Soviet Retreat Gives Impetus to Reform

Communists are shunned as Czechoslovakia prepares for vote - a letter from Prague

FROM their cubbyholes in a downtown campaign hall, volunteers for Czechoslovakia's newly sprung political parties hand out buttons, posters, and brochures. The country's first free election in decades is scheduled for this weekend. Campaigners from more than 10 parties, including Civic Forum, the Christian Democrats, and the Greens, vie for support from a steady stream of visitors. But absent from its designated cubbyhole is the Communist Party.

Since November 1989, the country's transitional government has focused on asserting independence from communist control that tightened its reign in the spring of 1968.

One-third of the 70,000-plus Soviet troops that have occupied Czechoslovakia have already left the country; the remaining two-thirds are slated for withdrawal by the year's end.

Indeed, communism is viewed with open suspicion and Soviet influence is increasingly rebuked as Czechoslovak tentativeness transforms into confidence. Graffiti along buildings and highways equate the Czech Communist Party with the Nazi Party of Germany's 1930s. Some members of President Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum even tried to ban the Communist Party from taking part in the coming election. ``Can you imagine such stupidity?'' exclaims a disgruntled government adviser. ``How can we call ourselves a democracy when we try to outlaw a party?''

This low level of political culture is because of Soviet domination, he says. Czechoslovaks are unfamiliar with debating issues and campaigns. But with constant denunciations of the past and no prescriptions for change, he wonders just how reform will work. Even with specific programs, there is little chance for a countrywide consensus, because of the government's fragmented structure, with five assemblies on the republic and federal levels.

``We cannot speak so disrespectfully toward a superpower. We will regret it when we see how dependent we are on the Soviets for trade, for subsidies. We just cannot cut this overnight. If we do, who will be there to help us? We are not East Germany, which has West Germany to help.'' The inextricable trade and economic relationship between Prague and Moscow means dependence, he warns.

Nonetheless, street life in Prague suggests that this link should be severed rather than salvaged. The stores seem to be selling off their inventory of Russian matryoshka dolls - largely to tourists who buy the brightly painted wooden dolls, mistakenly associating them with Czech culture.

People crowd around bookstores, reading newspapers and books that were forbidden during Communist rule. Many of the texts are abbreviated, to provide the reader with a faster catch-up on news and history that escaped them for so long.

Today, observes a Czech scientist who splits his time between Prague and Brno, Soviets are retreating from what he calls their ``chauvinism.'' The turn around happened ``just after the November 1989 revolution.''

Up until last winter, he says, communication between Soviets and their East European satellites was in Russian. Even contracts between Czech companies and East German companies had to be conducted in Russian, despite the fact that German was more commonly understood.

``But here we all know Russian. It was required in school.'' Now, he says, when Soviets enter Czech stores speaking Russian, their requests are met with empty stares from Czech clerks. ``They say `I don't understand you' in Czech,'' the scientist says, grinning. ``And the Soviets are forced to speak in our language if they want something.''

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