Prague — As Mikhail Gorbachev strolled down Na Prikope Street to the cries of ``friendship, friendship,'' one onlooker turned and told a joke. ``How do Czechoslovaks express dissent?'' he asked. Answer: ``We applaud Gorbachev.''
The crack underlined the explosive nature of the Soviet leader's three-day visit to Czechoslovakia, which ended this weekend. If the audience of passersby were laughing, Czechoslovakia's aging hard-line leaders were not. For them, along with many other East European communists, Mr. Gorbachev's program of economic and political reform threatens to destabilize their regime.
Despite his obvious preference for allies who think and act the way he does, he wants stability in his empire. That means nudging the six leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries along, not deposing them or imposing on them all his ideas.
``We're not here to push anybody around,'' Soviet spokesman Gennady Gerasimov insisted.
Hemmed in by these constraints, Gorbachev acted with relative caution in Czechoslovakia, balancing calls for reform with praise for his hosts. Stepping out of his black limousine at the Hradcany Castle, the seat of the Czechoslovak government, Gorbachev clasped the hand of 74-year-old Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak and raised it high. But while the young and vigorous Soviet leader plunged into the crowds shaking hands and smiling, the white-haired Dr. Husak walked well behind him, stiff and stern.
Numbering in the tens of thousands, the crowds responded spontaneously to the Soviet leader. Many waited hours to get a glimpse of him, and many greeted him in Russian, even some who said they have refused in the past to speak Russian, which they are taught in school.
During the visit, Gorbachev said he was willing to open separate negotiations on short-range nuclear missiles deployed in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, but he insisted that they not be linked with talks concerning medium-range missiles.
This idea drew a cautious response from President Reagan, but looked unlikely to pave the way for dramatic progress when Secretary of State George Shultz arrives today in Moscow. Washington and its NATO allies argue that medium- and short-range missiles represent equal threats, and must be dealt with as one package.
For Czechoslovakia's small official opposition centered around the human rights group Charter 77, the offer was somewhat disappointing. Before Gorbachev's arrival, Charter 77 had called for a withdrawal of Soviet troops and missiles from Czechoslovakia, and many here had hoped that Gorbachev would announce a unilateral withdrawal of at least some missiles and troops.
``If the troops would leave, it would create a much better atmosphere in this country,'' Charter 77 leader Vaclav Havel told the Monitor. Recalling that these Soviet troops first arrived in 1968, Mr. Havel said, ``Troop reductions would be a symbol of a critical attitude of the Soviets towards the 1968 invasion.''
Still, Gorbachev did strike a new tone in dealing with the traumatic events of 1968. Instead of lauding Soviet fraternal aid on that occasion, as past Soviet leaders have done, Gorbachev stepped aside during a relaxed moment on a cooperative farm and told onlookers, ``That was a difficult time.''
This conciliatory statement was followed by gentle criticism of the rigid political control and chilling centralized planning imposed by Czechoslovak leaders since 1968. Addressing a Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship meeting, Gorbachev said the Soviet union has embarked on what he called a social, political, and economic ``revolution.'' He said other socialist countries needed to undertake a similar ``revolution.''
``We are all mountaineers on a cliff,'' he said. ``Either we climb together or we will fall together into a precipice.''
All the same, Husak emphasized his agreement with Gorbachev, saying ``We are embarked on the path of reform.'' The Czechoslovak President himself suffered during the Stalinist era, spending 10 years in prison during the 1950s. Among government critics, this experience leaves a residue of hope that Husak himself can reform.
``Up to the invasion, Husak was positive, liberal,'' former Foreign Minister Jiri Hayek, now a Charter 77 signatory, told the Monitor. The open question, Mr. Hayek admits, is whether Husak has sufficient credibility among the public.
``Once the changes start,'' Hayek said, ``the rank and file could become inspired and move far beyond what he wants.''