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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Come rain or revolution, it's money they all want, In 1989 capitalism bought all communism's best players by Mark Steel

Mark Steel

Haven't the 20th anniversary celebrations of the overthrow of communism been miserable? In 1989, with historically youthful joy, swarms of demonstrators danced across the Berlin Wall and brought down a collection of tyrannies, so the commemoration starts with the dullest statesmen sat in rows looking as if they're about to say "Well I'd better be off as it's 10 past eight, and I have to be up early tomorrow to put all my gardening equipment in alphabetical order."

Austere figures like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown embody the very opposite spirit to the one being celebrated. Otherwise the footage of the events would show a few figures in suits saying "Instead of being silly with a hammer, why don't we wait until morning and ask the Stasi to lend us a ladder." These politicians spoilt it by being there at all so you felt grubby if you joined in, like if someone organised a surprise party for your birthday but invited Gary Glitter.

This week it's been the Czech Republic's turn to mark twenty years of freedom, and they've broken records for being subdued. One Czech cabinet minister was quoted as saying "We focused on low-key events, including a small conference of historians." They know how to swing, don't they? When this was announced he probably added "I know what some of you are thinking – that maybe we could let go a little and hold a medium sized conference of historians, but think of all the clearing up."

Or maybe this is traditional, and at a New Year's Eve party in Prague the host says "On the stroke of midnight, to see out the old and bring in the new, Petr here will recite a treatise on the impact of the Protestant Church on trade in 16th-century central Europe."

But there's another reason for the muted celebrations, which is that much of the population in these countries are confused about what they're celebrating. According to a poll, eighty per cent of Czechs are dis-satisfied with the country, and according to Focus magazine, "Many of those attending the anniversary events held anti-corruption placards", aimed at the current government.

Part of this disillusionment might come from the fact that the two systems are more similar than either would admit, to the extent they're often run by exactly the same people. Vaclav Klaus, the Margaret Thatcher-loving president, was a prominent official in the Communist state bank. One of the richest businessmen in the country is Vaclav Junek, who was once a member of the Communist Party central committee.

This must have entailed quite a change of mind on his part, where he suddenly announced "I'm big enough to admit I made a mistake. Up until a few weeks ago I thought it was my duty to uphold the ideals of freedom through communism, which happened to grant me a life of privilege and luxury while most of my country went short. Now it is clear to me I must promote the values of free-market capitalism, which happen to grant me..." (I imagine you can see where this is going).

Jiri Komorous, once a senior spy for the Communist Party is now Chief of the Anti-Drug Squad. Maybe he uses the same techniques, so every week it's announced someone has confessed to "Shamefully sabotaging the glorious nation and its supreme leader by buying an eighth of hash oil off a bloke in a hat in a pub toilet," and they're not seen for ten years when they turn up working at a beetroot farm prison in the Ukraine.

Maybe the explanation is that economic theories operate a transfer system, like football clubs, and in 1989 capitalism bought all communism's best players. Or it could be that both systems were driven by the same ambition, to make as much profit as possible, the detail being that in eastern Europe this was organised by the state instead of private companies. So it was relatively painless for those expert at ensuring a country's wealth went to a small minority, to do a similar job under a different name.

Even so, the freedoms won in 1989 are worth celebrating for what they were. But Western leaders have trouble identifying with a spirit that, if it appeared in their own regimes would terrify them. The proof that the two systems were more similar than they can admit, will come if Tony Blair is invited to the twentieth anniversary of the revolution that overthrew Ceaucescu in Romania. Because, as he hears people tell of a ruthless leader who had palaces across his territory, you'll see him dribbling in admiration, unable to stop himself from muttering "Mind you, he should have bought another one in Bucharest when the market was weak, then made half a million selling it on in 1989."

First published in The Independent on 25th November 2009

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