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Czechs to Push Gorbachev-Style Reforms Under New Chief--but Not Too Eagerly

Times Staff Writer

Milos Jakes, this country’s the new Communist Party boss, flew to Moscow last week for his first meeting with the Kremlin leadership since he assumed his post last month.

It was a quick trip, up on Monday and back on Tuesday. And the next day he was out touring a factory in Slovakia, chatting up the workers, listening to their comments and complaints. And on Thursday, a full front-page account of this Gorbachev-style exercise appeared in Rude Pravo, the party newspaper.

It is far from clear, of course, that Jakes (pronounced Yak-esh) was given instructions in Moscow to get out and press the flesh, but in a country where the subtlest signs are closely watched, it seemed apparent that the factory tour was a kind of message--that at least the trappings of socialism’s new age, if not yet the substance, had arrived in Czechoslovakia.

It is obvious, however, that the concepts of perestroika and glasnost-- restructuring and openness--espoused by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev have been received here with less than all-out enthusiasm. In the words of a Western diplomat, Czechoslovakia is still “one of the most tightly screwed down places” in the Soviet Bloc.

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Crushing of ‘Prague Spring’

Czechoslovakia has held that distinction since the “Prague Spring” of 1968 when the reforms of Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek resulted in a Warsaw Pact invasion and installation of a hard-line government led by the recently retired party chief Gustav Husak. The Husak government, keeping the screws tight, perfectly served the interests of Moscow throughout the rule of Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, an era in which domestic calm was the attribute prized above all others.

Gorbachev’s change in style clashed abruptly with the conservative approach of the Czechoslovak leaders, whose priorities were set in another era. Experienced observers here noted a marked nervousness on the part of the Czechoslovak leadership, as important figures in the party and government shuttled between Prague and Moscow, reading the portents and keeping their lines of communication open.

If some of the nervousness has now subsided, the caution remains. Naturally, even the caution is cautiously expressed.

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Dusan Rovensky, the Czechoslovak foreign affairs spokesman, gave a sample of the tone in an interview last week. He noted that Jakes, at the end of his Moscow visit, issued a statement describing the Soviet Union’s perestroika and glasnost as “an inspiration for us.”

‘Some Valuable Concepts’

“We see in this,” Rovensky said, “some valuable concepts--an increase in democracy, an increase in efficiency and reorganization of management. We are doing these things in special conditions. We consider these concepts important, and we want to put them into effect under conditions we have here. I say that because some people say we in Czechoslovakia refuse perestroika, but that is not true. Czechoslovakia is sympathetic to perestroika but we must respect the conditions we live in.”

When asked to amplify on the “conditions,” Rovensky and most other Czechoslovak officials invariably refer to areas in which they consider the country to be more advanced than the Soviet Union--the general standard of living, the number of citizen cooperatives and other economic assets. They say nothing about glasnost as it might apply to the press or a more open political atmosphere. A concern with keeping Czechoslovakia “tightly screwed down” is a priority that is never mentioned, but seems never far out of mind.

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Although the country’s leadership seems more amenable to some economic innovations, there are signs of hesitancy as well.

“I would agree to a description of our attitude as cautious,” said Miroslav Pavel, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office. “But caution can come from fear or prudence. You may assume here that it is prudence.”

‘The Complex Document’

Lengthy papers discussing economic restructuring were first presented at a party congress here nearly two years ago. Most of the discussion was general and rhetorical, supporting the broad notion of restructuring but proposing no legislative or administrative change. After the party congress, there gradually developed what officials here now refer to as “the complex document” on economic restructuring.

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The “general shape” of the document was approved last month in a plenary meeting of the central committee, officials say. It is now in the hands of government ministers and technicians, and is expected to be turned over to the Federal Assembly for enactment of the legislation that will put it into effect--but no sooner than 1991. The next two years, officials say, will be a “preparatory period.”

The details are still far from being worked out. Government officials arrive for briefings with the “complex document,” a loose-leaf folder half an inch thick, ready for handy reference.

The proposals, as they are described now, would put some state enterprises on a self-financing footing, withdrawing state subsidies for unprofitable concerns. Management, it is said, will have less interference from central planners. A self-management scheme will be adopted in which workers will elect their bosses. A portion of workers’ pay--probably no more than 10%--will be determined by the profitability of the concern they work for.

The plan for self-financing seems unlikely to be imposed on some of the problem industries, such as mining and other heavy industries, which employ thousands of workers and lose large amounts of money. Management, it is acknowledged, is not likely to be able to lay off workers simply because it would be more cost-efficient to operate with a smaller work force. The candidates elected by the workers will be screened and approved from above. And the 10% wage premium based on profitability is not likely to be incentive enough to bring a poor concern’s balance sheet into the black.

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The technocrats in the government say they welcome the changes, and deny there is anything slow or hesitant about them. They point out that other reform movements--in 1959, 1966 and 1981--all failed or fell short of their goals.

(The aborted reforms of Dubcek’s 1968 government are never mentioned voluntarily by government functionaries, as if the “Prague Spring” were a non-event in the national history.)

They say the slowly sliding economy needs a shot in the arm and that agreement is general on the need for change.

Changes Will Come ‘Faster’

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“It is my opinion that the changes are going to come faster now,” said Josef Minarik, an official in the prime minister’s office.

In some respects, the Czechoslovaks, with all their conservatism and caution, are a bellwether for socialist reform in eastern Europe. If it can happen here, some observers say, it can happen anywhere.

“I think the Czechs are even a good barometer of what’s happening with Gorbachev and the Soviets,” one diplomat said. “These people read the signs as carefully as they can be read. If they start making changes, it’s because they think Gorbachev is there to stay.”


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