East Bloc Backpedals on Rights. MONITORING THE VIENNA ACCORDS

IN Vienna, the Czechoslovakian foreign minister signed an agreement last week undertaking a new set of commitments to respect human rights. On the same day in nearby Prague, Czechoslovakia's police turned water cannon on peaceful demonstrators and shot tear gas into subway stops. More than 1,000 people have been arrested, and criminal charges of hooliganism are reportedly being prepared against 16 of the best-known activists, including playwright Vaclav Havel.

``The brutality of it was indescribable, it was like civil war,'' said a witness contacted by telephone in Prague. ``Police in armored carriers surrounded the city center and unleashed a full-scale attack against the demonstrators.''

Around Eastern Europe, the story is the same: Within days of signing the new East-West agreement on human rights, many communist regimes have shown that they have little intention of complying with their commitments.

East German police broke up a peaceful demonstration in Leipzig and detained at least 10 people. Bulgarian officers arrested 15 members of a new Independent Human Rights committee. Even Polish spokesman Jerzy Urban, whose government maintains a liberal travel policy, announced that a few passports would continue to be withheld for political reasons. And Romanian Foreign Minister Ioan Totu announced that his country would ignore the entire agreement.

``The forces in the countries which do not like the commitments made under the Vienna document have the upper hand,'' says Hester Minnema of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Vienna. ``They want to show their power so that people don't get the wrong idea.''

Does this mean that the Vienna agreements are worthless? Not at all, Western human rights activists and East European dissidents say. The agreements set up standards by which East-bloc countries can be judged - and provide a forum in which the West can press for compliance. Three human rights conferences, starting with one in Paris this June, are scheduled in the next three years.

``We have a mechanism to discuss violations,'' explains Ms. Minnema of the International Helsinki Federation. ``It puts pressure on the governments to discuss these issues.''

After 35 countries - all the governments of Europe, except Albania, plus the United States and Canada - signed a human rights agreement in Helsinki in 1975, monitoring groups sprouted up behind the Iron Curtain, calling on their authorities to abide by international commitments.

``When the agreement first was signed, people in Eastern Europe said, `What is this, you're just giving legitimacy to totalitarian governments and confirming the status quo,''' recalls Joanne Landy, director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy/East and West. ``It didn't work out that way. It spurred East Europeans to take action from below, and gave them an organizing tool which pressed governments to adhere to these issues.''

The new Vienna agreement is much more detailed than the original 1975 Helsinki accord. Back at Helsinki, references to religion were restricted to a single paragraph. Now at Vienna, there are 16 paragraphs, including specific promises for religious education and availability of books.

There also are new promises on travel, emigration, postal and telephone communications, freedom for foreign journalists, safeguards for ethnic minorities - all rights much sought after by most East Europeans.

Particularly striking was the way reform-minded Hungary joined with Canada to fight for a phrase ensuring minorities the right ``to their ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious identity on their territory.'' It was the first time a communist country joined a Western country in promoting a new human rights measure under the Helsinki process.

``For a long time, the official concept in the Soviet Union was that these matters about national minorities already had been settled,'' a Hungarian diplomat said recently in Budapest. ``Then Gorbachev arrived, and openly said that there still was a problem, that it needs to be resolved. He joined with the Hungarian concept - and it was quite helpful.''

Less open-minded East-bloc countries don't welcome such openness. Diplomats in Vienna say that the Soviets had to do a lot of persuading to get their allies to agree to the Vienna provisions. East Germany and Czechoslovakia, both facing mounting church movements, proved reticent about the new clauses on religious freedom. Bulgaria wanted to weaken the wording about minorities. Romania failed in its effort to block the Vienna conference.

This clash of values is most visible in Czechoslovakia, where the most dramatic wave of protests has taken place since the Soviet invasion of 1968. The protests commemorate the death of Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself 20 years ago this month to protest the invasion. Led by young activists, crowds have taken to shouting, ``We want Gorbachev,'' and, in a reference to the Vienna accords, ``The whole world is watching you.''

Czechoslovakia's foreign minister, Jaromir Johanes, responded in Vienna by comparing demonstrators in Prague to rioting blacks in Miami.

``The government position is so difficult,'' says Jan Kavan, director of Palach Press, a Czechoslovakian exile organization in London. ``People see the agreement in Vienna, they see the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Poland making changes toward democratization, and then they see us slipping back look toward Romania. It's frustrating - and people won't accept it any longer.''

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