Twelve years after Soviet intervention crushed the 1968 reform movement, Czechoslovakia is the most Stalinist country in Eastern Europe. Apart from the Soviet Union, it is the only communist-bloc state that currently has citizens -- notably dramatist Vaclav Havel and his Charter 77 associates -- serving long jail terms for criticizing the regime. Czechoslovakia also matches the USSR in its unflagging harassment and forced exile of others.
While its neighbors seek better relations with the West despite the halt to US-Soviet detente, the Prague regime seems quite indifferent. Its needs for Western technology, for example, are every bit as pressing as are those of the rest of Eastern Europe.
Yet while Poland, hungary, Romania, and even Bulgaria contrive to expand economic ties to the West through joint ventures, Czechoslovakia becomes ideologically more rigid and more enmeshed in the Soviet-Comecon structure, despite the costs.
Economically, the country faces the same kind of stagnation that was a major element in bringing about the "Prague spring."
"We are back to square one," a Czech acquaintance observed to this writer recently. A professional who had supported former prime minister Alexander Dubcek although he was not himself a communist, he was purged by the present regime. "The economy is in much the same predicament as when Sik fought for his economic reforms in 1967."
Ota Sik is one of today's exiles (in Switzerland) of the reform movement. He was the deputy premier responsible for economic policy during the short-lived "liberalizing" reign of Mr. Dubcek. He designed reforms intended to end the stultifying, Soviet-style command system under which traditionally efficient industry was allowed to decline through the Stalinist 1950s and '60s.
His plan to decentralize, to gear the economy to market forces and to quality instead of quantity, met last-ditch resistance from the Stalinist leadership. But the breakdown in both industry and agriculture and a mushrooming intellectual and popular demand for democratic change generally forced its final acceptance at the 1967 Communist Party congress.
Maybe it all went too far, too fast. But the Russians allowed it only eight months before sending their tanks across the borders to put down what they chose to call "counterrevolution."
They hijacked its leaders to Moscow -- to "negotiate" -- and then subjected Prague to nonstop pressures ending in April 1969 with installation of the present regime, under which the economy was restored to Soviet orthodoxy. It has declined steadily ever since.
Today's parallels with the mid-'60s are complete.
"The same ever-more-urgent need for economic reform is there," my Czech acquaintance continued, "only more so. There are those in the leadership who know the imperative need fro real change. But they are helpless. They're not strong enough to do more than push through extremely limited measures that simply tinker with the idea of making a bad system work better instead of tackling its real defects."
The government of Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal has adopted a mini-package of measures for the 1981-85 economic plan purportedly giving enterprise management some little initiative and tying incentives to effiecient work and quality in productioin. Western economists view these moves as quite inadequate.
But the hard-liners in Prague are opposed to any kind of reform, even in the economic field, for fear it may reopen the door one chink to the ideas of 1968.
A recent comment by Vasil Bilak, the hardhest antiliberal in the Communist Party apparatus, illustrates this: "Let us not be native in believing there is no one who -- under guise of ostensible commitment -- would not want to slip into public life all kinds of things contrary to our ideology."
A party congress is due next year. "By that time," a Westerner in Prague commented, "the situation may at last enable the economic pragmatists to break this stalemate with the hard-liners. It is the only hope."