Czechoslovakia

The writer was in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and 1969 and follows events from Vienna. On the night of Aug. 20, 1968, the Soviet Union led Warsaw Pact forces into Czechoslovakia. Their objective: to prevent a new communist leadership from installing economic and political reforms in the country's Soviet-style economic system.

Today, ironically, a new leader in the Kremlin is urging changes in the Soviet economic management. Though less far-reaching, the reforms proposed by President Yuri Andropov reflect essentially what Prague reformers were urging 15 years ago.

Is Czechoslovakia being nudged back toward capitalist reform by the country that, 15 years ago this past weekend, sent tanks to crush the ''Prague spring.''

It sounds like a highly improbable hypothesis.

Yet after Mr. Andropov's speech last week about Soviet economic performance, it is perhaps not such an unlikely notion after all. Andropov proposed ways to revitalize the Soviet economy which, he said, had failed to move with the times.

That is just what Czechoslovakia's economy has failed to do in this last decade of ''normalization,'' after the Warsaw Pact intervention snuffed out Czechoslovakia's economic reforms in 1968.

In the last half of the 1970s, the economy has steadily stagnated - to a point where analysts say it is as desperate as that which forced Prague's Stalinist leadership in the 1960s to accept reform as the only way to avert collapse.

''After 14 years of 'normalization' (initiated in 1969), we are back to where we were before we started,'' a prominent 1968 reformer now in exile wryly commented to the Monitor recently.

''The present leadership is as fearful of change as (former Czech leader Antonin) Novotny was in 1967. There is complete immobility at the top, despite the desperate state of the economy and although there are, this time, none of the same open political pressures which helped bring (Novotny) down.''

Against that kind of background, it is likely that Andropov sees his proposals for the Soviet Union as applying to other East bloc countries - Czechoslovakia, especially. At least three of Andropov's points could have been handwritten for Prague.

* Half-baked reforms. At one point Andropov said there had been ''too many half-measures'' that failed to go to the heart of defects evident in the Soviet economic system.

Likewise, three years ago, Czechoslovak authorities adopted a ''Set of Measures'' intended, it was said, to ''improve the system of planned management'' through the 1980s.

In practice, however, this mini-reform has brought little more than minor adjustments in limited areas. It did not, for example, shift the mechanisms in the pre-reform 1968 command economy toward those used in a market system. And it is these nonmarket mechanisms that lie at the heart of Czechoslovakia's troubles today - the same problem, Mr. Andropov seems to be saying, that the Soviet Union has.

The Soviet leader also urged ''wide-ranging changes . . . in planning, management, and this economic mechanism.'' He stressed there would be no hasty decisions but cautious, planned experiment.

Mr. Andropov's forthright proposal would have sent shock waves through Czechoslovakia, where ''change'' - especially related to the basic economic mechanism - has become almost an unclean word.

Czechoslovakia's Set of Measures could have been a first modest step to the kind of structural changes elaborated by the reformers in 1968. Instead, it has proved to be a half-step to substantive reform, a cosmetic exercise intent only on bettering the working of the existing system.

Prague's economic plans have often dissolved into an improvised, emergency reaction to save any particularly threatened sector. The current plan operates on a yearly basis, instead of the customary five years. Even these annual directives are being scaled down as each year gets under way.

* Economic inertia. Mr. Andropov's impatience, perhaps with allies as well as with the Soviet Union itself, was evident also in his talk of ''inertia'' and the slow progress in shifting the economy to producing higher-technology, higher-value products.

Voices have been heard in Prague saying much the same thing, but in rhetorical terms about ''restoring the dynamic of growth'' with no apparent move toward more effective planning or essential modernization.

To outside observers - and doubtless to the Soviets as well - the Prague leadership seems always to be looking to the Kremlin for solutions and panaceas, as much in the economic as in the ideological field. Mr. Andropov seems likely to be less amenable to that kind of relationship than was his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev.

Prague, in fact, is now paying the price of its own procrastinations.

After the 1968 invasion, the return to the command economy paid off quite well in the first five years of Czechoslovakian President Gustav Husak's ''normalization.'' But in the mid-1970s, pressures of the world oil crisis and general recession were too long regarded in Prague (and elsewhere in Eastern Europe) as storms from which centralized communist economies were sheltered.

For the Czechs, the recession would have been a heaven-sent opportunity to follow Hungary's market-reform example. But the moment was lost through a mixture of political and economic timidity. It was a grave miscal-culation that made 1981 and 1982 - the first full years of the Set of Measures - Czechoslovakia's worst years in almost two decades.

* Entrenched bureaucracy. Moscow is not the only communist capital with a vast, entrenched bureaucracy opposed to reforms that would bite into its power and privilege.

''In Prague,'' said a '68 reformer, ''there is almost man for man, from Husak down, virtually the same leadership since 1969. . . . The party has become ossified and anyone with some notion of what is wrong is simply too fearful for his own place to talk out about it.

''The same, unhappily, is true of society, too, with everyone interested only in bucking the system, one way or another, to get as much out of it for himself as possible.''

Fifteen years after the uprising, Hungary was well into the third year of economic reform which today seems to have become an Andropov model for for the Soviet Union.

The Prague government has consistently chosen instead to rely on continued police pressures and antireligious campaigns. Such measures seem overkill, since Czech authorities are dealing with a politically neutered population, one rendered tragically indifferent by unimaginative government.

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