Prague is lovely in springtime when a cloud- burst clears the air and sun lights up the bright green slopes above the river and the pastel facades of the Old Town. The narrow streets fill with folk; there is music in the air. Barely eighteen months after the all-powerful State withered away, the long- depressed, threadbare city has come vibrantly alive. In the declining years of the old regime, dissident intellectuals, then working as stokers and window washers, earnestly debated the virtues of a “third way,” a vaguely visualized strategy for the postcom- munist future that would break out of the stifling shabbiness of ideological totality without succumb- ing to the one-dimensional consumerism of the West. Today that talk is all but forgotten. When prominent visitors, above suspicion of communist leanings and so free to speak, such as John Paul II, recall it, they provoke an awkward silence. The erstwhile dissidents, now occupying high offices, have been thoroughly coopted by affluence. Their talk now is of the “historic triumph of liberalism,” a local code name for the Gospel According to Reagan and Thatcher. Nothing less than the first way will do.
Superficially, the results are impressive. Restitu- tion and privatization are working wonders. Under anonymous state ownership, Prague had been like an unwanted child. The old houses, the streets, and the stores, unowned and unloved, grew ever more shabby, the shelves ever more dusty, the uncaring clerks ever more surly. Under the law of restitution, the long-ago owners are reclaiming the stores they once cherished, lovingly restoring the old façades, as if to make up to them for years of abuse and neglect. Others, new owners who purchased orphaned properties at privatization auctions, are transforming them with capital from abroad. The investment climate is excellent. It is the Gilded Age. The elegant new stores offer a wide selection of crystal, jewelry, furs, and the latest computer technology to no less elegant young, upwardly mobile professionals who think nothing of spending 82,000 crowns for the latest status symbol, a laptop computer. The West has come to Central Europe.