PRAGUE — IT emerged suddenly as if out of nowhere, forced by an unforeseen student strike, but three weeks later the opposition group Civic Forum is paving the way for a new and democratic Czechoslovakia. It is a remarkable story of how a few hundred dissidents after decades of underground opposition and persecution under one of the fiercest Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe came to head a group that has become a major political force in the country and the ``voice of the people,'' in the words of Vaclav Havel, the Forum's leader.
In the process, they have become to share power with their former Communist enemies, Mr. Havel could soon be the next president, and several of its members have entered the new coalition government.
The nucleus of Civic Forum consists of people who for years have fought together against the regime and who have learned to trust each other. The question now is how well they will function in a large, political organization. Much depends on Havel, the 53-year-old playwright who more and more is compared to Poland's Lech Walesa as a symbol for the renewal of the nation.
``It is important to get organized and to keep the momentum,'' says Jan Urban, a leading figure in Civic Forum. ``We must become a real political force and gather around us more nondissidents.''
At the founding meeting, the goals of Civic Forum were quite limited and pertained only to the immediate crisis in the aftermath of the student demonstrations. But within a few days the Forum published a political program called ``What We Want'' in which it demanded wide-ranging political and economic reforms leading to a parliamentary democracy and a free-market economy. In next year's elections, it intends to advance its own slate of candidates.
The group was founded in chaos on Sunday, Nov. 19, at a spur of the moment meeting in Cinoherni Klub, a theater in Prague.
The students at Charles University in Prague were preparing a big strike in protest against the savage beatings by the police two nights earlier during an otherwise peaceful and officially sanctioned demonstration. The atmosphere was intense.
``Some people from Obroda [reform Communists kicked out of the party after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968] rushed over to Havel's apartment, and Jiri Hajek [former foreign minister] started to call different groups to come to a meeting that same evening,'' says Mr. Urban of the events.
``Around 300 of us came, and I was surprised that we were able to hold the meeting at all,'' says Jaroslav Koran, a longtime activist who was present.
Ivan Gabal was also there, but he was quite turned off by what happened. The meeting was chaotic, he says. It was not work, it was show, it was theater, and there was no serious opportunity for discussion. Mr. Gabal is a sociologist and member of the Circle of Independent Intelligentsia, a group of many hundred intellectuals from within the power structure that participated in the forming of Civic Forum.
Other participants give similar accounts of the founding meeting of Civic Forum, and no one left with the impression that something historic had taken place.
The striking students sent only one representative, strike leader Martin Mejstrik, recalls Monika Pajerova, another strike leader. We didn't know the dissidents, they lived in their world and we in ours, and we were also sort of tired of all dissident groups, she adds.
``When Martin returned, we asked him what had happened, and he answered only that they had signed some kind of document, and then we forgot about the whole thing,'' says Ms. Pajerova. ``It was not until a couple of days later that we understood the importance of the meeting in Cinoherni Klub.''
When Civic Forum was founded, all Czechoslovak dissident groups - around a dozen - finally succeeded in uniting under a common banner. Two previous attempts this year had failed for various reasons, and in the previous years, each group fought alone its own battle for survival.
``But now it was clear to us that it was either them or us,'' explains Urban. ``There was now open conflict and we had to do something. After so many years of hiding, we had to state openly who who we were.''
Urban has spent the past three weeks in chaotic basement offices trying to create a structure in Civic Forum. He is the head of the main working group, jokingly called HVP - holka pro vsechno - a jack of all trades. The activity is hectic, people run in and out, everybody is talking, documents and papers overflow desks and floors. Along one wall, there are 55 shoe cartons serving as mailboxes for the leading Forum members. Urban describes the situation with a big smile as ``uncontrolled avalanche.''
In the crisis staff, there is a group of advisers that consists of Havel, Sasa Vondra, and Jiri Krizan. They are two of Havel's closest friends. Mr. Vondra is a young computer programmer, who earlier this year spent 50 days in jail for his role as spokesman for Charter 77, the human rights group that published its manifesto in January 1977. Mr. Krizan is a former scriptwriter who earlier this year was one of the main authors of another dissident manifesto, ``A Few Sentences.''
Under this troika, there is an action group led by another signer of Charter 77, Radim Palous, a former philosophy professor who also is a close friend of Havel's.
Today, no one in Civic Forum talks of its nonpolitical and temporary character, as in its early days. And no one talks any more of dissolving it. On the contrary, all signs point to the Forum becoming a permanent factor in Czechoslovak society, and maybe even becoming a political party one day. Certainly, it is already the nation's most-important political movement.
``All of Czechoslovakia now depends on these dissidents' ability to learn to become professional politicians,'' says Gabal.
But with all success of the group, there are also the first signs of strained relations within Civic Forum, and its unity will be tested even more in the coming months leading up to the elections. Democratic Initiative, one the founding groups, has already shown signs of independence. Emanuel Mandler, one of its leaders, says that his group has not agreed with some of the tactics used by the Forum, but it has no intention to leave the group.