FOR Martin Palous, longtime dissident and current Deputy Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, the mood of this moment in post-communist Prague recalls the despair of the ancient Israelites who, having fled Pharaoh, found themselves stranded in a wilderness, yearning for the fleshpots of Egypt. "We're somewhere in the middle of the Red Sea now," he says, "and everyone is grumbling."
For Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's playwright-president, the gentle revolution seems to have brought out the worst in his countrymen - "an enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every imaginable human vice.... Society has freed itself, true, but in some ways it behaves worse than when it was in chains."
Two-and-a-half years after the revolution, euphoria has turned to anxiety and anger. The ironies are extreme. In the once-totalitarian East, the former communists have become the most proficient capitalists, inheriting much of the wealth and influence they formerly wielded. Familiar with the exercise of power, they are well positioned to profit from the opportunities of buccaneer capitalism. Meanwhile, most Czechs and Slovaks, outmaneuvered by the new entrepreneurs and bewildered by the sudden necessity to compete for what once was guaranteed, succumb to a politics of blame and resentment.
The forthcoming parliamentary elections, June 5-6, threaten to sunder the uncertain union between the Czech and Slovak republics. In the Czech lands, Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, a Thatcherite free-marketeer who has directed the country's rapid privatization, seems likely to become prime minister of the Czech republic. In Slovakia, Vladimir Meciar, a former communist who skillfully recast himself as a Slovak nationalist, is expected to win. The clash is of both ideology and personality, for while Mr. K laus promises a capitalism without constraints, Mr. Meciar pledges a return to the old authoritarian social contract.
Between them is President Havel, seeking like a latter-day Lincoln to hold the nation together against the polarizing extremes. He retains great respect as a moral compass for the nation: 90 percent of all Czechs and 66 percent of all Slovaks approved of his performance in a recent poll, his highest rating since the revolution. But the president is elected by parliamentary vote, not popular mandate, and in the cauldron of animosities that the Federal Assembly has become, he could fall to an alliance betw een Slovak nationalists and anti-Havel Czechs.
Though it seems unlikely, would the country divide if Havel resigns? Who else could bridge the chasms of culture and ideology? Perhaps Alexander Dubcek, the reform communist who led 1968's Prague Spring. As a revered figure, a Slovak and yet a federalist, he might provide a symbol of unity. But he is getting older and could not be expected to steer the nation decisively through a perilous passage.
The country is fractured along other fault-lines as well. Under the old regime, the secret police and their network of informers permeated virtually every relationship, from work to personal affairs. Lists unearthed since the revolution reveal that more then 140,000 persons spied for the state. What is to be done with those who did the regime's dirty work? Many of their victims have demanded they be punished. Many have argued that unless these collaborators are purged they will sabotage fragile democrati c reforms.
In a misguided effort to address these legitimate concerns, the Federal Assembly late last year enacted a "lustration law" barring former members of the Communist Party above a certain rank from holding high positions in public enterprises for five years. Widely criticized by international human rights activists for its collective assignment of guilt and reversal of the presumption of innocence, the law was reluctantly signed by Havel, who also proposed mitigating amendments - rejected by parliament.
Here, too, the ironies are unconscionable. Those intended to be swept out have evaded capture, while some who were tormented victims find themselves ensnared. Seeking redress, they find their former persecutors are close friends with the current prosecutors. Both, says Czech film director Milos Forman, are members of a powerful but undeclared Skeletons in the Closet Party. The titles may have changed, but the identities of victim and oppressor have not.
These and other deformities of justice afflict much of the East today. The worst of the West, not the best, is being absorbed. In the near term Czechoslovakia may see more ostentatious wealth and more desperate poverty, more crime and unemployment, drug addiction, and social unrest. So far, we in the West have failed to find adequate remedies for the downside of a system materially rewarding narrow self-interest and accumulation of wealth.
The free market is no panacea. Capitalism shorn of compassion or justice is only marginally better than socialism's poverty and repression. Neither is adequate to our time. Tempering individual freedom with the conscience of social responsibility will help break through our current impasse. In this sense, Prague's predicament is very much our own. We share the same small world now, and only by together confronting and overcoming its contradictions can we achieve peace and prosperity after the cold war.