20 days to 20 years

By November 2, 2009Article, Atlantic Eye

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Nov. 2 (UPI) — On Nov. 17, 1989, students all over Czechoslovakia demonstrated against the Communist regime.

On the afternoon of Nov. 18, the Prague theater community decided to back the students. Vaclav Havel, out of Prague for the weekend, hurried back when he heard about the meeting at the Realist Theater in Smichov — a part of Prague.

On Nov. 19, in another Prague theater, the Cinoherni klub, Obcanske Forum — Civic Forum — was founded by Havel and the dissidents.

On Nov. 21 the Communist regime represented by Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec met with leaders of Civic Forum — but refused to meet with Havel.

The Velvet Revolution was in full swing.

I have been sitting in a local pub in Mala Strana with a deputy mayor of Cesky Brod, his brother — formerly my student and now a Czech intelligence officer — and a colleague from the Defense Ministry. None have time for the Communists. All come from families who opposed the Communist regime.

The discussion focuses on what has changed in 20 years. Emotions run high. We are all concerned that corruption is much too prevalent and that too few of the former regime have been punished. In fact, virtually none have been punished. We are all disgusted by this fact.

As if to add insult to the moment, President Klaus — the Communist apologist president — has the last days awarded one of the Czech Republic’s highest honors to crooner Karel Gott, formerly a national artist under the Communist regime — it means he was a Communist tool. Gott is quoted in a leading Czech daily as saying, “I was a troubadour. Troubadours serve various courts. And Husak’s court was far from being one of the worst.” Gustav Husak was the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and president of the Communist Republic. Ah, yes, well done President Klaus. Thank you for proving my point.

I remember sitting with Alan Levy, one of the founders of the Prague Post, in the early ’90s. Alan had worked for The New York Times in the ’70s and was thrown out of Czechoslovakia by the Communist regime. The Prague Post was a good weekly at the time; it has become a pathetic shadow of its former self run by wannabes.

Alan would be embarrassed by what his legacy and hard work have become. Alan, a fatherly figure, and I would talk often about what things will look like in 20 years. He used to say, “Marc, you will not like what things look like. Justice will come much too slow.” Alan — my old friend and a great anti-Communist journalist who died some years ago — you were right.

Far too few of the former regime have been punished. Many accompany high management positions supported by Western companies through ignorance or complicity. Czechs are a good lot, but they are far too prepared to ignore the past and look the other way.

In the Czech pub tonight this was one of the main issues. A people with a great culture, history and language looking the other way. Or as in Czechoslovakia, becoming the largest Communist Party after Russia because it was easier to join and ride the low tide than resist.

All this makes the actions of those who did resist even more honorable.

Even today, few want to confront the legacy of the past.

A superficial attempt at a glossy Prague Leaders’ Magazine, run by Swede Benke Aikell, sees no problem in celebrating former members of the secret police, corrupt business people and former members of the Communist Party on its pages. “I need to make money,” he said when I approached him about it. So, I invite all former apparatchiks to contact Aikell, because folks if you pay him, he will almost certainly print your glossy photos. Buy a page, or two or three. Bravo.

Folks like Aikell and his ilk are enablers. They care nothing about the crimes of the past. They care nothing about those who were put in jail. They care nothing about how those they celebrate earn, or earned, their money. They certainly do not care about the example they set for a young generation. Of course when a society is rife with former members of the Communist regime at all levels, it is easy to get them to support each other and present a revisionist history that they sell to ignorant non-Czechs.

It is simply not OK to sit and watch as former apparatchiks all over Central Europe take control of vast sectors of the economy with huge resources of mostly questionable origin.

Twenty years after the fall of communism we must be just as vigilant as during the underground days. We should be enabling those who fought the regimes, not their tormentors and supporters.

I did not fight them for 25 years to give them a free pass in 2009.

The Communists and friends tried to make everyone their tools.

Their attempts continue to this very day.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political personalities and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)