CHICAGO, Nov. 16 (UPI) — “Yes, Marc, I have received the news of Vladimir Lomeiko’s untimely death,” Boris Pankin, the last Soviet foreign minister, wrote to me just last week. Lomeiko had been Gorbachev’s spokesman, a good friend and promulgator of Glasnost. As I listened to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at the annual gala of the American Friends of the Czech Republic, many memories of the Velvet Revolution went through my mind.
It seems almost unreal when I think of those early years after November 1989. I was treated very well — but also as an exotic oddity — in the city of Pardubice, about 60 miles from Prague.
It was difficult to get vegetables and other fresh goods in stores on a regular basis. Certainly there was no corn. Everybody politely waited in line for their shopping carts — lines sometimes stretched 30 people long. One day, I had little time between my university teaching, and simply walked into the shop and bought a soda and bread. The manager admonished me that there was a line. I looked around and said, “Sir, there are more people waiting in line than shopping.” A week later the carts were gone.
Store windows were filled with cans piled high in a pyramid — they were all the same brand. A dark dreariness, the smell of coal and small Skodas buzzed about the streets. People would regularly get up at 4 a.m., be at work by 5:30, and be back home by 2:30 p.m.
The day would be completed with copious rounds of beer, vodka and cheap cigarettes all costing less than a few dollars over several hours. Politics and the massive changes that had occurred were the main topic. It was a wonderfully exhilarating feeling knowing I was among the first Westerners to arrive. I was honored to be so completely welcome. No day ended without being utterly inebriated.
My Czech was non-existent. I would mostly speak German to folks. The younger generation already then preferred to communicate with me in English. I sensed the yearning for things Western, and certainly all things American.
When the first McDonalds opened in Hradec Kralove, some 20 miles away and then the regional capital, I packed a group of students into my NATO-plated Volvo station wagon and we enjoyed our first burgers together. In 1993 I cooked — with the help of my many new friends — the first Thanksgiving meal for some 500 students and faculty of the University of Pardubice.
I had to bring the turkeys — and the yams, stuffing, corn and potatoes — from the U.S. Army Commissary in Heidelberg. At the border, I provided each of the guards with a Butterball turkey to have them let me through. Of course, we all had to drink and toast as well. “OK, now drive,” the guard said to me. I am not sure how I survived those early years.
On this evening in Chicago, the American Friends of the Czech Republic were holding a gala fundraising dinner for a statue of Woodrow Wilson to be rebuilt in Prague. It had been destroyed by the Nazis. Mayor Daley would receive the Civil Society Vision Award, previously awarded to Madeleine Albright, the World Bank and President George Bush Sr. I was sitting between former U.S. Ambassador William Cabaniss and Tom Dine, former president of Radio Free Europe, both of whom are exceptionally dedicated officers of the American Friends.
At the gala, the eve of Veterans Day, Bill, Tom and I spoke of the changes in Central and Eastern Europe, and of U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies. Obama had just left for Japan. I wondered out loud how the trip would go — given that the new Japanese government has expressed reservations about U.S. military policy in the region. The president was also attending the annual meeting of APEC in Singapore.
George Drost, a former honorary consul for the Czech Republic and noted Chicago attorney, and I had met the next day to talk about the direction of U.S. foreign policy and brainstorm about future cooperation. George is close to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He had advised and fundraised for her, and previously for Bill Clinton.
We both expressed concern about the declining reputation of the United States in Europe. I know the Europeans are exasperated with the Obama administration despite a visit by Vice President Biden just two weeks ago to shore up support.
Europeans can only be watching with consternation as Obama curries favor with Asia. Of course the United States should have a good relationship with Japan and South Korea. We should be concerned with developments in Thailand and Indonesia where Islamism is on the rise. The United States must be ever vigilant of China — and Russia.
In his recent State of the Russia Federation address, President Medvedev lightly chided Prime Minister Putin’s policies.
I try to give the Russians the benefit of the doubt.
But Medvedev made it clear the “Putin Model” is here to stay.
I hope Obama is listening — because it should be sending a chill down his spine.
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political personalities and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)