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CAFE EUROPA: Life After Communism
By Slavenka Drakulic
Norton. 213 pp. $21

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Profits and Loss

By Michael Dobbs
Sunday, March 23 1997; Page X08

AFTER the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a new joke began making the rounds of Eastern Europe. Question: "Is there any socio-political system worse than communism?" Answer: "Yes, post-communism."

Like many other political jokes, that may be an exaggeration, but it reflects a bitter reality. Contrary to widespread expectations, both in the East and in the West, life did not automatically improve for millions of ordinary East European citizens following the overthrow of the dictatorial one-party state. For many people, the dismantling of the social safety net put in place by the communists meant a significant deterioration in their living conditions. Constructing a functioning free-market system on the ruins of communism has turned out to be a hugely difficult undertaking. Just as holding an election now and then is not the same thing as democracy, there is much more to capitalism than freeing prices and selling off state assets to the highest (or most ruthless) bidder.

In her new book, Cafe Europa: Life After Communism, the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic makes an excellent stab at describing the "purgatory" in which East Europeans have been living since 1989. They have shaken themselves free of the forces of repression and slavery but have yet to make it to the promised land. As a political and economic system, post-communism is a unholy hybrid all of its own. Once you penetrate behind what Drakulic calls a "kind of facade-capitalism," you discover a communist-like mentality.

Drakulic's technique in Cafe Europa, as in her previous book, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, is to take everyday incidents and analyze them for larger meanings. A stay at the Sheraton hotel in Sofia (where rooms cost $260 a night) is the pretext for an essay on the "non-smiling culture" of post-communist Eastern Europe. "Here a smile is a sign not of courtesy, but of the inferiority of the smiler," she writes, in an attempt to explain the mask-like faces of everybody from the receptionist to the bellhop. "Capitalism might be here, but there is no understanding of its principles: the tenet that a customer is always right, for example, is unheard of."

Drakulic is struck (as I was, during a recent visit to Prague) by the lengths to which many Czech taxi-drivers will go to fleece foreigners rather than earn an honest living. The Czech Republic is arguably the most economically successful of the former communist states, and is a leading candidate for admission to NATO. But the old communist mentality persists, with a new cut-throat capitalist twist. "People think that there must be a trick to [getting rich] if only they could find out what it was, and they are right. The work ethic is nonexistent anyway: no one ever got rich by working before, only by climbing up the party ladder, or pulling another kind of smart trick."

While she can sometimes be self-absorbed and repetitious, at her best Drakulic is a perceptive and amusing social critic, with a wonderful eye for detail. Returning to Croatia from America, she runs into a young television reporter. "For the first time I noticed that half of his teeth were missing and that those which remained looked like the ruins of a decayed medieval town." This encounter is the starting point for a hilarious in-depth "investigation" into the correlation between communism and bad teeth. Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the state of dental hygiene in Eastern Europe still leaves much to be desired. "As absurd as it may sound, in the old days one could blame the Communist party even for one's bad teeth," writes Drakulic. "Now there is no one to blame, but it takes time to understand that."

EVEN WITHOUT the example of the Bosnian war, it does not take a great deal of imagination to predict that the West will be dealing with the problems of post-communism for a long time to come. Unfortunately, we seem ill-prepared for the challenge. The Berlin Wall may have come down, but new walls have gone up, on both sides of the former iron curtain. As they struggle to become citizens of the new, theoretically "undivided" Europe, East Europeans are at a double disadvantage. Not only must they deal with their own post-communist mentality, they must also overcome the suspicions and fears of their Western neighbors. They are reminded of their inferior status every time they cross a border and confront "the stern faces" of West European immigration officers. In Drakulic's words, the sad fact is that East Europeans are "going to be second-class citizens for a long time to come, regardless of the downfall of Communism or the latest political proclamations."

Michael Dobbs, who covers U.S. foreign policy for The Washington Post, is the author of "Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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