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The Wild East: A Place Where Nothing’s for Sure

June 9, 1991

Undated (AP) _ By ALISON SMALE Associated Press Writer

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia (AP) - Eighteen months after its anti-Communist revolutions, Eastern Europe is an upside-down world lurching through anarchy toward some form of capitalism and democracy.

The cradle-to-grave sureties of downtrodden, stagnant Communist societies have gone, leaving mass confusion.

At the top, largely untested politicians grope for what nobody knows: What is our national identity? How much of the old do we retain? How ″Western″ should we become?

People who believed everything would be fine once the Communist rulers were thrown out grow restive with the slow improvement of their lives. The new leaders, often elected solely for their ability to oppose the old system, cannot make the hard decisions.

″They say this is like throwing a child into water and seeing if it can swim,″ said Petr Geisler, Czechoslovak correspondent for the Japanese daily Yomiuri. ″But it’s more like being thrown into Niagara Falls and trying to stay afloat.″

The scramble lends a makeshift feeling to government.

In a recent week, for example, President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, conductged 12 hours of talks to keep the two republics of his country together, met the heads of Mitsubishi and British Petroleum and took Spain’s Queen Sofia to a concert.

He also visited Czechoslovak soldiers, until recently part of Warsaw Pact forces, who had returned from filling non-combat roles in a Persian Gulf army led by the United States.

In between, he found time to ponder his dissident days, when politics seemed a mere matter of intelligence and morals.

Even the most experienced world statesmen cannot tell new politicians like Havel what he should be doing.

About 30 former European heads of state met in Prague a week ago to discuss the great issues facing an Eastern Europe in transition. After four days they came up with the advice that ″neither the capitalist system nor the socialist command economy have proved to be perfect.″

Although most Communist workers had a low standard of living, prices were stabilized at generally low levels and their jobs were guaranteed. The revolutions, with their tilt toward capitalism, have brought rising prices and unemployment.

Jarring images have entered daily life.

In Budapest, for example, pensioners scavenge garbage for empty bottles worth a few forints if returned to the store. Hungarian unemployment is 3.4 percent and rising fast, and prices are jumping more than a third each year.

Yet ownership of luxury cars like German BMWs is visibly up and Western products are sold in 24-hour stores. The chic Hungarians who crowded the recent opening of Budapest’s Christian Dior could make any Westerner feel frumpy.

Communist slogans are gone from Prague. Now, on the billboards, two of the world’s leading office equipment firms are waging an advertising war, battling for business from the new yuppies of the Wild East.

Throughout the region, drab villages and tumbledown apartment buildings bristle with anachronistic high-tech: satellite dishes that provide images of a desired but unknown Western tomorrow to confused East Europeans.

Even in the Soviet Union, where communism still officially holds sway, anarchy has engulfed the old security.

″What is going to become of us?″ a 37-year-old Soviet artist asked on a visit to Berlin. ″We had the misfortune to be born there. Leaving isn’t an option, but when I think about how we are supposed to survive, what kind of life my son will have, it’s simply frightening.″

In Central Europe, away from the fragile states of the Balkans, some try to ensure their survival by adopting a fierce brand of capitalism.

With all the ruthless grit of the American frontier, the new businessmen are on a constant hunt to buy low and sell high. Quality and morals are secondary.

″It’s really rampant right now,″ said a Westerner who has been dealing with Prague over the past year and asked anonymity. ″Everybody’s raping each other.″

The breakdown of the old order, the lack of new rules has enncouraged crime.

Throughout the east, many now fear to walk streets at night. Men freely proposition women in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Theft is soaring everywhere, and illegal trade is booming in almost every East European subway passage.

Even those who fought for the rule of law and have the power to change the old Communist rules sometimes succumb to the simpler pleasure of avenging the past.

In Prague on April 29, an art student gave coat of pink paint to a Soviet tank that serves as a memorial to liberation by the Red Army in May 1945.

The Soviets protested and Czechoslovak soldiers restored the original olive color.

Days later, 16 legislators repainted it pink in protest of laws that could send the student to jail for up to two years.

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