IT'S still winter in Prague. Twenty-one years after the Prague Spring reform movement was crushed under Soviet tanks, and in spite of revolutionary reforms in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, the hard-line Czechoslovak Communists show no signs of changing.
The crackdown on dissidents and opposition groups continues, accompanied by a slow, but steady, deterioration of the economy.
But among the opposition and even some officials in this beautiful city, the feeling grows that the need for change is urgent and that time is getting short.
And they are acting.
Not only are new opposition groups still being formed, but the opposition is trying to unify and create a political alternative to the regime. This goes beyond what Charter 77 ever did, even in its heyday as a human rights movement and Czechoslovakia's leading dissident group.
``Now is the final nonviolent opportunity for the Czechoslovak leaders to cease being the last Stalinist museum in Central Europe,'' says Milos Zeman, who was fired last week from his job as head forecaster at an economic institute for his critical views on the economic development in Czechoslovakia. But there is no sign that major change will happen soon.
For one thing, the Czechoslovaks have not taken to the streets the way the people in the neighboring countries have done. On the contrary, the much-anticipated Oct. 28 demonstration on Wenceslas Square gathered 5,000 participants. The opposition had hoped for many more. But the large majority of Czechoslovaks is passive and politically indifferent, 21 years after so-called normalization.
Also, although the living standard of most is slipping, it is still higher than their communist neighbors. They can travel to the West. They are guaranteed jobs and a good retirement. They have a car and a weekend house. Opponents of the regime find it is not easy to persuade people that change is necessary, especially when change, at least in the short run, only promises hardships.
``After 1968, people were only asked to keep quiet, and they were paid well to do it,'' says Jiri Dienstbier, a leading dissident and editor of the major underground paper Lidove Noviny. ``If people kept quiet, they were allowed to live peaceful and private lives.''
People are still afraid in Czechoslovakia of the repercussions of political dissent and of losing their material well-being.
But opposition veteran Vaclav Maly, a Roman Catholic priest who has not been allowed to preach since 1979, is more optimistic now. Things are changing, he says, people are getting involved.
``The independent opposition movements have ceased being isolated from society, but a moral appeal is no longer enough. We must now offer an alternative, a political program for change,'' Fr. Maly states.
Many in Prague this fall echo Maly's sentiments, as can be seen from the growth of opposition groups in the last year or so. Such groups include the Movement for Civil Liberties (HOS), Democratic Initiative (DI), Obroda (a group of reformist Communists in the mold of Prague Spring leader Alexander Dubcek), and the Independent Peace Association. They contain liberal democrats as well as reform communists, old opposition figures as well as newcomers to the struggle for change in Czechoslovakia.
Emanuel Mandler of DI and Ladislav Lis of HOS have been active for many years in the Czechoslovak opposition. Now they are trying to join hands, but it is not easy. Both men want to abolish the leading role of the Communist Party, foster a market economy and private enterprise, and bring about a pluralist democracy.
``There is no longer a future in Czechoslovakia for communism and socialism,'' says Mr. Lis, himself a former Communist. ``The future now depends on our ability to coordinate and unify the independent groups and to present an alternative political program.''
By the end of the year, Lis hopes that a new national coordinating committee can be formed among the independent opposition groups.
``Yes, that's necessary,'' agrees Emanuel Mandler, whose DI became the first group with a political program when it emerged last year. ``But it won't be easy.''
The urgency of the situation was recently underlined by the creation of the Circle of Independent Intelligentsia, a few hundred intellectuals from within the official system. Its aim is to bring back Western-style democracy to Czechoslovakia. To achieve this, the circle believes that the government needs input through reports and studies from independent groups like theirs and that this is more important than demonstrations in the streets.
Ivan Gabal, one of the group's founders, says he hopes it will not be necessary to bring the whole country to its knees before the government changes. Dr. Gabal, a researcher at the Prague Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, adds that he feels that Czechoslovakia, in contrast to Poland and Hungary, is still able to manage the necessary reforms and transition. He says he hopes that the regime and the opposition can cooperate and talk together and that the circle can help bring this about.
So far, however, the regime has shown no interest in cooperation with the independent opposition, and there is no talk of political reform. Instead, the Czechoslovak leaders are pushing for economic reform, partly because it is urgently needed and partly because the regime's own existence depends on avoiding an economic crisis.
But a senior Western diplomat here estimates that it will take at least one and a half to two years for real reform to occur, barring a sudden event, like a major ecological accident.
Another senior Western diplomat admits that reform has taken longer to happen than he anticipated. And he sees no possibility that Milos Jakes's hard-line regime will survive.
``The only alternative left today is a new system,'' he says.
In the meantime, the forces for change in Czechoslovakia have to settle for several small, but important, steps.
Various opposition groups have gathered 35,000 signatures so far on their reform manifesto, which calls for human rights and democracy.
Ivan Klima, a banned writer, has been published again in the official press after 21 years.
And 110 journalists, many from official papers such as Mlady Svet, a weekly published by the Union of Socialist Youth, signed a petition protesting last month's arrest of two journalists connected with the illegal underground monthly Lidove Noviny. The two have now been in jail for almost a month.
``One era, which has been rotting for a long time, is undeniably coming to a close,'' says Michal Horacek, a journalist with Mlady Svet and a signatory to the protest petition.
He calls for more democracy, condemns Stalinism, and talks almost like a Western journalist about the importance of freedom of the press. ``There is still a long way to go, and the snowball is still tiny. But at least it is rolling downhill, instead of uphill like before. And it will get bigger.''