Czechs fear a Soviet frost will nip 'Polish spring'

In a Prague cafe, a young Czech worker predicts the outcome of the Polish strikes: He pushes his thumb hard onto the white tablecloth. And rubs. And rubs.

"The Soviet will 'help' their Polish comrades the same way they 'helped' the Afghans a year ago and the same way they 'helped' us in 1968," he explains. He has been expecting an invasion since October.

It has been more than a decade now since Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to undo the popular reforms enacted by the government of Czechoslovak party chief Alexander Dubcek; "fraternal assistance in defense of socialism," it was called. Travel privileges were revoked, strict censorship reinstated, and political prisoners once again jailed. Today, the Czechoslovaks remember Aug. 21, 1968, and remain cynical about the possibility of successful dissent in a Soviet satellite.

each of Solidarity's gains -- from the five-day workweek to the dismissal of corrupt local officials -- evokes only skeptical sighs in Czechoslovakia. Whatever the union's achievements, one member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party commented, "Power is still in the Kremlin."

Any Prague resident will tell you that during the fist half of 1968, "The people of Czechoslovakia also thought they saw genuine change." Now they know better.

Since the '68 invasion, Czechoslovaks have seen their share of suffering.

Many of the '68 reformers had to leave the country. Many others are not allowed that privilege. Blacklisted from their former professions, they dig ditches and clean subway stations. Alexander Dubceck, symbol of the "Prague spring," now works as a businessman in Bratislava and lives under the watchful eye of a police guard.

Modern Czechoslovaks thus cringe at the sight of the numerous red and white billboards promoting "Ceskoslovensko-Sovetskeho Pratelstvi" -- Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship.

"Sure," one Prague resident remarked, "our party bosses are great friends with their party bosses." Czechoslovaks predict the Poles may soon find themselves in a similar situation.

Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia's avidly proSoviet President, Gustav Husak, seeks to ensure that the Polish unrest does not spread to his domain. In the autumn, a free travel policy between two countries was altered so that now Czechoslovaks may visit Poland only once every 90 days. As early as September, government presses turned out poignant articles stating taht "the Czech Central Council of Trade Unions . . . focuses trade union activity on ensuring observance of laws."

Yet Czechoslovaks laugh at the suggestion that Polish unrest will have any effect in their country.

For one thing, they are aware that thousands of Soviet soldiers reside in the Czechoslovak countryside. "You rarely see them in Prague," one Czech student remarked, "but 50 kilometers [30 miles] from the city -- in any direction -- they are there."

More important, while Poles now suffer from acute food shortages, the Czechoslovaks remain relatively well off, Poles traveling to Czechoslovakia think the Prague stores are paradise.

The average Czechoslovak is not interested in Poland's political debates; he simply wants to live in peace. "Poland," the saying goes, "is Poland's problem." Call it defeatist -- the Czechs would agree. Residents claim that the country is in a psychological "great depression," which saps its energy and interest.

"We are a phlegmatic people," a Prague lawyer commented, "even in 1968, we did not really fight back. Today, we have our flats, we go to work, and once every five years we vote for the party candidate." (There is no other name on the ballot.)

"It is simple," his friend explained, "and it avoids much trouble."

But even the most cynical Czechoslovak will acknowledge that the Poles are not "phlegmatic," and that if (or as the Czechs say, when) a confrontation erupts in Poland, the Soviets will have a more difficult time than they had in Prague. As one woman remarked, "If the Soviets go in, all Poles --Communist and non-Communist -- will defend the country. I am afraid for Poland. . . ."

After a pause the continued: "But I wouldn't like to be in the Kremlin now, either."

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