All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Puppets and Freedom in Czechoslovakia

Doug Reardon is an American journalist based in Czechoslovakia.

Alicia Souckova had a modest request to make when she marched through the impersonal hallways of the once all-powerful national committee of Prague’s fifth district.

Little more than a year had passed since the revolution that ousted the Communist overseers of her country. For four decades their totalitarian state had dulled individuality and initiative, while alcohol sales helped deaden the system’s failures. Those who still tried to rebel in 1968 had been crushed by Russian tanks.

The Communists’ government and ideology had pervaded and attempted to control every aspect of Alicia’s life. The national committee, the local state organ of self-serving party hacks and misdirected ideologues, had dictated where she could live with her daughter, when she could hope to have a telephone, and even what she could do for work.

Scarcely a year had passed since anyone who spoke out for freedom faced imprisonment, when Alicia resolutely appeared before the national committee in 1990.

Her request was modest. “I told them,” Alicia smiled recently, “I want to make puppets.”

Puppets. Three-headed green dragons, witches, and princesses.

If Alicia’s request to the committee seems quaint, reflect also upon the courage required of her simply to declare her own freedom.

The 26-year-old is a divorced mother who supports her 6-year-old daughter by herself. Alicia had a job in one of the innumerable state planning bureaucracies, a job where attendance was about the only requirement to receive her monthly salary. Yet she was determined to quit, to end dependence on the state and risk starting her own business making puppets.

And in many ways, Alicia’s experiences are illustrative of the profound changes, perils, and future in Czechoslovakia. For in her dreams of selling puppets, one can see the struggles of a nation coming to terms with freedom.

The tentacles of totalitarian government extended deep into society in the decades that passed after the Communists seized power in 1948. But the interim government of democratic parties that took power after the so-called Velvet Revolution in November 1989 has begun to uproot the inefficient and corrupt organism created by the Communists. Under President Vaclav Havel, a Czech playwright and former dissident, the temporary government has pledged to establish a democratic constitutional government and to create a fundamentally free market economy.

Government’s role remains far from limited in scope. Alicia still had to seek the approval of the national committee to begin her enterprise in 1990, and the committee continues to regulate a great deal (rents, allocation of flats, local public health care, etc.).

However, great progress has been made in curtailing the state’s interference in people’s lives. In the case of Alicia’s business, the state committee’s role was reduced to the collection of a fee to issue her a permit rather than the power to ban activity altogether.

Moreover, a great deal of attention is being paid to repairing the damage wrought on the country by the Communists’ disrespect for private property. As elsewhere in the world, after the Communists gained power, they used state organs, police, courts, the legislature, and often brute force in the orchestrated theft of property. Further, the state denied citizens even their right to own property beyond the most basic commodities.

Prague bears witness to the disrepair and misuse of resources that inevitably result when people have only an indirect stake in their living quarters, and property has no correlation to value. Once beautiful single:family homes and elaborate buildings predating the Communist seizures are now run-down, battered, and sadly haunting. There is a cobbler, who earns less than $200 a month, occupying a state-owned store on Wenceslaus Square, the heart of a capital city with 1.2 million people. While the cobbler fiddles about on the valuable piece of prime real estate,, nearby hotels, which rent rooms for nearly $200 each night, are turning away customers for lack of space.

Fortunately, significant reforms are taking place to restore the bulwark of private property to society. Every week since January 1991 there have been auctions where individuals can bid for hundreds of small businesses and shops now owned by the state. The auctions soon will be increased to twice a week, and eventually every day, as the privatization process picks up speed. Soon large scale state-owned firms also will be put on the auction block, and the bidding opened to foreign firms. The country also has embarked on the complicated and trying task of restoring to the rightful owners the property seized by the Communists after 1948.

Despite noteworthy efforts, there are ominous clouds threatening. The mandate of President Havel’s interim government runs out this spring. The political prospects for the economic reforms are not clear. It is against these foreboding skies that tales of individual initiative, like Alicia’s puppet business, shine forth with promise of a bright future.

Fear of accepting responsibility is one of the gravest legacies of the pervasive state control oflife for two generations. Suddenly freed, many Czechoslovaks now are afraid to act as free men and women.

“They are deformed,” Alicia said.

“Before people could just stay at their desks, and they always would have a job,” she pointed out. “They don’t have ideas. They know only to wait for what the government will say to them.”

All but echoing Alicia’s words, Vaclav Stevko, the union leader in a Czechoslovak arms factory, said in a recent interview, “We are willing to close down the defense industry . . . [but] somebody has to say what we shall do instead.”

The defense industry exemplifies the quagmire of structural economic weakness and human dependency caused by the state. This legacy now threatens to slow down the transformation to a market economy and even to split the country.

Utterly impervious to the marketplace, Czechoslovakia’s heavy industry was built up in the eastern, Slovak, region primarily to serve the Red Army and Warsaw Pact military alliance. Other industries developed in a similar fashion, namely, shielded from competition and driven by the whim of central planners.

Opposition to Reform

The economic reforms now pushed by the finance minister of the federal government, Vaclav Klaus, would force industries to stand on their feet in the marketplace. But there is considerable opposition to these reforms, especially in Slovakia. For example, Slovak officials estimate as many as 80,000 people would lose their jobs if arms production were to cease without a replacement.

Some politicians exploit fears of unemployment caused by the market-oriented reforms and rally Slovak nationalist sentiments for their own political gain, according to Vasil Hudak, a Czech specialist in political affairs at the institute for East West Security Studies in Prague. Firebrand Slovak politicians like Vladimir Meciar have garnered substantial popular support by calling for greater independence from the federal government, even possible secession for the Slovak Republic, and by pledging to slow down the reforms. Meciar further promises to maintain a “social safety net” of income, housing, and health guarantees.

Decades of conditioning people to be dependents of the state are hard to overcome. Yet there is much to be optimistic about when people like Alicia have thrown off the yoke and declined the sugar cube of dependence on the state.

“It was quite hard in the beginning because it wasn’t sure,” said Alicia.

She reports the puppet business now is going great guns. In a week, she can make enough puppets in her home to sell in shops and earn twice her former monthly salary at her old job in the bureaucracy. Recently she hired an employee to help her on a part-time basis.

“Now everyone is afraid . . . they must change,” she said while tying red ribbons around one of the necks on her smiling green dragons.

“But I like this,” she said, adding with some pride, “I’m an entrepreneur.”

Of course, puppets won’t solve all of Czechoslovakia’s problems. But the spirit of enterprise, of freedom, and of independence which can solve these problems, does exist. People like Alicia already are cutting the strings.