Prague Wants to Thank the US By Housing Radio Free Europe

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE corridors are eerily quiet these days in the building that once housed the federal parliament of Czechoslovakia.

Ever since the federation dissolved peacefully into the Czech and Slovak republics on Jan. 1, 1993, the building, located on Wenceslaus Square in Central Prague, has stood idle. Many halls aren't lit, and furniture is stacked in stairwells. Only a token staff of about 60 maintenance and clerical workers is left to roam the building.

Now Czech officials are pushing an idea that would make ``one of the best locations in Prague,'' as Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec put it, once again buzz with activity. The Czech government has offered to lease the building to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, now based in Munich, Germany.

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``We are prepared to accept Radio Free Europe if the United States wants to move it,'' Mr. Zieleniec says.

Conceived during the cold war to broadcast the American viewpoint beyond the Iron Curtain, the US government-financed radio stations are now facing the Congressional budget axe. Radio Free Europe is responsible for broadcasting to Eastern European and Balkan nations, while Radio Liberty targets the states of the former Soviet Union.

The Czech proposal could mean tremendous savings for the stations, and thus might seem like an offer the US couldn't refuse. Yet the Clinton administration hasn't exactly jumped at the offer.

Feasibility studies on moving the radio operations to Prague, as well as keeping them in Germany, are due to be completed this month, radio officials say. A decision on the possible move would be made only after a thorough cost analysis.

But the move is more than a matter of money, radio officials add privately. Many senior employees - Americans, as well as Eastern European emigres - have put down roots in Munich and aren't receptive to the prospect of exchanging their current lifestyles for the rigors of a nation making the transition from communism to a market economy.

An indication of the discontent was the resignation earlier this year of William Marsh as president of RFE/RL, ostensibly a protest against the move. In his resignation letter, Mr. Marsh argued that the radio stations would lose many of their best employees if they moved to Prague. He also said a move would generate a great financial strain at a time of drastic restructuring.

Indeed, under current administration plans, RFE/RL stands to see its budget cut from $210 million to $75 million by Oct. 1, 1995. That would mean a more than 50 percent reduction in the work force - from about 1,500 to 700. The US government also plans to combine RFE/RL operations with those of the Voice of America.

Some radio officials estimate it could cost between $15 million and $20 million less per year to operate in Prague than in Germany, where taxes and labor costs are high. The move might cost up to $15 million.

From the Czech government's standpoint, leasing the federal parliament building to RFE/RL wouldn't do much to fill state coffers. Foreign Minister Zieleniec described the offer as more a way of expressing gratitude for the role the stations played in providing news and information during the dark days of communism.

``This played a very important part in the de-communization of this country,'' he said, referring to RFE/RL. Moving the broadcasters to Prague would also give the Czech Republic an opportunity to showcase its market-reform achievements as it strives to gain membership in the European Union and NATO.

``It would allow the Czech Republic to show that we are a part of the Western family of countries, and that we are a stable country,'' Zieleniec said.

Some RFE/RL officials say that no matter where the broadcasters end up, they hope operating funds from the US can be upwardly revised, given the highly unstable political situations in Russia and the Balkans. They also stress that in some Eastern European nations, such as Slovakia, there is still a need for an alternative source of information, as the local media are still largely controlled by the government.

Employees add that resistance to a move to Prague appears to be slackening, as many decide it would be preferable to be in Prague and have a job, than to perhaps have no job at all.

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