JUST below its placid surface, Czechoslovakia betrays a nervous anticipation that the change sweeping all Eastern Europe will upset its status quo as well. The communist regime, trying to stand pat, was shaken by its involuntary involvement in the escape of East Germans to the West. The numbers in Prague were only a fraction of the tens of thousands fleeing through Hungary.
But, where the Hungarians quickly discarded their nominal treaty obligation to send the refugees home, the Czech leaders were tortured by doubt. They did not want to undermine their kindred conservatives in East Berlin.
For days, as the crisis grew, the Czech party and government could not decide what to do or say. The state television and radio, astonishingly, received no directives on how to handle the story.
The police did not interfere as thousands of Germans abandoned their automobiles on the streets of Prague and walked up the narrow street past the US Embassy to climb the fence into the inhumanly overcrowded grounds of the West German Embassy.
As one senior Czech official explained, it was left to the two Germanys to resolve a German problem. But it was a Western solution, with the escapees going free. In other words, for Prague, the two Germanys were equal - with the Bonn republic more equal than Czechoslovakia's Warsaw Pact ally and ideological twin, the German Democratic Republic. And, the official added, Prague had Moscow's approval.
Concerned about what is happening in Poland and Hungary, Czechoslovakia is shocked by events in East Germany. The senior official foresees turbulence there but says it will not affect Prague. ``We must and will learn to deal constructively with our own dissidents,'' he asserts.
However, the first response has been to button up with quick, demonstrative arrests of the usual suspects. Jan Ruml, editor of the monthly underground Lidove Noviny, had been picked up before. This time he was held for 17 hours and his office ransacked, putting him out of business.
Others were arrested for planning an unofficial celebration of Czech independence day, Oct. 28. Jiri Hajek, foreign minister in 1968 when Warsaw Pact troops crushed the ``Prague spring,'' now a leading civil rights activist, was briefly detained for the umpteenth time.
As for dealing constructively with dissidents, radio and TV were ordered not to give airtime - as actors, speakers, writers, artists, musicians - to the more than 30,000 people who signed ``A Few Sentences.''
``A Few Sentences'' is a manifesto drafted by civil rights leaders last July. It demands freedom for political prisoners, freedom of the press, speech, opinion, and religion, as well as for independent civic initiative.
Tens of thousands rushed to associate themselves with it, giving names and addresses. Mr. Hajek calls this an impressive act of civil courage, marking a change in the people's attitude toward their leaders, by taking heart from the change in the countries around them. As the system moves to defend itself, it exacts a price. Some of those who signed the manifesto have been interrogated and harassed, as well as boycotted.
So far, there is no sign of popular pressure blowing the official lid off. Foreign and Czech observers say that opposition forces are weaker than elsewhere because of what they acidly call the new social contract.
Since 1968, the regime has kept the standard of living high, even retaining some of the Dubcek reforms. More people have cars and rush out of Prague Friday afternoons for a weekend in their modest chatas, cottages in the country.
In return, they do not rebel. They have no escape hatch as the East Germans do. There is no Solidarity trade union as in Poland. There is also no rallying point for opposition in the Communist Party as there was in Hungary. Some 500,000 reformers and suspects were purged from the party after 1968.
The regime has now preventively stepped up propaganda about reform. It talks about activating the so-called National Front coalition of tame bourgeois parties and mass organizations under the communist umbrella and about making the system work better. As in East Germany, the tactic is to reduce tension. There is no intention to alter the power monopoly of the Communist Party.
The Czechs, it is said, are not revolutionaries. But they are a Western country and the economic basis of the new social contract is deteriorating, calling into question the material rewards with which the regime has bought compliance. The storm of freedom rages all around. Even the regime seems to expect that it will affect Czechoslovakia.