Winds of reform rustle through Prague. But leaders still wary of Gorbachev's calls for change
Tomas Masaryk is no longer a nonperson. On the 50th anniversary of his death this month, the Communist Party newspaper Rude Pravo sounded a note of glasnost (openness) and published its first article in nearly two decades on Czechoslovakia's founder.
``The Soviet example is an inspiration,'' explained Milan Jelinek, Rude Pravo's foreign editor. ``Doubtlessly, Masaryk was exploited in the past, and our explanation of him as a bourgeois reactionary was one-sided.''
Six months after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Prague, Czechoslovakia's aging hard-line leaders slowly are adopting his calls for reform. In addition to restoring Masaryk's good name, they have prosecuted corrupt officials; opened negotiations with the Jazz Section, the country's leading independent culture group; and stepped up discussion of market-oriented economic reform. Dissidents and church leaders say repression has eased.
But these steps seem riddled with doubts and hesitations. Unlike in Poland or East Germany, there has been no general amnesty of political prisoners. Implementation of economic reform legislation, scheduled for July, has been postponed until Jan. 1, 1988; a dramatic corruption trial in Slovakia this summer stopped short of indicting Foreign Minister Bohuslav Chnoupek, the highest implicated official; and police almost derailed Jazz Section negotiations by interrogating the group's leaders recently.
``We have a double-faced government, torn between an old bureaucratic side and the new, partly liberal side,'' says Tomas Krivanek, a Jazz Section leader. ``You have these constructive and positive contacts with Ministry of Culture officials and then this police action.''
Prague's political climate is crucial to Mr. Gorbachev. More than any leader in the Soviet bloc, Czechoslovakia's Gustav Husak is associated with the policies of late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the same policies Gorbachev is crusading against in Moscow. Installed after the Soviet invasion that crushed a reform in 1968, Dr. Husak has imposed rigid political control and chilling centralized planning.
The result is a deeply disillusioned, demoralized country. Before World War II, Czechoslovakia was much richer than neighboring Austria, and Prague, geographically far west of Vienna, was a cultural mecca. Today, the country is much poorer than its capitalist neighbor. Following the post-1968 purges, many of its best artists and intellectuals fled into exile, or if they stayed home, were forced to toil as stokers, window washers, or night watchmen.
``Clearly, Czechoslovakia is the country to watch; it is the test case of Gorbachev's impact on Eastern Europe,'' writes Charles Gati, professor of political science at Union College, in the summer issue of Foreign Affairs. ``Having waged a war against reformism for almost two decades, the Czechoslovak regime is particularly vulnerable to the winds of reform emanating from Moscow.''
Gorbachev's impact is visible. Though the Soviet leader has refused to push Husak aside, the more pragmatic faction of the leadership, under Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal, is pressing for real economic, if not political, change. In a revealing interview, Walter Komarek, a key Strougal adviser, delivered a blistering report on the economy. His frank, outspoken words contrasted with the usual veiled, bland phrases of economic policymakers.
``Our present system simply is not rational,'' said Mr. Komarek. He pointed to official statistics depicting a stagnant economy - between 1981 and 1985, the average annual growth rate was a meager 1.5 percent - and gave examples of the country's industrial obsolescence. ``We produce 15 million tons of steel, more than Great Britain, and that's at least twice as much as we need.''
Gorbachev is putting economic pressure on Czechoslovakia to change its ways, Komarek revealed. In the past, he said, the Soviet Union has imported Czechoslovak goods, no matter their quality. Now, Gorbachev is turning down more and more substandard Czechoslovak products, Komarek said.
``If we don't watch out, the Soviet Union soon may no longer buy our products at all,'' he warned. ``The time is ripe, over-ripe, for reform.''
If Gorbachev is pushing for change from the top, some Czechoslovaks are using his example to push for change from the bottom. Over the summer, Milos Kopecky, a noted actor, appealed to the authorities that banned playwrights, directors, and actors be permitted to work again. Some 250 citizens in the Moravian city of Brno petitioned the authorities to permit more rock music concerts, while another sizable group in the northern Bohemian town of Chomutov petitioned for more information about industrial pollution near their homes.
``If you had to tell your readers one thing, tell them that I am busier than ever,'' said Vaclav Havel, the noted playwright and founder of the Charter 77 human rights organization. He broke off the interview in his apartment to chair yet another meeting of friends, this one concerning production of a new underground newspaper. ``I have little time for my own writing,'' he laments.
But the question remains: Do the masses share the visible energy of Mr. Havel and the courageous Brno and Chumotov petitioners?
It seems not.
Service in restaurants and hotels remains lackadaisical, often surly and unpleasant. Workers still do not seem to care about their work. Until this apathy disappears, Havel and other opposition leaders say, Gorbachev's dreams for Czechoslovakia will remain dreams.
``Remember, we are scared and the government is scared,'' Havel said. ``Thousands upon thousands of people lost their jobs after 1968 and this government cannot change all that without liquidating their own legitimacy. Gorbachev or not, we are slaves of our own past.''