x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Twenty years later, Havel's model still has lessons for the Middle East

Vaclev Havel's funeral offered a chance to consider events in the Middle East in the light of post-Soviet revolutions.

At noon on the day Vaclev Havel was buried, Prague stood still for a minute of silent reflection. But by 8pm, people were celebrating their two decades of political freedom in a typical manner: they went shopping.

Along the wide cobblestone boulevards of Wenceslas Square, tourists and Czechs mingled in the cold, some sipping hot drinks, others strolling past the Gap, Marks & Spencer and the many casinos that have sprung up in the post-communism euphoria.

The flickering candles and makeshift memorials to Havel seemed a sombre backdrop to capitalism and progress.

Even Prague's rebellious rockers, the Plastic People of the Universe, had a tough time commanding attention a week ago. Credited as an inspiration for Charter 77, the manifesto that laid the groundwork for the 1989 revolution, the band's acerbic lyrics chastised the Bolsheviks and served as a cultural rallying point for change.

But a week ago on Friday, the Plastics drew only a small crowd of onlookers to the screens outside the theatre where they performed. Older Czechs knew the words but most of the younger people seemed more interested in each other, or the cheap beer, than in the subversive lyrics.

Many have considered what the fall of 1989 portends for the Arab uprisings. Indeed, there may be more difference than similarities.

For many Czechs, the liberalisation policies of Mikhail Gorbachev paved the way for the collapse of the communist ideal on Moscow's periphery. The Czechs' Velvet Revolution was, as the moniker suggests, smooth and peaceful.

In the Arab World, corruption and autocracy, magnified by decades of colonialism and western intervention, sparked a year of increasingly bloody uprisings that, in the case of Syria at least, shows little sign of slowing.

But if the Velvet Revolution has anything to tell us about change in the Middle East and North Africa, it's that revolutions - quick to begin - can be agonisingly slow to play out. Tossing out old leaders or reshuffling the political order is act one. Revolutionary change requires deep and painful reflection, and decades of effort.

It is now more than 20 years since the former Czechoslovakia finally dismantled the communist apparatus. And yet, many Czechs are only now becoming aware of what they inherited. Income disparity is increasing, and many families worry about food prices, taxes and high rents - inequality that communism in theory protected against. "It's all new to us," one young mother told me on this recent trip.

Take the challenge of universal health care. While quality has dramatically improved since the days of communism, costs are inching up, pricing out lower-income Czechs. This is particularly true of dental care, a luxury few can now afford.

"There's a joke about the Czech health-care system," one of my in-laws chuckled in between bites of Christmas duck and dumplings. Her college-aged son sniffled with the flu across the table. "It's either free, accessible or high quality. But it's never all three."

This has led to other problems, notably corruption. People just slip doctors cash to get better treatment, or at least to the front of the queue. "There is a lot of dirty money here," another friend said.

Despite these challenges, Czechs are proud of their past, and humbled by the vision of their first president. Conversation turned to how coverage of Havel's death played out in the Middle East. "Was it on Al Jazeera?" someone wondered.

Of course, Arabs have grown more interested in Havel's work and his views on despotism, democracy and freedom. Many in the Middle East are now comparing the Czech uprising with Arab protests, and particularly the fact that communism fell without a single bullet being fired.

Havel, too, wondered what "good" would come of his nation's revolution. Twenty-two years ago today, the former president addressed his six-week old state with a dose of reality. "We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything," he said, "not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly."

"If we realise this," Havel went on, "then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible."

One wonders whether the "horrors" left behind by the old Arab regimes will seem any less terrible 20 years from today.