Czechoslovakia's communist rulers don't know how to respond to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost (openness). In October, police crushed an independent demonstration celebrating the 70th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's independence.
But when dissidents announced another protest Saturday, International Human Rights Day, the authorities agreed to let it take place. As a result, thousands of Czechoslovaks attended the nation's first officially authorized independent rally in 20 years.
The rally was organized by the Charter 77 human rights group and four other independent organizations. It marked the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Dec. 10.
According to wire service reports, thousands of demonstrators raised their hands to adopt a resolution calling on the communist leadership to adhere to its international commitments by ensuring the right to freedom of association, travel, and information. The declaration also called for the release of political prisoners and for religious freedom.
``I was surprised not to be in jail,'' says Vaclav Maly, a former spokesman of Charter 77. ``Our rulers take a step backward, and then a step forward.''
Like Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria refuse to implement political reforms. The Soviet leader isn't pushing them, either. He is apparently wary of destabilizing East Europe, and says that each communist ally should have the right to find its own path to socialism.
What this means is vague. No leading Soviet has condemned the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia which put Prague's present hard-line rulers in power. When asked whether Soviet forces could be used again against an ally, Mr. Gorbachev and his advisers avoid answering the question.
``Our government says, `What Gorbachev is doing is splendid - but for the Soviet Union,''' remarks Jiri Hayek, a former foreign minister turned dissident. ``Then our government tries to explain, `What we do is splendid for Czechoslovakia.'''
Political analysts here say such contortions show a regime which is uneasy, defensive, and insecure. The opposition once was a small, beleaguered group of coffeehouse intellectuals. Now, inspired by Gorbachev, it has mushroomed into an active force manned by a new young generation of activists.
``There is a growing tension in society,'' remarks Karel Srp, leader of Jazz Section, the country's leading independent cultural group. ``Our authorities are afraid, they don't know what will happen tomorrow.''
In an attempt to defuse the situation, hard-liners have engineered a crackdown. Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal, considered a reformer in the Czechoslovak context, was dropped from his post in October. Conservatives Vasil Bilak and Jan Fojtik kept their positions, and a policeman, Col. Frantisek Kincl, was elevated to the position of interior minister. He threw dozens of dissidents into jail for ``preventive detention.''
``Some dissidents obviously felt their time had come and that the power was too weak to fight them,'' says Zdenek Hozeni, a central committee member and editor-in-chief of Rude Pravo, the communist party daily.
Mr. Hozeni says he ruled out any rehabilitation of the 450,000 party members who lost their positions after the 1968 Soviet invasion, including the leader of the ``Prague spring,'' Alexander Dubcek. Mr. Dubcek has given several well publicized interviews this year comparing his policies in 1968 to the present Soviet reforms.
``Alexander Dubcek is a political corpse, a figure for a political wax museum,'' Hozeni says. ``For us, he represents political adventurism which led to disaster.''
According to wire reports, Fran,cois Mitterrand had hoped to meet Dubcek when the French President visited Dubcek's native Bratislava on Friday.
However, the meeting did not take place as Dubcek was placed under house arrest for the duration of Mr. Mitterrand's visit.
Some still hope the Prague regime will relent. Once this year's sensitive anniversaries are past, Western diplomats say the authorities may feel confident enough to strike a more liberal tone. The diplomats point to last month's visit to Prague by Gorbachev's right-hand man, Alexander Yakovlev, as a sign that Moscow finally may be preparing to push for change.
``The Soviets are telling the Czechoslovaks, `We support you,''' says one Western diplomat. ``But behind the scenes, they may be saying, `Get moving.'''
New Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec has responded with an economic program designed to create a market-oriented system with autonomous, self-financing factories.
Accounts of the country's economic stagnation have appeared in the official press, giving reform-minded economists hope that political courage exists to implement the program.
``Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, and then he went to Moscow,'' says Karel Dyba, of the World Economic Institute who helped draw up the plan. ``Everyboy changes their opinions.''
But most observers are pessimistic. They say reform is impossible from a regime which carried out a conservative ``normalization'' after 1968.
``We have to open up about this period 20 years ago,'' says one young official, who asked to not be identified. ``Otherwise, we can never regain the confidence of the people.''