Prague Leaders Struggle With Ethnic Tensions

IT was the battle of the hyphen. Parliament spent a whole day on it. By late Friday evening, however, the battle ceased, with no real victors. For the result was that Czechoslovakia had two names - one with a hyphen and one without. It was evidence that old nationalistic conflicts had emerged to threaten the unity of the nation's ``velvet revolution.''

Some people said that the decision was President Vaclav Havel's first mistake. The two names were his compromise - the Czechoslovak Federative Republic (for Czechs) and Czecho-Slovak Federative Republic (for the Slovaks). The Slovaks had insisted on the hyphen to emphasize their equality within the federation.

But in the streets of Prague, people shook their heads in wonder. The discussion on Wenceslas Square was intense. These people said Havel, who had come in to mediate by ambulance after an operation, should not have gotten involved or else he should have used his enormous popularity by being more firm.

Many people would have felt like laughing, if the matter had not been so serious. Instead, there was worry. Slovak nationalists were urging complete independence; the Czechs retorted that they didn't need Slovakia.

But the general feeling here is that the country has no time for such tensions. The June elections are coming and vital economic reforms have been delayed.

The debate shows that the revolution has entered a new phase.

``The period of romanticism is over,'' says economist Milos Zeman, who is a candidate of Civic Forum in the parliamentary elections on June 8.

In Civic Forum, the group behind last fall's democratic revolution, the debate about the name of the country was unwelcome.

``It's rubbish. It means that we are not dealing with the real issues, and this, in turn, is leading to a loss of faith and to apathy,'' says Jan Urban, the Forum's head.

IVAN GABAL, the Forum's election campaign manager, calls the nationalist debate ``pseudo-Kafkaesque,'' but adds that it is a ``bitter reaction'' to the failure of the government to launch a long-range program.

And journalist Michal Horacek, a key participant in the ``miracle'' of last fall who has just finished a book about those days, says he hopes the country will not get sidetracked but continue on its way toward full democracy. ``The cards we held were so good. Oh, to blow it all now.''

The continuation of the success of the Czechoslovak revolution depends on Mr. Havel and his leadership, observers say.

Up on the hill at Hradcany Castle overlooking the Vltava River and this stunning city, Havel's spokesman Michal Zantovsky stresses the president's awareness of the dangers of building a democracy on one person. He concedes that Havel's role in the name debate might have been a mistake, but he does not seem overly alarmed in the informal atmosphere among the young, jeans-clad team, which took over after Communist leader Gustav Husak resigned last December.

Zantovsky says that there has also been ``real political headway,'' and that the scene is set for a political transition. He admits, however, that the economic reforms are lagging behind.

``It's an unpleasant wait, but then we've waited for 40 years.''

For Havel, ``guarantor of free elections'' as the heading says on posters with his picture seen all over Prague, the time since his election has been spent building on the self-esteem and self-confidence that the revolution created. But he has not involved himself with the critical economic reforms, pretty much letting reformist Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus fight his own battle.

``But the theater is over,'' says Monika Pajerova, a student leader during the revolution who is critical of Havel's choice of advisers, a tight-knit group of about 10 trusted friends (intellectuals, actors, artists). She wants to bring in experts and professionals.

For Havel, the moment nears for a decision on his own future: playwright or president? If asked, he will remain at the castle not only through the June vote, as first stated, but also through the vote scheduled for 1992, meant to ratify and finalize the democratic changes in Czechoslovakia.

To everyone here, he is sure to be asked, because he is needed. He is the guarantor of the new Czechoslovakia.

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