A Tale of Two Augusts - and false hopes in Eastern Europe

From a Prague notebook 24 hours after Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia on the night of Aug. 20, 1968: - Standing in crowd, wedged in square between Hradcany and Archbishop's Palace.

- Big Castle gates open - as always. But two Soviet tanks thrust side by side into each gate. So tight, no one can squeeze through.

A middle-aged Czech, anguish in his voice, asks me: ``Why do we have an army? Three times it has not fought. What do we want it for? Why do we need an army? Why cannot we be neutral, like Switzerland?'' (The ``three times'' refer to: the 1938 Munich agreement ceding territories to Germany; Hitler's 1939 annexation of Czechoslovakia; and the Soviet invasion. As in 1938 and 1939, the Army was ordered not to resist.)

Aug. 30, 1980, notes from Gdansk shipyard, Poland:

- Anxiety overnight because Politburo hardliners are demanding troops be used to open Baltic ports and break the strikes.

- But good news too, the free union movement is flooding into the Silesian coalfield. Has certainly helped silence advocates of force - at least for the moment.

- Last minute wrangles between Walesa and Solidarity radicals about the preamble to the draft (agreement). Government seems ready to accept anything. Walesa's view prevails - union independence more important than semantics about party's leading role.

- Sunday morning (Aug. 31). Compromise on both sides. 4:15 p.m. Agreement signed.

Walesa: ``Tomorrow, the life of our new trade unions begins.'' Says ``dispute settled without force - through talking as Poles to Poles.'' Jagielski (Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw, for the government): ``There are no winners and no losers ...''

One can but wonder.

Two milestone Augusts for Eastern Europe. One ended eight months of hope for a fresh start in Prague. The other signaled a euphoric start to something equally hopeful but - to the politically discerning - soon to reflect the political hazards that would lead to the same end.

The Soviet-decreed ``normalization'' that followed produced a stultifying reimposition of the rigid centralism of the former Stalinist Novotny regime - and set back Czech economic growth.

Today, reformers have reemerged in Prague. But so far, they have scarcely altered this pattern of excessive conformity with Soviet practices that Mikhail Gorbachev is doing his best to discard.

The results are well illustrated in the simple terms of the everyday life ordinary Czechs lead, exemplified by the experience of a Czech couple met recently here with their two small children.

Prewar and even some years after the communist takeover in 1948, Prague was famous for its children's stores, the Detsky Dum. Today, the name remains, but the style has gone, goods are mediocre and supplies, inadequate. ``This is another world,'' said the wife after a shopping spree for the children in a modest Viennese junior boutique.

The pair has a Skoda car, built in Czechoslovakia where the East bloc's only indigenous auto industry was created when Czech Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

``But for the smallest of spares these days,'' the man says, ``You must either bribe handsomely or, if you can, come to Vienna.''

This, in a country once known as middle Europe's engineering workshop. Living standards are better than in Poland or Romania. Nobody goes hungry. But the picture could have been very different.

Leonid Brezhnev did more than simply quash a reform movement he perceived politically dangerous. He set the clock back for Czechoslovakia and, later, in Poland, just at the time when such countries needed to get themselves into the great technological revolution of the 1960s.

Alexander Dubcek put it aptly in a recent interview. For 20 years, he said, his successors had ``copied everything'' and taken their cue from whatever Brezhnev was doing in the Soviet Union. Today, however, when Gorbachev is building Soviet reforms, the ``copying'' is less precise. ``The same people'', Dubcek says, ``are very selective about Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring).''

A Czech friend of 1968 is pessimistic. ``The time for takeoff was then. It was our chance to catch the technological wave of the future. When you see the fantastic advances of these 20 lost years one can only fear it was our last chance and it was lost. We missed the train and today it is going faster and faster.''

Poland's plight is very similar. ``Socialist renewal'' - an easy euphemism for open reform - has replaced the outlawed independent trade union Solidarity. Some small steps have been taken, but nothing done that might bridge the credibility gap between government and nation, or, as the union's leader said eight years ago, between ``Poles and Poles.''

It is said that Gorbachev would not have invaded Czechoslovakia (nor, for that matter, Afghanistan) and would have counseled avoidance of force, even martial law, in Poland. Probably.

But that doesn't help Prague and Warsaw now. They need loans and aid and that is no more forthcoming from Moscow than from the West. Moscow has its own ``catching up'' problems.

Yet, without some such support, from East or West, or both, Polish and Czech chances of even starting to make good those lost technological years seem out of question.

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