Tight belts - and tight rein - keep Czechs in check

Czechoslovakia moved quickly to snuff out the first signs of any spill-over of worker discontent from Poland. But it has not managed to isolate its economy from Poland's turmoil.

Its own coal production lagged badly last year, and nondeliveries from strike-bound Poland spelled big trouble for Prague's energy program.

At the same time, Czechoslovakia's repression of intellectuals and its hostility toward the churches means that there's little likelihood of significant help from the West.

All this means some uncomfortable belt-tightening for Czechoslovak consumers, who had become accustomed to one of the highest standards of living in the bloc. In fact, austerity and frugality are to be the watchwords this year - and perhaps for the rest of the decade.

''Never before has it been so difficult to find the basics,'' said a Czechoslovak who recently moved here. ''Ordinary things - milk and dairy products generally and the best sausage or meat.''

Czechoslovakia's economic problems were evident in end-of-year reports that bore down on disappointments, inefficiency, and waste in almost all branches of industry and in agriculture. People were warned they must consume less, pay higher prices (all foodstuffs will soon cost more in across-the-board increases) , and above all work harder.

In the 1970s, the reasonably juicy carrot and stout stick policy of the Husak regime (installed by the Russians after the short-lived reforms of 1968) paid off quite well in terms of consumerism and domestic tranquility.

Now the consumerism is fading, but the comparative tranquility still holds. ''Charter 77,'' the human rights movement, persists in the face of increasing pressure, but only as an intellectual movement. It has never roused mass sympathy or support.

The ''underground church'' seems to worry the regime more. Although conducted mainly by priests who are officially barred, it apparently continues to grow. It has prompted the most rigorous campaign against religion that Eastern Europe has seen in many years.

The communist authorities have opened an Institute of Scientific Atheism in Prague, the capital. There has been a similar institution in more Roman Catholic Slovakia for some time.

The government claims Czechoslovaks are not too concerned about Poland; that they recognized in Solidarity's activities a reflection of how they themselves were ''misled'' in 1968. Many Czechs did express impatience with what they saw as the excessive ''maximalism'' of the free trade union - and of Poles in general.

Nonetheless, the regime moved swiftly to squelch any spill-over of unrest from Poland into its northern coal regions. The government arrested some 30 Charter activists and warned against any public demonstration of sympathy with the Poles.

But Poland's real impact has been on the Czech economy. Last year Poland delivered to Czechoslovakia only about half as much coal as it did yearly through the '70s, and Czech production lagged badly. A breakdown in supplies of electricity from Romania, whose economy begins to look like Poland's, added to Czechoslovakia's energy woes.

Talk of an economic ''crisis'' is stoutly rejected in Prague. But Premier Lubomir Strugal has said 1982 will present ''a great trial'' and that the problems are ''unprecedented in their scale and complexity.''

A ''set of measures to improve the economy'' were introduced in 1981 to give enterprise management a certain leeway. So far this mini-reform has been a disappointment.

In industry, the overall shortfall averaged 20 percent below plan, even though targets themselves were reduced.

The same ''set of measures'' failed to stimulate agriculture. A grain harvest 1.6 million short of the planned 11 million tons made matters worse. That shortfall was about equal to the amount imported annually from the West between 1976 and 1980. But the US is taking a closer look at grain sales to the East bloc.

Prospects of the US extending most favored nation tariff treatment for Czech goods to make them competitive on US markets are excluded as long as Prague maintains it present extreme stances at home and abroad.

There is more realism in plans to curb capital construction. But social needs like housing will suffer from the severe cuts foreseen in fuel and energy consumption.

To help agriculture, food processing is to be expanded, a new production line is to speed farm machinery and spare parts, and just a little more support is promised private plot holders and small breeders.

But the growth-dominated centrist system will be preserved, with its accompanying panacea of austerity at large for an undefined future. The regime still ''refuses'' at the thought of a jump over to market-minded reformism although economists recognize that is the real need.

The economists, however, remain detached from decisionmaking. They have been confined to the sidelines since 1968.

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