Sometimes, the best way to understand where you are is to go someplace else.
I spent the first half of October in Eastern Europe — visiting Prague, Budapest and Cracow.
They’re astonishing cities, with rich, complex and often terrible histories, in the midst of radical transformation.
Seventeen years ago, they were — almost overnight — released from bondage. Client states of the former Soviet Union, they were governed by corrupt, incompetent bureaucracies which imprisoned their foes, stifled innovation and pursued grotesquely delusional economic policies.
And suddenly, the spell was broken. The wicked witch of the east melted away, and the people of Eastern Europe emerged, blinking, into the sun.
The transition wasn’t easy. I spoke to one young woman while on the train between Budapest and Cracow, who described the problems during the first years of the post-Soviet era.
Imagine, she asked, what it must have felt like to be 50-something and see your whole world swept away — your skills deemed irrelevant, your pension valueless or non-existent, and basic necessities such as food, lodging and medicine suddenly out of reach.
“Many older people”, she said in perfect, unaccented English, “simply committed suicide. But things are much better now.”
And how did her life change?
“I was very young, but I realized that I could be whatever I wanted — I just had to work,” she said.
And that’s what she did — working to get through school, getting an advanced degree. Now a professor of environmental science at the university in Cracow, she was on her way home after a weekend in Vienna.
Would she ever want to return to the old system?
She looked at me in amazement.
“Of course not! Freedom, opportunity — no young person wants to give that up,” she said.
And after 16 years of freedom and opportunity, the changes in these three cities are powerfully evident.
In 1989, they were dingy and crumbling. Few tourists visited; the nighttime streets were dark and deserted; almost all enterprises were owned or controlled by the government.
And now? They’re lively, vibrant cities, beautiful and prosperous, jammed with visitors even in October, as delightful as Paris or London — and a lot cheaper.
The grim face of communism has been replaced by tolerant, entrepreneurial societies unencumbered by the dark past. In the Czech Republic, more than 80 percent of the economy is in private hands — up from less than 15 percent in 1989.
The chilly calculus of capitalism forced many state-owned enterprises out of business. Their bones, in the form of shuttered, rusting factories, are mouldering slowly away next to abandoned railroad sidings.
In Budapest, Mike, a former Denver resident working for an American multinational, talked about the changes.
“They need to go farther (with reform) — the government is still too bureaucratic, there’s still corruption, a lot of unnecessary regulation — but this place is amazing,” he said. “In 10, 15 years every building will be restored, the economy is just going to get better.”
But, Mike pointed out, we Americans need to set a better example of governmental efficiency.
“Can you believe that the embassy here has an American staff of 300?” he asked. “And every one of them has luxury housing — paid for by the American taxpayer. And the last ambassador was Bush’s cousin. Nice guy, but what qualifications did he have?”
Mike took us all around Budapest — to all the standard tourist attractions, to the new suburbs in the Buda Hills, where inventively ugly mini-mansions house Hungary’s newly rich, and, on a side trip to find school supplies for his daughters, to a newly built superstore on the outskirts of town.
The store, owned by the same German chain that out-competed Wal-Mart, was a lot like a Wal-Mart — just nicer. Bigger, better designed, better merchandise, better prices. No firearms, but a great wine selection. The parking lot was jammed, as was the store.
But despite booming economies and energized populations, these countries are not without problems.
In Budapest, we watched while 25,000 people attended a mass demonstration in historic Wenceslas Square, furious at the prime minister’s taped revelation that his government (as the Economist put it) “had lied, screwed up and done nothing.”
The demonstration, in contrast to one a few days earlier, was orderly, even festive. Street vendors sold food and political paraphernalia to the quiet, mostly middle-aged demonstrators. Organizers had set up a giant television screen along one of the side streets so that no one would miss any of the political harangues.
In Hungary, as in the Czech Republic and Poland, the idealistic, sometimes impractical, reform governments of a decade ago have been replaced by governments which would seem familiar to any Louisiana resident.
Ad hoc coalitions of former communists, influence peddlers, businessmen and small special interest parties rule all three, with sometimes comic-opera overtones.
Remember the brothers Long, Huey and Earl, who ran Louisiana for decades? How about Poland where the Kaczynski brothers, identical twins, serve as president and prime minister? Although unrelated to Ted, they’re not without their eccentricities — but, as the Economist helpfully notes, “the less batty one is prime minister.”
That’s democracy, warts and all — and the fact that pure-hearted idealists have been replaced by ordinary sleazy politicos might not be an entirely bad thing. It’s a time of shifting alliances, of ostensibly holier-than-thou politicians being clandestinely videotaped offering bribes for votes, of indignant newspaper editorials — sound familiar?
And, as newspapers in all three cities pointed out, there may be enormous political/economic problems during the coming years, if growth slows and skilled workers migrate to Western Europe.
All three countries have financed growth through deficit spending — fine when the economy’s expanding, not so fine when it slows.
But these are transient problems — painful, yet cyclical, and common to all capitalist democracies.
So what can we learn from these cities? They’ve learned from us, to quote once again from the Economist, “They are flourishing in a way that seemed hardly possible when they leapt to freedom in 1989.”
Most of us jeered when Donald Rumsfeld tactlessly distinguished “New Europe” from “Old Europe” — but maybe he was on to something.
No longer tied to the sclerotic ideologies of the past, these countries may be freer to innovate, to move into the future, than either Americans or Western Europeans.
To walk the streets of Prague, a transcendently beautiful city that escaped the destruction of the Second World War, is to be continually amazed. A single block, transported to Colorado Springs, would eclipse our entire city — and there are a thousand such blocks.
But the one block which best defined the new spirit of Eastern Europe was just a few hundred yards from Prague’s central square.
There, among a row of splendid 19th-century townhomes, stood “Fred and Ginger” — a pair of Frank Gehry-designed apartment buildings, twisting, sinuous, glass-sheathed forms that literally seemed to dance with each other while shimmering in the sunlight of a new century.
Schumpeter famously spoke about capitalism’s “creative destruction,” the process by which new enterprises rise and render obsolete their predecessors.
But what we see in Eastern Europe is “creative construction.” Introduce entrepreneurial capitalism and liberty into societies that have had neither for generations, and you’d better stand clear.
It’s an explosion, all right — but one which builds, which heals, which renews. You won’t be hit by flying debris, but you’d better be careful crossing the street — you might get run down by a Mercedes.
For whatever reason, everyone seems to be in a hurry.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.