Czechoslovakia: Is it going the way of Poland, Romania?

For many years Czechoslovaks enjoyed more red meat and higher than average incomes than their East bloc partners. And unlike Romania and Poland the country is not saddled today with vast debts to the West.

Yet in many ways Czechoslovakia's prospects are as difficult and gloomy as those of either Poland or Romania.

Living standards and economic development are in jeopardy as Czechoslovakia experiences its most austere and industrially sluggish period since post-reform ''normalization'' began in the spring of 1968.

This normalization took a carrot-and-stick approach, promising consumers material improvement even as the popular euphoria behind the reform movement of 1968 was squelched.

For some years it worked fairly well. But the government disregarded warnings implicit in the world oil and energy crisis of the mid-1970s. At the end of the 1975-80 plan, reports revealed serious failures, structural defects, and decline in almost all significant branches of the economy, with consequent effects on living costs and standards.

A major factor was the regime's stiflingly centralist and anti-incentive hand on the economy. Ironically, it was these conservative financial policies that precluded the Western credits needed to acquire technology to modernize key industries.

The motivation was a nervous, unsure idea of independence from the West. Prague's view of Poland is that the Warsaw government's economic involvement with the United States and Western Europe turned into a political dependence that ultimately contributed substantially to the crisis.

Prague, on the other hand, opted for self-sufficiency and an overall balance of payments based on greater use of domestic resources. This was never realized.

But the effects on a country that traditionally was an efficient workshop were seen in recent reports revealing that only 14 percent of equipment in even the more-advanced Czech lands was automated. In industries such as mining, more than 50 percent of machinery is obsolete or worn out.

As a result Czechoslovak engineering enterprises produce less than one-third as many goods (in terms of value) from a given volume of raw materials as comparable firms in the West.

Management was particularly hard-hit by normalization. Some 40 percent of all managers were dismissed at the start of the '70s because they had supported the market-oriented reform program of 1968, then refused to meet the political criteria required of the subsequent management.

Their successors were men of little experience who wanted only to comply with directives from the top. These men sidetracked efficiency measures that might bring conflict with workers and took no risks that might jeopardize their own jobs. Recruitment in the ruling Communist Party resulted in a new kind of opportunist membership. Some 700,000 new members were brought in during the '70s in place of the reform-minded half-million ousted in the purge.

A report indicated that in many industries only 70 to 80 percent of working time was being fully used, and that in each of the past three years 1.3 million work days were lost through ''unjustified absence.''

Slipshod work and indifference prevailed, said the party newspaper Rude Pravo , and defective products caused substantial losses.

Official sources have said that less than 7 percent of Czechoslovakia's products were up to world standards last year.

Even its allies in Comecon apparently complain of deficient standards. Rude Pravo singled out quality shortcomings in exports to the Soviet Union. It is all part of a social apathy that set in after the defeat of the reform movement. Obviously the carrot of the early normalization has failed to break this down.

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