Getting to Prague Unsecretly

The McClatchy newspaper company reported yesterday that Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, was in Prague last August or September. This is important because if true, it would seem to corroborate part of the controversial dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele. The idea is that Cohen would have taken on the role of contact person with Russia after Paul Manafort was fired from/quit the campaign.

For about 25 hours so far, reporter Peter Stone has left out there twisting slowly, slowly in the wind kicked up by his report. No other news organization that I know of confirms his report. That must be uncomfortable.

If the report is true it is important. Cohen made a conspicuous point of denying the trip when the allegation appeared, when the Steele dossier was published by Buzzfeed. He tweeted a picture of the front of an American passport and wrote “I have never been to Prague in my life.”

•••••

Less than half of Americans have a passport, and as recently as 1997 that number was only 15 percent (After 9/11, for the first time “U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda were required to have a valid passport,” Forbes reports, which raised the percentage dramatically).

Since so many Americans are unfamiliar with borders and how they work, I think it’s important to point out something that many might not realize: whether Mr. Cohen traveled to Prague in 2016 or not, his passport would not necessarily contain a Czech entry stamp.

Here’s how that works: 26 European countries, comprising some 400 million people, signed an agreement in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1995. Under the Schengen agreement, entry into any of these countries requires the usual pass control arrival procedures, the glowering official, the uncomfortable silence, maybe the fingerprint thing and all the flourescence and fatigue, but once stamped in, a visitor is not subject to further border checks within the Schengen area.

Here is a list of the Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

It has been reported that Mr. Cohen traveled to Italy in July of 2016, though at a time not consistent with the claims of the dossier. He could have walked from the plane to the Hertz counter, rented a budget sedan and driven from Roma to Prague in about twelve hours with no need for his passport.

Alternately, his evil, opulent-luxury-yacht-wielding collaborators might have put him ashore on a quiet Portuguese beach, from which he perhaps begged a ride from an itinerant fisherman to the train station, and from there made his way to Prague. He might have caught the Delta flight up to Reykjavik, been waved through by a weary pass control clerk at the end of his shift, predawn, when all those flights come in at once, and caught the ferry to Denmark.

Or, of course, for the conspiracy minded, he might have been spirited in and out of the Czech Republic with the help of all those evil, conspiring collaborators. Doing something really mean about Crimea on the way just for the record.

Point is: these days in Europe, a passport needn’t have a stamp for you to have been there.

You can get to Prague with your initial entry stamp from any of these places:

The Velvet Revolution & Personal History

HavelCampaignPoster-small

Today Vaclav Havel will be honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol. Only three other international figures have been honored this way. This week’s ceremony marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. By the 29th of December that year Mr. Havel had been elected President by Parliament.

That year the New York Times published special pages each day under the heading Upheaval in the East. From its 29 December, 1989 edition, in an article by Craig R. Whitney:

This evening, tens of thousands of people streamed into the center of Prague’s Old Town in what amounted to a street celebration of Mr. Havel’s election. He appeared along with the visiting Portuguese President, Mario Soares, and greeted them.

Mr. Havel, son of an upper-class civil engineer, was not allowed to go to university by the Communist Government after he finished his compulsory schooling in 1951, because of his class background. Today the students of Prague, many of them children of the Communist ruling class, have made Mr. Havel their intellectual hero, and they have been on strike since demonstrations on Nov. 17 sparked the peaceful revolution that overthrew the long repression.

‘Havel is the only guarantee that the changes here will be of a permanent character,’ said one of them, Ludek Vasta, 21, an economics student.”

Leaving East Berlin’s newly accessible Lichtenberg Station four days after Havel’s election on 2 January, 1990, we stopped in Prague en route to Vienna just long enough to tear this campaign poster from a wall and bring it back home. It remains on my office wall.

 

Short Bits, Warsaw

WagonLit

Sleeper service from Prague to Warsaw in a dark, old Polish wagon lit, with tiny two-person compartments, no restaurant car and no other service, a little downtrodden. At least they’ve had time since the 90’s to put in proper toilets that don’t flush onto the tracks. Each compartment had a pair of plastic wrapped towels and soap, and two Kriss croissants for breakfast.

We brought a sack of beers from the station and enjoyed watching the fading light, then slept, on the theory that darkness is the best time to roll through towns inflicted by the Soviet love of cement.

•••••

Pawel and Marcin are IT specialists in their twenties from Wroclaw. Pawel has a baby on the way and Marcin’s wife calls him constantly. Both are, if not sanguine, at least relatively calm about Ukraine. Neither believes Poland would ever come to blows with Russia. Pawel in particular acknowledges the Russian population in Krim (Crimea).

Kasia, 34, is a geneticist in Posnan. She professes disinterest in Ukrainian affairs but believes it’s not the first time and won’t be the last that Russia acts revanchist. She cites Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. 

Russell, 56, an American entrepreneur and founder of a company that stains masonry and concrete, is skeptical that the information we get in the west is any less propaganda than the Russian side of the story.

General opinion on the Russian aggression ranges from studied indifference through resigned acceptance to denial. The prevailing idea in both Prague and Warsaw might  be, “Krim has a lot of Russians and Russia is big and powerful and if they take Krim, what are you gonna do?” Which makes my fulmination about the end of the Post Cold War era positively hyperbolic. Here we Americans go again, trying to run the world. 

•••••

In July 1944 the Red Army marched up to the river that runs through Warsaw, the Vistula. They stopped on the east bank and exhorted the Poles to rise up and essentially do the fighting against the Nazis for them. 

People of the capital! To arms! Strike at the Germans! May your million strong population become a million soldiers, who will drive out the German invaders and win freedom,” broadcast Soviet radio.

Knowing that from books is rather different than visualizing it, standing 36 floors above town and looking out beyond the Old Town and across the river. Let alone living it.

•••••

It was our second trip to Poland in nine months (Gdansk last summer) but my first stay in Warsaw since my friend Steve and I travelled from Moscow to Berlin by train in the immediate post-Soviet days. In that interregnum most of the everyday commerce was done from kiosks on the sidewalk, because it took some time to sort out ownership of the big Soviet era stores in the buildings. 

Today is rather different, with a smattering of high-rise buildings, fleets of red and yellow trams and matching flexible buses everywhere. They’ve cleaned up the grubby old train station. Stalin’s “gift from the Soviet people,” the Palace of Culture, is still here, as fearsome as ever.

SovietWarsaw1

SovietWarsaw2

Still with Communist bits, though.

•••••

All the important words: “Uwaga” means “Attention” in Polish and sounds African tribal, or maybe Japanese. And “hiccups” is “czkawka.” Sort of pronounced “chi-kup-kuh.” One more – a fine Polish dark beer called Ksiazece. Which is pronounced vaguely like “shown-zhan-tsa.” 

Somehow.