From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-nine

Diary notes, Sunday, 16 August 1992, the coming break-up of Czechoslovakia

Another extraordinarily interesting week gone by. Started in Cologne with the head-to-heads on Monday and staff meeting on Tuesday. Hanjo Lutz and I finally fly to Stuttgart and onward to Vienna, where the Bacigal brothers, our Service Partners in Czechoslovakia are waiting for us at 10.00 pm to take us the 40 minutes onward to Bratislava.

On this trip, Hanjo shows his talent. He is a pretty good judge of character and of human interaction. He is also a capable raconteur and has more than usual sophistication among my German colleagues. Knows a smattering of French as well as passable English.

The trip starts in Bratislava and then moves to Prague. Bratislava looks better and better, but what really can you expect of a town of 350,000?  The real eye-opener is Prague, which is undergoing a face-lift nearly everywhere. Facades are being repainted, interiors are being stripped. New, slick upmarket shops are filling in. Looks like the boom Budapest of 12 months ago. Probably ahead of Warsaw . And the tourists: the Old Town is swarming with them. Mainly on selected streets, very much as in Venice. Still more like Venice in the nationality:  hordes of Italians. Smattering of most everything else. Large numbers of American youth here, as the English language papers further confirm.

The Charles Bridge is an open air youth hostel. Boutiques carry unusual, specifically Czech handicrafts that are very appealing: glass, of course, but also a type of lace that passes for jewelry, wooden toys. Downtown buildings, theaters look glorious. When that dismal soot is covered by pastel colors on baroque facades, the effect is extraordinary.

Do I want to live here? Once upon a time, I would have. But now I don’t particularly feel an attachment. Better crazy old Petersburg. The Russian culture is somehow more sympathetic. Czech irony and black humor is more wearisome.

The Bacigals have created the CSPS for UPS as I had demanded. They have taken over new and very impressive office premises in Prague where only the UPS logo is featured. Mr. Jan Hojsak, the old Cechofracht manager who had been feeding us business is now appointed as station manager Prague.

The time is taken up with operational questions and also with advertising policy. On ops I find that Bacigal has not implemented the data procedures that were fully agreed. It turns out, yet again, that they are unhappy with what UPS wanted but never said a peep, only later voted with their feet. I get to the bottom of the matter and hopefully we have a working arrangement for manifests and key entry. Otherwise I am busy with McCann Erickson redoing our planned advertising program for October; stripping away high price television in favor of print media, negotiating the cost sharing with the Bacigals.

I am also busy with last preparations for the East Europe general partners’ meeting: inspecting the hotel and preparing the Bacigals for their part in the presentations. Per requirements of my management, there will be  no high culture, only gastronomy, beer drinking, a walking tour and bowling.

I don’t have much opportunity to brush up my Czech. Instead all our meetings are held in German, mainly for Hanjo’s benefit. By the end of the three days I am dreaming in broken German. God, what an exercise! As is often the case, I seek to dominate conversations so that I control the vocabulary. Hanjo takes my relative fluency for full comprehension and tends to leave me in the dust with his jokes and slang. The Bacigals’ German is far easier for me.

One evening I take Hanjo around the Old Town and across the Charles Bridge. He is enchanted and lost in thoughts over how he can find the occasion to take his wife down here. We stop for a beer (he) and a caloric dinner of duck and dumplings (me) on the Main Square.  Kids form arcs around flame eaters and folk singers. A hundred meters away, just past the Rathaus clock is the American Youth Hostel and Chicago Pizza outlet. The talk of the town is the recent opening of the second McDonalds in town, at the start of the Vaclavske namesti, just about opposite the Bata building. Otherwise, Wenceslas is overtaken by cheap whores and money changers. The vendors of Russian watches and matrioshkas still are doing business in the Old Town, but the caviar, which was cursed in the local media, has disappeared.

Billboards feature almost exclusively Western goods. Proctor and Gamble has invested heavily. The Skoda ads now run the line ‘member of the VW Group’. Mars bars are everywhere. M&Ms cover trams with their message.

The other concession to tourism during the stay is dinner at U Kalechu, the Schweik pub. How I had managed to miss this attraction over the years is a mystery, for I have twice been to the competing U Fleku. U Kalechu recently went private and Hojsak complains they are too commercial. Indeed, they try to please the tourist. An accordionist and tuba player decked out firstly in WWI costume, then in zany 20s outfits play restrained oompah music. Food is palatable. I go for old reliable: goose leg with kraut and dumplings. The brown beer is said to come from U Fleku and is wonderful as usual. Besides the flock of tourists from all over, including the Far East, there are some tables held down by natives.

One of my tasks is to see what the Bacigals expect by way of political evolution given the widely reported split of the Czecho-Slovak state in two on October 1st. Their view is there will be a customs union and possibly a currency union. I am particularly doubtful about the second, because it means continued setting of fiscal policy in Prague, and it is precisely that which has led to the Slovak secession. And regarding the customs union, it is difficult to see how that will help us.

The docs for registration of the Bacigals’ new company already show how the republics are drifting apart and each is shy of doing anything that will impact the other: the company is granted a license to operate only in Slovakia and will have to apply for a Czech license later. What I see is that goods we land in Bratislava will, at best, get a transit customs seal there and will have to be finally customs cleared in Prague.  This will change the entire system we have set up. We must now concentrate on getting a second port code for Prague so that we can do a split in Cologne can do a separate manifest to ease customs clearance.

The Bacigals are happy to talk politics. Both were partisans of Klaus’ economic reforms and anti-nationalist policies. Both were disappointed by the subsequent victory of Meciar in Slovakia and the move to split the country. They see blame, however, on the Czech as well as Slovak sides. First it is a mistake to say that the nationalists are closet Communists. The elections brought in only 0.8% votes for Communists in Slovakia compared to 14% for neo-leftists (ex-Communists) in the Czech lands.  Why? Because of the strong role of Catholicism in Slovakia compared to agnostic Bohemia/Moravia. Havel played into the hands of Slovak nationalists when he visited the rallies of extremists in Slovakia and gave exaggerated importance to the fringe people. There were tactical errors here. And now it is the Czechs more than the Slovaks who are pulling the federal republic to pieces. Of course, the Slovaks will be the big losers.

I take a look at my volume of Kennan’s Prague After Munich, 1939.  Just after the Munich pact. The Germans are moving into Prague. The Slovaks are calling for break-up of the unified state. Sense of déjà vu. Also I come back to reevaluate Kennan himself. Was he alone a coward? Or was it, is it diplomacy in general. These embassy personnel are reporters, not doers or decision makers. They are eunuchs by definition. What is disgusting is his flippancy about the misery of others. Very much like that December Harvard Club meeting in Brussels when the ambassador for the EC in Moscow Michael Emerson spoke of the helplessness of the world community in the face of the ongoing Bosnian/Yugoslav disgrace.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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