The promise of democracy
August 22, 2005
Tomas Leskovjan smiles when I ask him about the “Velvet Revolution.””It was the best time of my life,” he says. “The most exciting time. It still is.”The Velvet Revolution was Czechoslovakia’s nonviolent revolution, which overthrew the country’s hard-line Communist government in the course of six remarkable weeks at the end of 1989. It brought democracy to the nation and saw former dissident writer Vaclav Havel installed as president.”Suddenly, you could own something,” says Tomas, who was in his 20s at the time. “You could stand on your own.”Tomas was ready and eager to try.”I had the first grocery store in Mikulov. I didn’t really have a store. Just my old two-stroke car, a Skoda. I drove it to the city and bought groceries, then drove back to Mikulov to sell them.”Everyone was so excited. They rushed to buy everything I brought. I still remember that. It is still a wonderful time.”Of course, capitalism has two sides. Soon enough, larger companies came in and took over the grocery business, but Tomas was prepared to keep “standing on his own.”In 1991, he signed up for a course in “Entrepreneurship,” jointly sponsored by the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in Utrecht and the chamber of commerce in Brno, the capital of the Czech region of Moravia. He spent two months in Holland at the business school of Utrecht University. It was a short, intense lesson in how to avoid beginner’s mistakes in a brand-new economy.”They taught us not to go too far. Not to expand too fast. Some people here started new businesses and made a lot of money. They bought cars and houses and expanded – and they lost everything.”We learned not to borrow money. Not to get in debt. Not to go too fast.”Tomas decided that tourism was going to be the strength of the new Czech Republic (which split amicably from the Slovak Republic at the end of 1992). He started with bicycle tours, founding a company called Topbicycle, which he still operates. Then he expanded to the wider array of hiking, biking and horseback adventures offered by the Greenways Travel Club.Tomas started small and has stayed solid. He’s not trying to be a big-time wheeler-dealer; he just wants to stand on his own.Everything he does seems perfectly under control, carefully planned. And this approach has certainly led to success. One day, when we called by cell phone to arrange a pickup at the end of our day’s hike, Tomas assured us that the driver was on his way. Tomas himself was in Prague, meeting a tour group of 20 people from the Sierra Club.And our driver appeared, as promised, right on cue.