As Mikhail Gorbachev starts his first official visit to Czechoslovakia today, he and his reforms are stirring up this cautious, conservative country. ``Gorbachev,'' and ``we want Misha'' are scrawled in restaurant bathrooms and on walls. The Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda, which used to gather dust in street corner kiosks, suddenly is sold out. Students, long silent, are challenging their teachers in courses of Marxism-Lenninism.
``It's unbelievable, unbelievable,'' mutters one middle-aged Czech, recounting these anecdotes. ``After 20 years, we're talking politics again.''
This political renaissance underlines the perils of Mr. Gorbachev's four-day trip here. Scheduled to begin on Monday, the trip was postponed. Officially, a Czechoslovak spokesman said the Soviet leader was suffering from ``a small cold.'' Unofficially, rumors spread of disagreements between the Soviets and Czechoslovaks over scheduling and policy.
A bitter irony explains the problems. Since Soviet tanks crushed the 1968 Prague Spring reforms, the regime of 74-year-old Gustav Husak has pursued policies of rigid political control, coupled with chillingly centralized planning. Gorbachev's present initiatives - glasnost (or ``openness''), market-oriented economic reform, and freer voting under communist rule - sound much like Czechoslovakia's ill-fated 1968 heresies.
Whatever course Mr. Husak now takes threatens the status quo. Copying Soviet-led reform risks a return to internal unrest, while inertia only would deepen the country's economic malaise, straining coordination between the two allies.
The 1968 legacy also colors foreign policy issues. In Prague, Gorbachev is expected to make a major address on arms control before seeing United States Secretary of State George Shultz next week in Moscow. If he gives such an address, the Soviet leader must take up the issue of Soviet short-range missiles, now at the center of arms talks. Many of these missiles are stationed in Czechoslovakia, and in preparation for the Soviet leader's visit the dissident group Charter 77 issued a call for their removal - as well as the withrdrawal of Soviet troops stationed in Czechoslovakia since 1968.
Publicly, the Czechoslovak regime approves of Gorbachev's initiatives. Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal last month wrote a letter to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl urging a Central European nuclear-free zone. But some analysts here suggest that removing Soviet arms and troops would frighten the aging Czechoslovak regime because, in the words of one, ``it would leave them defenseless.''
On domestic issues, the Czech authorities are preparing - at least verbally - domestic reforms that are compatible with Gorbachev's own initiatives. Only two weeks ago, Husak ordered his subordinates to stop squabbling over the merits of reform. Husak told his party's Central Committee about preparations for ``restructuring, or, if you like, reform,'' which he described as ``the biggest intervention into the system of economic management since nationalization'' in the late 1940s.
Strong words. How much real reform they signal remains far from clear. Czechoslovaks talk of widespread resistance from middle-level bureaucrats.
``People in leadership may lose their functions and their good material rewards,'' said Pavel Smid, manager of the Zenek tractor factory in Brno. ``Anyone who could lose something opposes these changes.''
Doubletalk prevails. At a press conference Tuesday, Deputy Planning Minister Jaromir Matejka described some changes aimed at making factory managers autonomous, while ruling out a much greater reliance on market prices or private enterprise.
``We want to change central management,'' he said, adding quickly, ``this does not mean we will weaken role of central management.''
One other intriguing sign of resistance to Gorbachev-style changes was visible at the model Slusovice farm cooperative in Moravia. Gorbachev's plans to visit Slusovice, considerd an island of economic innovation, reportedly were vetoed. President and party General Secretary Husak, the story goes, preferred to have the Soviet leader visit a less adventuresome cooperative.
When this reporter traveled Monday to Slusovice, workers told him that Soviet advance men had staked out the terrain last month. But manager Frantisek Cuba said Gorbachev was not coming.
``The president and general secretary is responsible,'' he insisted, ``not me.''
Such incidents leave a bitter residue of cynicism. Since Gorbachev's rise to power, Jiri Dienstbier, a Charter 77 leader, says workers at his factory have ended years of silence and begun discussing politics with him. Although they want the Soviet leader to succeed, Mr. Dienstbier says they remember Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's ouster and fear that Gorbachev, too, will fail.
``When the visit was postponed, all my co-workers started whispering, `Maybe Gorbachev has been poisoned,''' Dienstbier says. ``We know Gorbachev has to battle the barrier of Russian history and bureacracy. We're praying for a miracle.''
Reuters reports from Prague: Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov said yesterday that Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, whose elegance and charm have impressed people in both Eastern and Western countries, would accompany the Soviet leader.