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Czech Republic: The Bittersweet Anniversary Of 1968

Prague, 22 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Hope died with the Soviet tanks that rumbled into Prague 29 years ago and it lay buried for nearly a generation, until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. For those who remember that day, nothing can erase the painful memories, or, as the Czech daily "Lidove Noviny" writes, "the bitterly depressing feeling of powerlessness."

The anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia is still noted in Prague. Its psychological impact remains vivid, as witnessed by the Czech government's drive to integrate into NATO and the European Union (EU).

But in the summer of 1997, most peoples' thoughts are preoccupied with other concerns. Increasing traffic, crime, race problems, corruption, taxes, the collapse of some leading travel agencies and the recent floods are the topics of the day in Prague.

Czechs traded in their years of bitter depression for a short period of euphoria following 1989. Under the leadership of President Vaclav Havel and Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, the borders opened, the economy began to flourish and tourists poured in to marvel at the beauty of Prague. The Czech Republic, especially after its Velvet Divorce from Slovakia, soon earned a reputation as the brightest star of reform in Eastern Europe.

Prime Minister Klaus traveled the world, proclaiming, often a bit smugly, that the country's transition to capitalism would soon be complete.

But this summer, Prague's star has begun to dim. Lack of regulation of the capital market led to the collapse of a string of mutual funds, putting into question Klaus's much-vaunted coupon privatization scheme. Foreign investment began to drop and soon after, Prague's growing foreign trade deficit forced a devaluation of the Czech crown.

Then came epic floods which put nearly a third of the country under water. Many Czechs who traveled south for a couple of weeks of vacation ended up stranded when their uninsured travel agencies filed for bankruptcy. Back at home, Prague's streets echoed to the sounds of gunfire in a couple of incidents of gang warfare. The press charged the police force with incompetence, and the interior ministry with corruption.

While Klaus's government attempted to put together a rescue package for the flood-stricken Moravia region, local officials from his own Civic Democratic Party (ODS) urged Romanies (Gypsies) with no roof over their heads to leave the country. One local mayor went further, offering all Romanies money towards purchasing plane tickets to Canada in exchange for their houses.

The government's initial lack of response brought swift criticism from international human rights groups and a further blow to the Czech Republic's image.

Twenty-nine years ago, Czechs watched helplessly as forces beyond their control enforced an alien order on their society. Now, they are back in control, absorbed in problems of their own making. The going has been rough at times, especially in light of inflated expectations. But amid the grumbling, most people still agree that the price of freedom is worth it.