High living in Czechoslovakia -- `but who can afford it?'

As Jozef buys film for his Soviet-made Zenit camera in the Parizka Street photo shop here, he eyes fancy Nikon and Minolta cameras behind the counter. ``They're great machines, but who can afford them?'' he asks. Prices for the Japanese imports reach 21,000 crowns (some $1,900), or about 10 months' worth of the average worker's yearly salary.

``To take the pictures I want, I'll just have to make do with my Zenit and our own film.''

The scene illustrates Czechoslovakia's economic dilemma.

The present communist regime has been able to offer, by East-bloc measurements, high living standards for its 15 million people. In part this is thanks to the nation's distinguished economic past. During the 19th century, Bohemia became the industrial heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and firms such as the Skoda manufacturing concern secured an international reputation.

Outside of today's well-stocked stores, no lines form. Even cars (Skodas, of course) and country homes (mostly small cottages) are in reasonable supply.

But tough problems have emerged in recent years. With its economy hamstrung by central control, growth has become sluggish and labor productivity has declined. And as trade turns more and more eastward and the industrial base ages, product quality has suffered.

``Many fields are lagging,'' said Vaclav Vertelar, first deputy chairman of the State Planning Commission. ``The next five-year plan will not promote fast growth, but gradual growth to produce better-quality products.''

He offered an example.

``The population has plenty to eat -- too much, considering all the obese people here,'' he said. ``Instead of just producing more, we must now concentrate on increasing the range of food products available, offer more vegetables and so on. The same principle holds for industry.''

A trade squeeze will make this ``quality'' growth difficult to achieve. Because of its increasingly obsolete plants, there are fewer Czech engineering products available for export exports and the hard currency they bring. That, in turn, means the country can afford fewer Western imports.

At the same time, Mr. Vertelar said, the Czechs must buy more Soviet oil and gas during the next five years in order to substitute for the dirty brown coal -- which damages the environment -- in common use here. This need comes just when Moscow is demanding more and higher quality goods from its East-bloc allies in return for raw material supplies.

To overcome these difficulties, the government proposes limited changes. Instead of continuing to produce 80 percent of the some 400 ``engineering fields'' that exist in the world, Vertelar said industry would be asked to specialize more. A few joint ventures with the West will be encouraged and borrowing, which remains very low, increased a little. Investments in nuclear power will rise dramatically; the country commissioned a fifth reactor last month and is building eight more.

The government does admit the need to loosen central planning -- but fears losing central control. Reform remains a dirty word here. It suggests the cataclysmic days of 1968 that precipitated a Soviet invasion. So the government introduced four years ago what it called ``the set of measures.'' Local managers were given more freedom to make production and marketing decisions, wage differentials widened, and one-man private businesses were encouraged to plug the gap in services.

Results have been limited. Several reports point to a continuing decline in productivity, and one 1984 study in the region of Slovakia estimated that workers continue to waste up to 20 percent of their time by arriving to work late, leaving early, and taking long breaks. According to Emil Flaska, economics editor of Praca, a daily paper in Bratislava, they have not rushed to set up private shops.

``The private enterpreneur remains controlled,'' he explained. ``His prices must be the same as the state sector. We don't want him earning huge profits.''

With a sense of resignation, the public seems to accept the ensuing stagnation. Instead of screaming for reform or harder work on the job, Jiri Dienstbier, spokesman for Charter 77, a human rights group, says that most of his compatriots concentrate on vacations and on fixing up their country retreats.

``People accept limited goals,'' he explains.

At the photo store, Josef illustrates his point. To be sure, he would like to own a Nikon. But he is happy to own any camera, and even if his Zenit is not of the best quality, he says it does the job.

``I'm an amateur,'' he says. ``I don't need to take the best pictures. I only want souvenirs of my family.''

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