Prague's Regret, Four Years Later

IN 1984 the dissident Vaclav Havel wrote, "I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans."

Last July, the day he resigned as president of Czechoslovakia, Mr. Havel told reporters, "I have tried to give a human face to politics, to emphasize its moral roots and spiritual aspects."

But in Prague today the ideas that inspired intellectuals and brought a nonviolent revolution are being cast off as ancient lore. Very few people speak of the "Velvet Revolution" or the "politics of morality" without irony. The average Czech is thinking about the cost of health insurance and fast food.

Prague's recent decision to reinstate arms sales is only the latest sign of the new pragmatism in the Czech Republic. Men like Havel counted the halting of unrestricted arms sales as one of their finest achievements. Today, economic arguments are used to toss their work out the window. Last summer, Havel scorned to be "a decorative president." Today, he has to fight the label.

Havel ended the government's official silence by condemning Czech expulsion of Sudeten Germans at the end of World War II. He has considered Jewish claims to confiscated property. He has urged a more "radical" solution to the Bosnian crisis than Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. But since Havel's decisions require Mr. Klaus's signature, his statements are mainly fodder for columnists.

On most counts, the Czech Republic has done well, since it and Slovakia became two independent states last December 31. The Czech economy is relatively vigorous. Executives at a recent gathering in Berlin picked the Czech Republic, among the former East Bloc nations, as the most promising place for investment. The country is on a single-minded free-market track thanks to Klaus, whose approval rating is 65 percent.

WHAT'S wrong with this picture is that Czechoslovakia promised much more. In 1989 the crowds in Wenceslas Square challenged their totalitarian leaders by rattling key chains and talking reason. Then, after the first democratic elections in 40 years, musicians and writers who shoveled coal under the old regime debated issues in Parliament using the words "politics' and "principle" in the same sentence without blushing.

Havel pondered how to live in the post-modern world and fight anthropocentrism, a word George Bush might have trouble pronouncing. But by June, 1992 Civic Movement, the party closest to Havel, lost its seats in Parliament when it failed to gain 5 percent of the vote in national elections. Havel resigned the next month, leaving behind a parliament paralyzed between Czechs and Slovaks.

Most of the former dissidents have left the political scene. Havel's former cell-mate, Jiri Dienstbier, a journalist and coal stoker who became foreign minister, is writing editorials for the former underground paper, "Lidove Noviny." Michael Kocab, a rock singer who negotiated the removal of Soviet tanks from Czechoslovakia, heads an entertainment production company and belongs to a club for millionaires. Petr Uhl, an early signatory of Charter 77, works at the Czech news service.

Maybe politics runs better without them. Many ex-dissidents admit this. They were amateurs, passing laws riddled with loopholes. They could not articulate to Slovak separatists why the federation should remain; nor even tell the people why they should be reelected. Raised to stand firm against oppression, they had not learned of political compromise.

Some people argue that the vision of moral politics has not failed. They point to Havel. But these are increasingly rare sentiments. More common is a sense of regret of all that was won, and then so quickly lost.

"We are more knowledgeable now," said an ex-deputy foreign minister who is a professor now. "You cannot change political culture the way you can change your car or your clothes."

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