From the archives: Prague Cheers a New Regime

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- Tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks poured into Wenceslas Square on Sunday to sing and cheer and celebrate the victory of their peaceful revolution as the opposition Civic Forum announced it would nominate its leader, playwright Vaclav Havel, as the nation's next president.

Havel appears to be the clear favorite to replace hard-line Communist President Gustav Husak, who resigned Sunday shortly after swearing in the first government in 41 years here that the Communists do not control.

Civic Forum and its allies in the new government will control economic, labor and social welfare policy, the police and foreign policy. Prime Minister Marian Calfa and a Communist army general left in charge of defense will be the only party members holding major portfolios in the new government.

The minister in charge of the police will be a former dissident just released from jail two weeks ago. The foreign minister will be another opposition figure who succeeded only a few days ago in having his telephone turned back on after security forces had cut it off.

"It's a world turned upside down," said one Western diplomat.

Havel announced the new interim government to the crowd gathered to celebrate International Human Rights Day in the square, the scene of the massive demonstrations over the last three weeks that drove the Communists from the power they had monopolized since a coup in February, 1948. The new government is expected to lead the country to elections in a matter of months.

A similar crowd, estimated at 100,000 by Czechoslovak state television, turned out in Bratislava, the country's second-largest city.

"Thanks to the peaceful revolution, our artificially stopped history suddenly has begun to move again," Havel said as the crowd shouted back "To je ono!" (a Czech equivalent of "Right on!"), "Svobodne volby!" (Free elections!) and "Havel na Hradna!" (Havel to the Castle!), a reference to the home of Czechoslovak presidents.

A little over an hour later, Calfa described the government in a lengthy press conference. Calfa has had an undistinguished career as a government official, but he appeared poised and articulate as he discussed the new government's plans and the challenges it faces.

The 21-member government is nominally made up of 10 Communists, seven members of the opposition and two members each from the Socialist and People's parties, both of which were longtime allies of the Communists.

But of the 10 Communist Party members, two are economic reformers nominated by Civic Forum and allied with it. Civic Forum also has formed an alliance with the two People's Party representatives, giving it a solid 11-vote majority in the government.

In addition, four of the remaining Communists in the government are generally considered technocrats chosen for their expertise to head ministries in charge of trade, telecommunications, energy and mining.

With the new government formed, the crisis stage of Czechoslovakia's revolution appears to be over, leaving the more arduous task of consolidating the move to democracy. Civic Forum announced it was calling off a general strike set for today and asking instead that people throughout the nation ring church bells and honk horns for five minutes beginning at noon.

Students, however, announced that their strike, which began the revolution, would continue, at least for now, to maintain pressure for a full investigation of the police attack on student demonstrators Nov. 17 and to allow students to leave Prague to fight attempts to block democratization in the countryside.

Reports from provincial areas indicate widespread attempts by local Communist authorities to hold onto their power, blocking news of events in Prague from reaching their regions.

Those reports illustrate the magnitude of what Calfa and Havel both say will be the chief task of the new "government of national understanding"--preparing a legal framework to guarantee basic civil liberties and free elections.

The elections, which will be the first free voting here since 1946, are expected to be held next spring or early summer.

Calfa, who pledged to act independently from the Communist Party and who promised "open doors" to Czechoslovak emigres wishing to return, also said that the government would make a start at "radical" economic reforms. The reforms, which would alter Czechoslovakia's centrally planned economy but not change it fundamentally, are scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1.

But Calfa made clear that the divided government, containing every political shading from Communist to ardent free-marketer, would have to postpone major decisions on whether to go further and leave such issues to whatever government is formed after the elections.

For example, he said, no decision will be made on legalizing private ownership of businesses until after the elections.

A third major challenge will be to rein in the nation's once-omnipresent secret police, who have long been a law unto themselves.

In negotiations with Civic Forum leaders, Calfa admitted that despite his long career in the legal department of the prime minister's office, he himself does not know "where the jurisdiction of the security forces starts and where it ends," said a Civic Forum spokesman.

Bringing the police "under strict control" is "a priority for us," Calfa said. "We have to solve this matter before elections."

Despite the rapid democratization Czechoslovakia has seen in the last three weeks, the secret police remain active. Diplomats warn, for example, that telephone tapping and surveillance appear to have increased in recent days as the security forces scramble to keep track of the rapidly changing situation.

The task of controlling the security forces will fall mainly to First Deputy Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky, a highly respected lawyer and Roman Catholic activist who was jailed for dissident activities in August and released only Nov. 26.

Several other new government officials also have been victims of the former regime's persecutions. Miroslav Kusy, who will head the government information office, was arrested with Carnogursky in August. Valtr Komarek, the new first deputy prime minister in charge of economics, was fired from his job in the purge following the 1968 Soviet invasion. And the new foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier, has long been harassed for his views.

Calfa, asked about how well he could work with people who had been maltreated by a government he long served, offered an apology.

"My feelings are of regret," he said. "I know this will not help Mr. Dienstbier now," he added, but "we will be able to cooperate together."

Nor did Calfa deny that the Communist governments of the past bore responsibility for the nation's current "difficult" state.

"We all are responsible," he said, "those who governed in a certain way, and those others who respected this type of government or accepted this type of government."

The remaining job in restructuring Czechoslovakia's new political order will be the election by Parliament of a new president to replace Husak, and Havel appears to be a formidable front-runner.

Speaker after speaker in the square called on him to take the job, a suggestion that met with loud applause from the crowd.

Havel, himself, did not mention the possibility. Instead, he warned his audience that they would have to remain on guard to prevent democracy from being subverted.

"We have not yet won," he said, although the revolution has achieved "great success" toward its goals.

"Let us preserve its purity, its peacefulness, its lovingness, its joyful friendly tenor," he said. "Let us ensure its values continue to flourish. Let us not permit anybody in any way to mar the beautiful face of our revolution. Truth and love must triumph over anger and hate."

Civic Forum officials said that Havel had agreed to run for the job, but only on the condition that he be allowed to resign after the general election. A new president would then be chosen by the newly elected Parliament for the customary five-year term. Havel did not rule out running for reelection then.

The parliamentary election must be held within two weeks. And although some political figures still oppose Havel, there appear to be few, if any, viable alternatives.

The Communists agreed in round-table negotiations Friday that because the prime minister is a Communist, the new president will not be.

And there is a general consensus that because Calfa is a Slovak, the president should be Czech to maintain the nation's ethnic balance.

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