The Czech Quest ...

MOST-COMMUNIST Czechoslovakia, like other liberated Eastern European states, must conduct business and foreign relations in a radically changed Europe - and with no real experience doing so.

The struggle is not a simple matter of finding a strategy. It is far more complicated. It is a struggle for a Central European identity - and soul - as much as for future markets.

Western attention to Eastern European woes has been buried by US and European concern over the fragmenting former Soviet Union. But in Czechoslovakia woes continue. Many politicians and average folk feel time is running out. A quick switch to democracy and capitalism (with its resulting middle class) isn't happening. Aid from the US and Europe has been slow and ineffective. Europe's markets remain maddeningly closed. The European Community has not and will not invite any East European states to join the EC in the 1990s.

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The question since 1989 in Czechoslovakia is whether a functioning democracy or a productive economy is first needed to establish progress. Prague still lacks a consensus on whether 1989 was about an end to communist tyranny or an embrace of a Western lifestyle.

Since '89 these two forces - political and economic - have operated independently. Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus and outside consultants have almost wholly dictated Czechoslovakia's economic policies, cutting federal assembly out of the process.

One reason for this is the difficult transition in Prague to a functioning democracy. The coalition led by Civic Forum to overthrow the old regime broke up immediately after the bums were out. There has been brutal infighting, settling of old scores, accusations of communist complicity, witch hunts - and a corresponding lack of trust, authority, civic institutions, and a language with which to discuss political economy. Marxism is out, but there's no coherent idea of what replaces it.

Czechoslovakia needs time; it is a state in creation. What President Vaclav Havel argues, correctly, is that his country must not become a capitalist clone, but define itself anew. Even during its Marxist days, the Czech lands never let go of 19th century philosophy, which, unlike the empirical sciences of the 20th century, asked "meaning" questions. Mr. Havel wants his country to have a soul. Yet it also needs jobs.

Ironically, the New York Times Op-ed page last Sunday ran Havel's "The End of the Modern Era," a call for a new and responsible "spiritual politics" in his country, opposite a Times editorial: "Who can fix the economy?"

The danger of an economic system separate from political governance is clear. This would not forward self-confidence, self-governance, or self-definition. The West must advise accordingly. The alternative is schism if politicians or economists fail.

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