Two notable birthdays are being observed in Prague this week: The 74th birthday tomorrow of Gustav Husak, the President of Czechoslovakia and the head of its ruling Communist Party.
The 10th anniversary Saturday of Charter 77, the first and only serious group to challenge the political repression of the ``normalization'' process imposed by the Soviets after their antireform invasion of August 1968.
Dr. Husak has been in charge since he became party first secretary in April 1969. He has been President since 1970.
Despite numerous rumors to the contrary, both before and since the party congress last March, he seems highly likely - short of serious illness or his own decision to retire - to continue in both offices through their present term. Qualified observers aver that retirement does not figure in Husak's calculations.
Charter 77's capacity for endurance is more in question. A gallant remnant of its original sponsors still soldiers on, despite jailings and persistent petty harassment. Their initial hope continues - that they can help Czechoslovaks ``to live and work as free people.''
The Chartists never sought mass endorsement. The founding document was signed by some 250 writers, journalists, musicians, actors, and others, and a sprinkling of politicians who were ousted from the short-lived administration of Alexander Dubcek. In 10 years, it gathered only a thousand additional signatories, many of whom wished openly to sympathize, but no more.
Charter 77 has never become a movement in any organized political sense. Its founders disavowed any desire to that end. Basically, they saw themselves as a monitoring group in the spirit of the Helsinki Accords, concerned with the entirety of that agreement, not just its human rights provisions. They aspired to nothing more.
Although Charter 77 has attracted much attention in the West, it has always been isolated from the general public at home, which is more concerned with living standards.
How Charter 77 will continue to operate under the new conditions set in motion in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev - already beginning to make themselves felt in Eastern Europe, even, apparently, in ultraconservative Czechoslovakia - remains to be seen.
There are many old Dubcek sympathizers who appreciated its intentions but have always felt the charter came at an unfortunate time. The group was created when the ``moderate'' Husak was seen trying to emulate the conciliatory policies of Hungary's Janos Kadar, and when voices at home were beginning to be raised in favor of reforms to lift the economy out of its doldrums.
The hard-liners made such capital out of the charter that the reform voices were silenced and ``Kadarism'' was abandoned.
Old Stalinist hostility to any ``liberal'' trends - in either economics or politics - was re-affirmed. The rigidly doctrinaire approach to every aspect of planning, including education and culture, was pressed as severely as at the start of the ``normalization.''
Reform is still equated today with ``counterrevolution.''
Party policy is still summed up in the notorious ``Lesson from the Crisis in the Party and Society'' which liquidated Dubcek's program. Reminders of its continued importance have been heard again amid all the rumors of the past year - and they appear to be nothing more than rumor - about imminent high personnel changes or serious application to economic reform.
Last month, Husak told the party Central Committee of ``a reconstruction of economic management,'' to be initiated, he said, as of Jan. 1, with experiments in selected enterprises to test steps in reducing central controls.
``The present system [of planning and management] no longer corresponds to the more demanding conditions and tasks in further development,'' Husak said.
To some observers it seemed to signal dramatic changes ahead. But Husak and others have often spoken in such terms before.
At the last party congress, Husak's prime minister, Lubomir Strougal, hinted at a far-reaching program.
However, in 1981, Dr. Strougal had launched ``a set of measures'' - again in selected enterprises - that were supposed to usher in broad economic change.
Little thereafter was heard of them or how they fared in practice.
Six years later, approximately the same ideas are being propagated, once again without any of the wide-open debate that would be the normal forerunner of intentions to introduce fundamental change.
Predictably, the more-pragmatic Gorbachev style is commended. And Czechoslovakia will keep pace with it in words - but making no commitment to do likewise.
In a broadcast early last year, Husak said: ``We are not afraid of any reforms.... We follow what they are doing in the USSR, and we look for our own solutions.''
It was more explicitly spelled out recently in an article in the Soviet Pravda by a leading Czech ideologist - a prominent ``conservative'' of 1968 - Jan Fojtik.
The Czechoslovak Party, Mr. Fojtik wrote, was ``inspired'' by the Soviet Union's ``Leninist course'' under Mr. Gorbachev.
But conditions, Fojtik said, were different in Czechoslovakia. It was necessary to avoid the risk of any tendency toward ``counterrevolution.''
The 1968 bogey again!
``While `the Lesson' [of 1968] remains the order of the day, there can be no real reform or change,'' says a still well-informed Czech journalist, now an exile. ``Why should there be? Why should the Russians want to force some abrupt change?
``The Czechs are well-fed, well-behaved, and they contribute as much as anyone [in the Soviet bloc] to Comecon [the Soviet-bloc trading group]. Gorbachev may give a prod here and another prod there, but he will want to leave well alone. He won't wish to have his new-style establishment seen in heavy-handed interference again.''
Caution will decide, as it has throughout Husak's 17 years. ``There is a change of vocabulary,'' my Czech friend says. ``But that doesn't alter content. It doesn't mean reform.''