhaps one day, communism would go away and they would have their freedom back. Now it has gone and the freedom they so craved is here and all that has happened is that an old set of problems has been replaced by a new set. This time there is no liberating saviour around the corner to look forward to.
In a totalitarian state, words were precious, freedom of expression was precious- it was something that everyone cared about intensely because when something is taken away, that is when you realise it's true value. Now that everything is available, they have lost their value. Words are just advertising soundbites, lost in the fast-forwarding MTV apocalypse culture. And that is a heavy price to pay.
© Danny Holman 1999
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