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Czechoslovakia's Other Kind of `Change'

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TO Czechoslovakia, Prague's Wenceslas Square is a crucible of reborn democracy. But to visitors from the West the broad boulevard is more like a budding Wall Street money market. Stroll your Levis and Reeboks before the hotels lining Wenceslas' sidewalks and you will elicit offers for the deals of the day. ``Change? Dollar?'' ask locals eager to trade their korunas for your convertible currency. Then they switch to German, tauschen, Mark?

That is the language of Prague's bristling black market for hard currencies, and it is a language nearly everyone speaks. ``It unlegal,'' explains one underground money broker in his best English, ``but everyone do it.''

``It OK,'' says a 15-year-old who works in a team with a 17-year-old friend. ``I look, look, look, for police. When they no, he change money.''

Westerners who dare to dip into the black market can usually triple the value of their money. Banks and hotels change money at the official rate of 9.5 kcs to the dollar. But dealers on the street will pay at least 30 kcs to the dollar.

If your dealer's desperate, he'll pay 35 to 40 kcs. United States dollars and West German marks are the preferred cash, but says one Czech with a wallet full of pounds, guilders, and pesos, ``I take anything.''

This black market is driven by a scarcity of hard currency. Although Czechoslovaks are now permitted to travel to the West, they still cannot exchange their korunas for hard, Western currencies. And in Western countries, korunas are practically worthless.

Most money changers hope only to acquire a few hundred dollars for a trip to West Germany or Austria, such as the teenagers trading to buy jeans and stereo boom boxes in the West. Others have made money-changing their business.

One man, an engineer, says Czechoslovakia's quixotic brand of socialism drove him to find a way to make money. ``I want to work hard and make money, but it's very difficult to save money here,'' he says, identifying himself only as Stefan. ``Everything is 10 times more expensive than in your country.''

A stylish shirt costs about 500 korunas, one-third the average monthly salary. Moreover, the state's wage scale leaves little room for climbing. ``I have a university degree and the woman who scrubs the stairs at my office takes a salary like an engineer,'' Stefan says.

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