CZECHOSLOVAKIA'S new communist leadership responded to recent popular pressures by quashing a dissident trial and freeing oppositionists already serving time. One can but hope that Yugoslavia will follow suit by ending the farcical trial of the Albanian minority's former leader in its troubled province of Kosovo.
Four decades ago, Titoist Yugoslavia was the first East-bloc state to introduce perestroika (restructuring). Today, it lags far behind the even greater reforms now sweeping Eastern Europe, including even former ultra-hard-liners.
In the nine years since Tito's death, Kosovo - with 1.7 million ethnic Albanians and 200,000 Serbs - has suffered setbacks to reform and bloodshed.
In 1981 massive riots met Serbia's efforts to reverse the local self-government Kosovo achieved under the so-called Tito constitution of 1974 and restore former Serbian control. Federal troops were used in the name of ``law and order.'' Albanian protest went underground. Intermittently since, it has erupted violently, as last March when Serbia finally established its control of local administration, the courts, and police.
Yugoslavia's current social crisis is rooted in the fact that, beside the federal constitution, each of six republics has its own. As the biggest of them, Serbia could influence the federal authorities sufficiently to outweigh local protest at changes restoring its writ over Kosovo.
In March, federal troops again intervened. Azem Vlasi, popular Albanian head of the regional Communist Party, was jailed as ringleader of the revolt.
It was all sadly at odds with the postwar slogan of ``brotherhood and unity - and equality'' - for all the new federation's constituent peoples. In the 1950s, Albanians were welcomed in Belgrade as ``hewers of wood.'' (Their earnings meant a bridal dowry for marriage back home.) But as life in Yugoslav cities improved - thanks to Western aid - Kosovo's Albanians looked for the same. Albanians still came to the towns, not to chop wood but to set up businesses.
For Serbs, Kosovo is revered as the cradle of their medieval culture and independent statehood. Last year, encouraged by a new, highly populist Serb leadership, these emotions flared into extreme nationalism. It provoked equally wild Albanian voices, talking even of ``union'' with neighboring Albania.
Such, however, was never more than a fringe slogan. What Albanians wanted was a full-fledged republic. Its denial steadily fueled a bitter sense of inequality.
On regular visits there since the 1950s it was clear to this writer that Yugoslavian-Albanians know that, though Kosovo lags behind the rest of Yugoslavia, they are much better off than they would be in an enlarged Albania.
Recently, in Czechoslovakia, a Slovak dissident was charged with sedition after distributing pro-democracy leaflets. In Kosovo, Mr. Vlasi, blamed for public unrest over the loss of autonomy, is on trial for ``counterrevolution.'' A co-defendant is charged with drafting a text of striking miners' demands.
Distributing leaflets, the Czechoslovak court just ruled, was not a criminal offense. Equally flimsy charges put Yugoslavia - the forerunner of communist reform - in a highly invidious position when all Eastern Europe (bar Romania) is moving rapidly toward genuine democracy.
A Vlasi sentence will certainly spark more bloodshed in Kosovo - just as unbridled Serb nationalism will threaten disintegration of the federation.