Czech Dissidents Hopeful in Face of Policy Shifts

Times Staff Writer

Karel Srp is home now, in his house in a quiet neighborhood on one of Prague’s hills. In his new somewhat circumscribed freedom, he projects an air of serenity as gentle as the view from his study. From there, the city’s Gothic spires, softened by distance and the winter mists rising from the Vltava River, seem to mark a place where nothing bad could happen.

Srp, 50, known as “Charlie” to many of his friends, was released from jail Jan. 1, after serving a 16-month sentence for defying the Czechoslovak government’s ban of the Jazz Section, a club of 7,000 music lovers, intellectuals and dissidents whose jazz concerts, meetings and samizdat or underground publications met with the disapproval of hard-line Communist leaders here.

Three other officers of the organization were jailed along with Srp (pronounced Serp) but, as the group’s president, he received the longest term. With his steady smile and sense of imperturbable calm, Srp gives the impression that his time in prison not only strengthened his resolve but added yet another layer of patience.

‘A Part of Our Life’


“We do not consider the time spent in jail as suffering,” Srp says, “it was a part of our life in the Jazz Section.”

Among Czechoslovakia’s still-small band of dissidents, Charlie Srp is just one more hero, another person who refused to surrender to the pressure of the state. Like many other dissidents here, he feels that--somehow, sometime--justice will prevail.

“I think we live in the mostdramatic and dynamic period of the last 40 years,” Srp says. “I know this seems to go very slowly in Czechoslovakia, but I believe there will be change.”

He was referring to the reform movement initiated by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, reforms that are clearly, if distantly felt in Soviet satellite countries such as Czechoslovakia, whose hard-line conservative leaders view the shift in Kremlin thinking with deep wariness.

The present Czechoslovak leadership was installed in the aftermath of the “Prague Spring” of 1968, when the Communist Party leadership under Alexander Dubcek dared to consider some of the changes that Gorbachev now believes are vital to a rejuvenation of socialism.

Tight Rein on Dissent

The “Prague Spring” ended with a Soviet-led invasion, and, as Czech playwright Vaclav Havel points out, the men who replaced Dubcek in power here “dedicated themselves for 20 years” to keeping a tight rein on dissent.

Havel, one of the founders and leaders of the dissident Charter 77 human rights movement, spent two years in prison himself. He seems somewhat less optimistic than Srp.


“So far,” he said, “the changes here have been microscopic.”

To most Western diplomats, who monitor the dissident situation closely, the signals from the government have been mixed over the last year.

“It was much easier for the dissidents to figure out what they could and could not do back during the Brezhnev era,” said one, referring to Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, who died in 1982. “Things that got them into trouble once don’t necessarily get them into trouble now. It isn’t easy to tell whether this is deliberate on the part of the government, or just confusion over the new mood in Moscow.”

As one example, he said, Havel was prevented from attending a meeting last year with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead. Two months later, he was allowed to have breakfast with a top Austrian official and to give television interviews afterward.


Released Without Charge

In other cases, some Charter 77 meetings have been allowed, while others have been broken up by police. On Jan. 17, police raided a restaurant and arrested about 70 charter activists. They were taken to police stations, questioned briefly, then released without charge.

Since his release from jail, Srp has experienced no harassment and has not noticed being followed by secret policemen. That does not mean, he noted, that his activities are not monitored. He says that although the Jazz Section “was officially dissolved, we do not recognize this dissolution.”

“We have existed for 17 years, and we were liquidated on the basis of invalid laws and in contravention of the constitution, so we are seeking rehabilitation. Our goal is that the authorities begin to negotiate with us on the basis of the law. Until now, this has not been the case. Shortly after my arrest, a young policeman told me, ‘Mr. Srp, the law is valid if we say it is valid.’ ”


Martin Palous, 38, was one of the charter signatories arrested Jan. 17. Two months earlier, a similar meeting was held in his Prague apartment without police interruption.

“The Soviet dissident who edits the magazine Glasnost,” Palous said, “says that he is not a pessimist, he is not an optimist, he is an activist. I hope that is our position here as well. To fix our hopes on some movement at the top of the Communist bureaucracy does us no good, because we think initiatives have to come from below and not be imposed on us, as always, from the top.”

Would it be advisable, he was asked, now that the hints of change seem to be coming from Moscow, for dissidents in Czechoslovakia to ease their pressure, in an effort to relax the nervousness of the Czechoslovak authorities? Palous thinks not.

“This argument is made by many people,” he said. “They suggest being more pragmatic. But I don’t think it works this way, because the (government) hard-liners will find something else to pressure us about. Some say they think it is better for us to be calm and quiet. But I think, without publicity, without fighting, we will be liquidated.


“When you compare our situation today to that of 10 years ago, the possibilities for independent people are much greater. That is because the charter and other people were strong enough and firm enough. There are more things being published now, more organizations have been formed. Now the police are under no illusion that they can destroy us in one day. I think this is the only way to push the situation forward.”

Stanislav Devaty, one of Charter 77’s official spokesmen this year, comes from the town of Gottwaldov, where he works in an agricultural cooperative that also makes computers. He is trying to form a society to “promote understanding between Czechoslovakia and the U.S.A."--known as SPUSA in its Czech acronym. So far, the government has blocked his moves.

“It has gone through two appeals,” he said, “and now it is in the hands of the Czech government itself to decide. Thirty-five of us met on Jan. 8 for a preparatory meeting, and we decided that we will officially form SPUSA on March 7, regardless of what the government decides.”

Aim for Understanding


Why does he want to form the organization? Devaty grins slyly. “The government is always saying there is no understanding between East and West. We want to help bring this understanding.”

Like Srp, Palous and Devaty display the good-humored dedication that seems to typify the Czech political dissident. Despite living with surveillance and the assumption that their telephones are tapped and their apartments bugged, they seem to be among the happiest people in Czechoslovakia. Sometimes, it is the very absurdity of the situation here that hones their sense of humor.

Like many another political outcast here, Palous was once relegated to the job of stoker, or coal-shoveler, when he was barred from employment anywhere else. He found himself working with another outcast. Together, they fixed up an apartment near the basement furnace, moved in furniture, desks, typewriters and set about their usual political activity.

“It was an ideal job for us,” he recalls. “It took three hours of work, at most, to tend the furnace, and we had the rest of the time to do what we always did. My friend even conducted lectures there. That’s the kind of absurdity you get in a place like this.”


Palous now works part-time as a computer programmer. Srp, a former editor at a music publishers, now has a menial job in a sheet-metal shop. Both have plenty of time for their other activities.

Leading Intellectual Voice

Vaclav Havel says he has to get out of Prague to find time to write. The pressure on his time is steady because he’s the most widely known of the dissidents and perhaps its leading intellectual voice.

“You know,” he said, “you don’t start out to become a ‘dissident.’ Something happens, and you respond. And then there is something else, and something else. And so you keep going and then one day--you are a dissident.”


Srp, sitting in his slippers, sipping a soft drink in his study over the city, has arrived at that status, determined and yet somehow at ease and assured.

“Change will come,” he says. “Definitely. But we will have to help them. I don’t think it will take so long. Proof of that is that you are sitting here, that journalists attended our trials. That is a kind of progress.”