20 years after the Velvet Revolution, in which the Czech people put an end to 40 years of Communism, Vaclav Havel wears a melancholy smile. We meet at the Café Louvre in the centre of Prague, where an autumnal shade of red now bedecks the Czech capital. The smile that never leaves his face during our entire conversation belies the fact that he is weary at heart: in the Czech Republic as in other ex-Soviet satellites, after 20 years of transition, democracy still hasn’t fully taken hold.

Post-Communism has engendered a general state of demoralisation brimming with aggressiveness: witness the conduct of the current president, Vaclav Klaus, on several occasions. According to Vaclav Havel, you can feel it in every domain, from politics to day-to-day life.

The triumph of the nomenklatura

The former Czech president confesses that in his own country he feels as though caught in a nightmare peopled by liars and nouveaux riches. “After the collapse of the totalitarian system,” he recounts, “a transitional stage began in the former Soviet bloc. That was post-Communism. A phase of massive, rapid privatisation, in which the former Communist nomenklatura controlled the information as well as the contracts, which made them the core and the most important group of the new managerial class.”

Once they had enriched themselves and hoisted themselves into the upper echelons of democratic power, these people proved past masters in the art of curbing freedom of expression and assembly. Accustomed to exercising the power to constrain that of others, these new classes, born of the erstwhile executive administration, surreptitiously hold the reins of economic and political power and the means of communication. “This is how they managed to establish what I call mafia capitalism,” resumes Vaclav Havel.

Post-Communist depression

None of the countries that rid themselves of totalitarianism 20 years ago was able to ward off the two characteristic concomitants of post-Communism: corruption and demoralisation, and the loss of any sense of ethics. In the countries long subjugated to the Communist yoke, the population is now sunk in wholesale frustration and apathy.

Vaclav Havel calls this atmosphere of societal paralysis “post-Communist depression”. A one-time political prisoner himself, Havel likens this eerie state to the psychosis of a released ex-convict: “when a prisoner, after years of living in a narrow cell under iron discipline, leaves prison and gets a taste of all the strange sides of liberty.”

Two Europes

All of that leads us to the realisation that profound differences still exist between the two Europes that were once divided by the Wall. “Nowadays when someone says he’s from the West, that bestows a sort of halo on him. On the other hand, if you tell people in the West that you’re from the East, they look at you askance. Being from the East really doesn’t carry any prestige.”

Furthermore, people from post-Communist countries generally have a more conservative outlook than Western Europeans. They are wary of any ideas that smack of Communist propaganda, like universal access to education and health care. According to the ex-president, that is essentially a reaction to the previous regime: “People criticise any and every form of government regulation: it seems Communist to them. We need balance and future prospects. And we need new generations.”