Czechoslovakia moves cautiously ahead under Soviet shadow

Czechoslovakia's aging leaders have withstood Soviet pressure. At the Communist Party Congress that ended Friday, members of the Soviet delegation told Western reporters that the Prague government must ``purge dead wood.'' But 73-year-old President Gustav Husak retained his top position and Czechoslovakian officials here said no Gorbachev-style mass dismissals would take place. Although the officials admitted the need to pursue economic reform, President Husak said this must take the form of improvements rather than a complete overhaul of the centrally planned economic system.

This caution demonstrates the conflicting pressures facing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as he moves to make his mark on his Eastern European allies, Western observers say.

On the one hand, Mr. Gorbachev wants East Europe to provide greater economic support for his modernization plan. For stagnating economies such as Czechoslovakia's, this requires greater efficiency. On the other hand, Gorbachev wants his allies to stay politically stable. For Czechoslovakia, this means avoiding sweeping change.

``Prague will no doubt follow'' Soviet streamlining of the economy ``as best it can,'' says Radio Free Europe's Vladimir Socor. But ``the regime will remain vigilant.''

A recent trip to Czechoslovakia offered some insights into this vigilance. Czechoslovakian officials said their economy, although among the most advanced and industrialized in the East bloc, is plagued by outdated technology, declining productivity, and low-quality products. They acknowleged Soviet pressure to export more advanced machinery and more desirable consumer goods in return for oil they import from the Soviet Union.

To achieve these goals, Vaclav Vertelar, vice-director of the Planning Ministry, discussed ``tighter discipline.'' He suggested that efforts would concentrate on high-technology growth areas, that more private services might be permitted, and greater wage differentials might be offered. He hinted that borrowing from the West might be increased a little from its current low level.

But he dismissed talk of Hungarian-style market reforms. The Czechoslovakians blame such reforms for producing the 1968 political explosion and the subsequent Soviet invasion. Afterward, thousands of younger party members were expelled for their involvement in the ``Prague Spring,'' and are now cleaning windows or stoking furnaces. That leaves no ``Gorbachev generation'' to take over from the Husak and his compatriots.

``We tried some of the same things as the Hungarians' experiment,'' Mr. Vertelar said. ``The results were bad.''

Fear of losing control also helps explains Czechoslovakia's poor ties with the outside world. At the party congress, Husak emphasized ``the harmony'' between his country and the Soviet Union. Notably the Chinese and Italian communist parties were not represented.

Relations with the United States and Western Europe are strained. Director of the Institute for International Relations Jan Pudlar cited a lingering feeling of ``betrayal'' stemming from what the Czech's view as Western appeasement of Hitler before World War II. In recent years, Pudlar said that the West's ``propaganda about human rights'' has created a tense atmosphere.

Younger Czechoslovakian officials, speaking privately, say the country must open up more if it is to compete economically and take advantage of its geographic situation at the center of Europe. They hoped Gorbachev would push harder for personnel changes.

``The impetus must come from Moscow,'' one said. ``My generation will be different. We are not as scared.''

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