Eastern Approaches: Symbolic Prague

By ERIC JOHNSON  |  Aug. 19, 2002 at 2:30 PM
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PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- Few cities in the world could hope to win the kind of international support pouring into Prague in the days since its castle-topped historic district was swept by a flooding river.

Of course, the recent flood-related toll in Czech Republic capital paled in comparison to the enormous loss of life in Russia, India and Bangladesh, which suffered from raging waters last week. High waters also inundated other historic European cities, including Dresden, Salzburg and Martin Luther's Wittenberg.

Yet so-called Zlata Praha -- Golden Prague -- was a magnet for world attention during the latest spate of summer flooding and, within days, received generous pledges for financial assistance, emergency materials and expertise from much of the developed world.

One reason is obvious -- the charmed combination of history and remarkable architecture -- and the second more subtle. Prague is rich in modern symbolism.

It is Prague's symbolic role as a vanguard of democracy, a cultivator of Jewish heritage, a bridge between East and West Europe, and a former Soviet stronghold-turned-NATO ally that no doubt will save this old city from crumbling after the Vltava River recedes in a few weeks.

Czech President Vaclav Havel -- himself a tall symbol of Cold War victory -- clearly recognized Prague's unique position. At the height of the disaster, he took advantage of what the city represented by telephoning world leaders for help, including Israeli President Mose Kavac and former President George Bush Sr., who was in office when Havel and other Praguers shooed away Russian tanks in the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Havel took European Commission President Romano Prodi on a helicopter tour of stricken areas Friday -- and was promised financial aid from the European Union as well as European Union members from Sweden to Italy. The Czechs hope to join the EU in 2004.

Havel also got in touch with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a native Praguer who speaks Czech and is affectionately called in the country's newspapers by the polite form of her name, "Albrightova." Her love for the city moved her to join Havel in issuing a press release Monday urging corporations to contribute to a cleanup.

"I hope that each of us does what we can to help immediately the people hurt and displaced by the floods," Albright said. "We should also assist in repairing and restoring the beauty and history of Prague."

Truckloads and planeloads of pumps, engineers and building supplies started arriving Thursday and continued pouring in Monday. The United Nation's UNESCO agency rallied assistance, since all of Prague's center is registered as a "world heritage" site. Jewish organizations launched efforts to restore synagogues and other sites in the Jewish quarter. Even Moscow offered to help fix the severely damaged, Russian-built subway system.

So far, Washington's contribution includes a promise from the U.S. Embassy in Prague to restore water-ravaged Kampa Park on the west bank of the river and coordinate fund-raising among American companies.

The cleanup and restoration task is enormous, extending to communities throughout the western half of the country. The already indebted Czech government admits it cannot afford to pay for losses that Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said could reach $3 billion nationwide. Much of the flooded property was under- or un-insured.

Damaged landmarks in Prague include the riverside Rudolfinum Theater -- home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra -- as well as the National Theater, the Academy of Sciences Library, the Zofin Palace and other famous buildings. A hastily erected barrier held back the river in a section of New Town, and inside most buildings all treasured artworks, furniture and books were moved to upper floors before the flood hit.

Havel, his fellow Praguers and the Czech government are hoping the city can bounce back quickly.

"We will have a lot of work on our hands to repair the buildings, and to rebuild the homes, historical monuments and the totally destroyed Prague metro stations," Havel said. "From what I have noted, there is a large outpouring not only among ordinary people, but also among nations."

Already, the flood has been a serious blow to city's tourism business, with experts predicting this year's revenues will fall 15 percent. Without a subway, traffic chaos reigns, and things will get worse when government workers return from August holidays in a week.

But an equally critical reason for restoring the city quickly is linked to its symbolic role as a place where, in the reshaped map of Europe, East and West shake hands.

Prague is the site of a NATO summit planned for November, where the alliance is set to welcome several new member-countries -- all former members of the dissolved Warsaw Pact.

The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary were the first ex-Soviet satellites to join NATO in 1999. This year's expansion and the alliance's warming relations with Russia set the stage for what officials say will be strengthened security for Europe and North America.

Prague's flooding river stopped far short of the airports where NATO chiefs will land in November. Neither did waters threaten the summit's convention site or Havel's offices in Prague Castle.

But the flood thrust Prague into the limelight, brought back memories of its past 50 years of struggle against communism and Nazism, and reminded the world of its symbolic role in modern politics. For that, residents of this flood beleaguered city can be grateful.

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