Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency Prague is brimming with commerce, optimism and tourists two decades after the Velvet Revolution overthrew the communist government and brought dissident poet Vaclav Havel into the presidential palace. But some Czechs worry their once dynamic political culture is declining and active citizenship waning.
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Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency

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Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency

Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency

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This week, weve been looking at Eastern Europe 20 years after the fall of communism. Were hearing from people who lived through the revolutions of 1989. Consider Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. Its brimming now with commerce, optimism and tourists a couple of decades after the revolution that put dissident poet Vaclav Havel in the presidential palace.

These days though, some Czechs worry that their political culture is declining. NPRs Eric Westervelt looks at todays Czech Republic through one artists eyes.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ERIC WESTERVELT: Czech artist and provocateur David Cerny rose to notoriety shortly after the Velvet Revolution, when he was arrested one night for taking a paintbrush to a prominent Soviet World War II memorial of a tank in central Prague. Other Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague Spring democracy movement in 1968 and symbolized 40 years of communist repression. Cerny decided the memorial would look better in pink.

When you painted the tank pink, did you see yourself doing a political act as much as an artistic act, or not?

Mr. DAVID CERNY (Artist): It was probably like being, you know, pissed-off act, anger act.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WESTERVELT: At the time, though, I mean, did you think consequences like, this could still get me in trouble?

Mr. CERNY: If I'm doing something, I usually know that it might bring me to the trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERNY: That's probably the way of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WESTERVELT: Nearly 20 years later, Cerny's penchant for lampooning the establishment and getting into trouble hasn't waned. The country's conservative President Vaclav Klaus is a source of great embarrassment to some Czechs. President Klaus is anti-European Union and dismisses global warming as hysteria.

In a courtyard of Prague's Futura Gallery, you can climb 20 feet up a ladder and stare into two giant, sculpted fiberglass rectums as their weird, pointed bodies melt into a wall. Inside each giant buttock sculpture is a video screen of someone wearing a puppet-like mask of President Klaus gracefully spoon-feeding slop to the director of the Czech National Gallery, all to the sound of Queen's rock anthem.

(Soundbite of song, We Are The Champions)

QUEEN (Rock Band): (Singing) but Ive come through. We could go on and on and on and on. We are the champions, my friend.

Mr. CERNY: In terms of having such fun from the politicians during the communism, that was simply impossible. You would have ended up in jail immediately.

WESTERVELT: Cernys not simply making the most of the freedom of expression he was denied before 1989. His satirical sculptures resonate with many Czechs fed up with the countrys current political woes. Cerny decries what he calls mindless nationalism, petty squabbles and corruption in parliament and city hall.

Mr. CERNY: I said that piece was more or less very temporary, but its still, you know - the situation is still the same. And it looks that it will stay for a couple of years. A lot people who saw it think that it's universal.

WESTERVELT: Cerny is frustrated that just 20 years after the revolution, theres a sense of quiet complacency in his country. The consumer is king, he says, while former communists roam the halls of power.

Mr. CERNY: I don't want to sound like I would anyhow compare that before the end of communism, it was better. Uh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERNY: You know, that was hell. That was like hell. Hell. The skepticism which I have is about what we expected, or what we hoped for. And it's not really fulfilled.

WESTERVELT: What do you mean? Why? What do you see that - well, the euphoria is obviously gone, but do you feel like the dream

Mr. CERNY: I think we were stupid, but we thought the remains of the communism will be gone in 10 years. You know, like 10 years later and then we had still, you know, communists in government and their preferentions(ph) were actually growing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERNY: In the parliament, there is one guy who used to be in prison and torturing dissidents, and he sits in the parliament.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERNY: How the hell is this possible?

WESTERVELT: It's a frustration shared by many Czech writers and political thinkers. After the Velvet Revolution, the European Union and the U.S. helped the Czech Republic quickly install the machinery, the institutional structures of democracy. But some Czechs lament that the state-will-solve-it mentality is still prevalent.

Jiri Pehe is a Czech political commentator and director of the New York University program in Prague.

Mr. JIRI PEHE (Political Commentator, Director of New York University Program, Prague): Well, I think that 20 years after the fall of communism, we realize there is a big difference between democracy as a set of institutions - a sort of procedural democracy - and democracy understood as culture.

WESTERVELT: Pehe says its proved far harder and taken longer than hed hoped to get citizens more engaged in the deeper responsibilities of democratic citizenship, to energize people who, for 40 years, were used to being only inactive, passive citizens.

Mr. PEHE: Who were citizens only on paper, but otherwise, they were not allowed to exercise their citizenship, to turn them into active citizens, people who are willing to take up various causes, who are willing to organize themselves. And its not just organizations. Its also petitions, demonstrations, things of that sort, which I think the young generation here is increasingly getting involved with. And that's a hopeful sign.

WESTERVELT: I meet up with artist David Cerny and walk back across Pragues famous Charles Bridge, adeptly navigating the tourists. Cerny has convinced me to crash former President Vaclav Havels 73rd birthday party. The one-time dissident poet, a revered figure here and the country's first post-communist president, has been in ill health and isn't doing many interviews these days.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

WESTERVELT: I make my way across the crowded 10th century church thats been turned into a gorgeous concert and performance hall, enjoying the large crowd lined up to wish Havel happy birthday.

Happy birthday. Nice to meet you, sir.

Mr. VACLAV HAVEL (Former President, Czech Republic): Thank you, thank you.

WESTERVELT: And congratulations on 20 years of democracy, of vibrant democracy. The country has so much to be proud of, but what do you see as the biggest challenge ahead in the next 20 years?

Mr. HAVEL: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: I had hoped the country would be more humanistic and less materialistic by now, Havel says. And I'm still waiting.

Havels words linger as I leave the party and walk past Pragues Museum of Communism nearby. Its a private museum right next door to a McDonald's. Here you can view the tools of Soviet bloc repression amid the smell of Big Macs. A poster at the museum reads: We're above McDonald's and across from Benetton. Viva la imperialism.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, We Are The Champions)

QUEEN: (Singing) but Ive come through. We could go on and on and on and on. We are the champions, my friend.

INSKEEP: And tomorrow, our series takes us to Romania, where the revolution was not so peaceful. Its a country where corruption is still a big problem, and every public office seems to have a price tag.

Unidentified Woman: There were discussions on forums on the Internet, and the one guy was saying, okay. Now we know how much hes worth, the minister of agriculture. I would like to buy the minister of finance. How much would that be?

INSKEEP: That report comes tomorrow, as we look at Eastern Europe, 20 years on.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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