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A 'Lost' 50 Years Keep Czechs Busy

Socialist gray hasn't gone away, but Prague's past pushes it to rejoin Europe

IF you haven't been to Prague yet and are worried that capitalism will have completely ruined the place before you get there, fear not. There's still plenty of peeling paint and ugly concrete socialist architecture here.

A visitor on a first return trip here since student days some time past can't miss the paradoxes: Splendid renovation work a stone's throw from buildings that cry out to be dynamited is only one of them.

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Prague is widely, if superficially, accepted as a Western city, as if the full ''transformation'' after the fall of communism were to be achieved as easily as changing one's clocks at the end of daylight saving time. And yet the tourists are here not for Prague's Westernization but for its otherworldliness - its Baroque architecture, its enraptured saints in stone and brass.

This is a city of history - where the Middle Ages are on display every day, and where the splendors of the Hapsburgs live on. And yet it is a more recent past that is such a driving force today.

Many Czech thinkers have felt their nation had no collective talent for politics or statecraft, but rather a lamentable tendency to public silence. Yet Prague was the hometown of the Velvet Revolution, a remarkable, bloodless sweeping away of dictatorship, a redemption of the blighted buds of the Prague Spring of 1968.

The Czech Republic's collective memory of national independence between the two world wars ended with the Nazi occupation in 1938 and was followed by half a century of political winter: It was as if the United States had surrendered its independence after the War of 1812 and had become a British colony again.

The subject of ''the missing half century'' pops up frequently in conversation here. One analyst refers to ''the years stolen from the people.'' Those in the business community are particularly quick to remind a visitor that the Czechoslovak economy was among the world's largest during the 1920s. If there had been Group of Seven summits of leading industrialized nations in the 1920s, Czechoslovakia would have taken part in them.

In fact, Prague was the site of the 1924 World Management Conference, a major gathering at a time when management was a fledgling field of study. Herbert Hoover, then the US secretary of commerce, was there, as were pioneers of management theory Frederick William Taylor and Frank Gilbreth (more widely known as the father in ''Cheaper by the Dozen'').

The Czechs are clearly pushing hard to join - or rejoin, as they would say - the Western club. A Prague lawyer who spends much of his time in Brussels petitioning the European Union on behalf of companies here hands me a business card that gives his address as in ''Prague, the Czech Republic, Europe.''

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A foreign ministry official explains that his office is preparing, as part of the process of applying for EU membership, a ''status report'' to ensure that the people in Brussels fully appreciate what the country has achieved since its transformation.

The Czech desire to get out in front of other former Warsaw Pact nations in the race for NATO and EU membership does not always win them friends among their neighbors. But the Czechs keep hustling along, in search of that missing half-century.

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