|Prague: a city under siege?|
Two years after leaving Blighty for the delights of post-Communism Prague, UK film-maker Danny Holman reported back on the huge cultural upheavals taking place in the city.
report © Danny Holman 1996, photos by urban75
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There's a piece of sprayed graffiti on a wall in Prague Old Town, situated in-between flyposters to promote upcoming gigs by Sting and the Sex Pistols, which reads: "Destroyed Communism... now destroy power!"
The grammar may be a little off but the sentiment of this piece of agit-prop is spot on. The Nazi Scum may have been crushed and the Commie Pinkos may have been sent packing, but there is now a third invasion going on in the Czech Republic, something more subtle yet ultimately far more sinister and enduring.
Instead of Hitler or Stalin, this time it's Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse.
After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the population revelled in the fact that they'd finally got the freedom that they'd always wanted. They opened their arms to the West to embrace its political and economic ideals and the West duly rubbed it's hands together, it's greedy little eyes twinkling, and stepped right in.
Seven years since that pivotal moment, the dust is starting to settle and the Czechs are starting to have some idea of what they've let themselves in for. As happened during the Cold War, the actual picture of what is happening here is far different to the picture being painted by the media.
The seductive image of Prague as a new Paris of the 90's, attracting artists and poets to relish the rich atmosphere may have been true for a few rosy-eyed romantics but now it is a very strained concept. Most of the expatriates living in Prague now are hard nosed businessmen looking to exploit new markets.
The majority of Americans who moved to Prague after '89 were not budding Henry Millers but CIA operatives. The CIA wanted to make sure that Communism was dead and buried once and for all and therefore wasted no time in imposing their influence. All remnants of Communism had to be removed and the American line had to be strictly adhered to.
A classic piece of political history occurred when the newly elected Czech government came into power, buoyant with energy and optimism, and made the inspired choice of asking Frank Zappa to be cultural minister.
Frank accepted until the American embassy, probably lacking insight and a sense of humour, issued the ultimatum: "You either talk to Zappa or to us but not both." The Czechs, not wanting to displease their new partners, had to back down and this moment set the agenda from then on, demonstrating who wielded the real power in this new democracy.
The irony of the situation is that the government is made up of individuals who, under the Communist regime, were dissidents, vociferous rebels and "heroes of the people". Yet now in power, they have kicked back to the Right in an alarming knee-jerk reaction.
The Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, has a picture of Margaret Thatcher above his desk. Thatcher is a big favourite here and she is actually on the State pay-roll as a consultant to help set up the new government senate.
The Czech Republic and Prague in particular is undergoing a phenomenal redevelopment. Huge amounts of money are being pumped into renovating crumbling buildings, modernising the infrastructure and bringing it into line with other European countries. It all sounds great and is being heralded as a wonderful example of a country blossoming under the freedoms of capitalism.
However anyone with an inkling of economics knows that these things are not always as simple as they seem. Officially inflation doesn't exist and its under control. Yet ask anyone on the street that lives in Prague and they will tell you that prices are rising at something like 10-20% a year. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the massive influx of advertising for shiny new cars and ideal homes merely generates discontent and envy among the average population.
These are ideal breeding grounds for home-grown Fascism and the rising presence of skinhead gangs merely confirms this.
There are no clear-cut drug laws. The government hasn't got round to implementing any yet. This may be a paradise for the liberty-seeking recreational drug-user but its also proving a honeypot for drug dealers and the Mafia who are flourishing.
Czech kids have had a five year crash course introduction to drugs with little or no education about the effects or the dangers during which they barely knew the difference between a joint and smack. As a result, heroin is a BIG problem with many teenagers now addicted.
With the government threatening to pull the meagre drug counselling programme it has and the growing spectre of AIDS on the horizon, the future looks bleak. And then there is Ronald...
Prague is a stunningly beautiful city. Baroque and Art Deco architecture drips from the rooftops, mystery and magic ooze from the pores of every street, centuries of culture hangs heavy in the air.
But the march of the fast food chains doesn't give a fuck about all this. There are now 10 branches of McDonalds in Prague and one strategically placed on every major road going into the city. There are plans for 40 KFC outlets in the Czech Republic by the end of the year and Coca Cola and Pepsi signs are everywhere. It is impossible to evade their presence.
Now it's pretty easy to take a shot at the fast food giants in the West. They have set themselves up as the face of corporate ubiquity and they know that they will take some flak for that. But the scary thing here is that here, there has been no reaction of any note to this invasion.
The icons of the "Free West" are devoured without question, whether its baseball caps, Jim Carrey or bad food.
There is the potential for the Czech Republic to be a wonderful country. After '89 all laws were abolished to clean the slate so that they could be rebuilt from scratch. However the admirable goal of building a 21st century Utopia is certainly proving to be far more difficult than imagined. The Czechs are learning the hard way that to operate with the West on equal terms, you have to play by their rules and those rules are often pretty dirty. The battle is on.
Danny Holman abandoned the sinking ship of England two years ago
and is currently fighting the forces of evil in Prague. Mail him at :firstname.lastname@example.org
© Danny Holman 1996-99
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