FOR Martin Palous, longtime dissident and current Deputy Foreign
Minister of Czechoslovakia, the mood of this moment in
post-communist Prague recalls the despair of the ancient Israelites
who, having fled Pharaoh, found themselves stranded in a
wilderness, yearning for the fleshpots of Egypt. "We're somewhere
in the middle of the Red Sea now," he says, "and everyone is
For Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's playwright-president, the
gentle revolution seems to have brought out the worst in his
countrymen - "an enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every
imaginable human vice.... Society has freed itself, true, but in
some ways it behaves worse than when it was in chains."
Two-and-a-half years after the revolution, euphoria has turned
to anxiety and anger. The ironies are extreme. In the
once-totalitarian East, the former communists have become the most
proficient capitalists, inheriting much of the wealth and influence
they formerly wielded. Familiar with the exercise of power, they
are well positioned to profit from the opportunities of buccaneer
capitalism. Meanwhile, most Czechs and Slovaks, outmaneuvered by
the new entrepreneurs and bewildered by the sudden necessity to
compete for what once was guaranteed, succumb to a politics of
blame and resentment.
The forthcoming parliamentary elections, June 5-6, threaten to
sunder the uncertain union between the Czech and Slovak republics.
In the Czech lands, Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, a Thatcherite
free-marketeer who has directed the country's rapid privatization,
seems likely to become prime minister of the Czech republic. In
Slovakia, Vladimir Meciar, a former communist who skillfully recast
himself as a Slovak nationalist, is expected to win. The clash is
of both ideology and personality, for while Mr. Klaus promises a
capitalism without constraints, Mr. Meciar pledges a return to the
old authoritarian social contract.
Between them is President Havel, seeking like a latter-day
Lincoln to hold the nation together against the polarizing
extremes. He retains great respect as a moral compass for the
nation: 90 percent of all Czechs and 66 percent of all Slovaks
approved of his performance in a recent poll, his highest rating
since the revolution. But the president is elected by parliamentary
vote, not popular mandate, and in the cauldron of animosities that
the Federal Assembly has become, he could fall to an alliance
between Slovak nationalists and anti-Havel Czechs.
Though it seems unlikely, would the country divide if Havel
resigns? Who else could bridge the chasms of culture and ideology?
Perhaps Alexander Dubcek, the reform communist who led 1968's
Prague Spring. …