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Reform Comes Slowly to Prague


By Klas BergmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1989


IT'S still winter in Prague. Twenty-one years after the Prague Spring reform movement was crushed under Soviet tanks, and in spite of revolutionary reforms in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, the hard-line Czechoslovak Communists show no signs of changing.

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The crackdown on dissidents and opposition groups continues, accompanied by a slow, but steady, deterioration of the economy.

But among the opposition and even some officials in this beautiful city, the feeling grows that the need for change is urgent and that time is getting short.

And they are acting.

Not only are new opposition groups still being formed, but the opposition is trying to unify and create a political alternative to the regime. This goes beyond what Charter 77 ever did, even in its heyday as a human rights movement and Czechoslovakia's leading dissident group.

``Now is the final nonviolent opportunity for the Czechoslovak leaders to cease being the last Stalinist museum in Central Europe,'' says Milos Zeman, who was fired last week from his job as head forecaster at an economic institute for his critical views on the economic development in Czechoslovakia. But there is no sign that major change will happen soon.

For one thing, the Czechoslovaks have not taken to the streets the way the people in the neighboring countries have done. On the contrary, the much-anticipated Oct. 28 demonstration on Wenceslas Square gathered 5,000 participants. The opposition had hoped for many more. But the large majority of Czechoslovaks is passive and politically indifferent, 21 years after so-called normalization.

Also, although the living standard of most is slipping, it is still higher than their communist neighbors. They can travel to the West. They are guaranteed jobs and a good retirement. They have a car and a weekend house. Opponents of the regime find it is not easy to persuade people that change is necessary, especially when change, at least in the short run, only promises hardships.

``After 1968, people were only asked to keep quiet, and they were paid well to do it,'' says Jiri Dienstbier, a leading dissident and editor of the major underground paper Lidove Noviny. ``If people kept quiet, they were allowed to live peaceful and private lives.''

People are still afraid in Czechoslovakia of the repercussions of political dissent and of losing their material well-being.

But opposition veteran Vaclav Maly, a Roman Catholic priest who has not been allowed to preach since 1979, is more optimistic now. Things are changing, he says, people are getting involved.

``The independent opposition movements have ceased being isolated from society, but a moral appeal is no longer enough. We must now offer an alternative, a political program for change,'' Fr. Maly states.

Many in Prague this fall echo Maly's sentiments, as can be seen from the growth of opposition groups in the last year or so. Such groups include the Movement for Civil Liberties (HOS), Democratic Initiative (DI), Obroda (a group of reformist Communists in the mold of Prague Spring leader Alexander Dubcek), and the Independent Peace Association. They contain liberal democrats as well as reform communists, old opposition figures as well as newcomers to the struggle for change in Czechoslovakia.

Emanuel Mandler of DI and Ladislav Lis of HOS have been active for many years in the Czechoslovak opposition. Now they are trying to join hands, but it is not easy. Both men want to abolish the leading role of the Communist Party, foster a market economy and private enterprise, and bring about a pluralist democracy.