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COLUMN ONE : Radio Free Europe’s Warriors Still Wary : The Iron Curtain may be in tatters, but broadcasters whose voices once battled communism refuse to let down their guard.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The sleek, whitewashed apartments in the hilly suburb of Troja spelled luxury. Modern kitchens. Grand bathrooms. Even private quarters for the maid. But for a busload of apartment hunters, none of this mattered.

Their sole concern: The former Communist regime had once earmarked the complex for Western diplomats.

“I would never live here,” grunted one visitor. “I am sure the entire place is bugged by the Communists.”

The Communist government is gone, but there was no arguing with this group of former Soviet Bloc dissidents, political prisoners and underground activists who work for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty--a cadre of career anti-Communists whose broadcasts have been beamed here and across the former Soviet empire for more than four decades.

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The two U.S.-funded stations are moving here from Munich, Germany, as part of the grand realignment of the post-Cold War frontier and a make-over in their mission. The demarcation of freedom, as one Czech official described it, is shifting about 200 miles northeast from Munich’s English Garden to Prague’s Wenceslas Square, where broadcasts will originate beginning in late spring.

But transplanting the voices of the Free World behind the Iron Curtain, no matter how tattered that curtain may be, is a historic turn many longtime employees simply cannot fathom.

Sometimes dismissed as dinosaurs from a bygone era, they insist that a return to censorship and repression is likely--even if not on a Soviet scale. “Prague is a beautiful city,” said Eugene Kushev, a manager for Russian programs who left the Soviet Union in 1974. But “so, maybe, was Grozny,” he said, referring to the Chechen capital now under Russian siege.

For some emigre broadcasters, just crossing the border from Germany to the Czech Republic was enough to set nerves on edge. Many vividly remember when Soviet tanks poured into Prague in 1968 to crush anti-Communist reforms, an event exhaustively chronicled by their stations.

Last year, William W. Marsh, then president of the stations, quit three months into the job, saying he feared he would lose his most dedicated and talented staff because of the move.

“Many of these people were either expelled or willingly sought to leave Eastern lands at the time of Soviet power,” said Kevin Klose, the new president. “They feel uneasy about going back into a land so recently dominated by the Communist Party.”

These are not easy times anywhere for the West’s loyal foot soldiers of the Cold War, be they unemployed aerospace workers in Southern California, strategists at the Pentagon or struggling shopkeepers in military towns in Germany. But the stunning East-West revolution of the past half-decade has been especially slow to win admirers among the hardened, suspicious veterans of the two radio stations.

They were consumed by their mission to break the Communist-controlled monopoly on information for nearly 400 million captive inhabitants of the Soviet Bloc, reporting on events on both sides of the East-West divide and serving as surrogates for local radio in nearly two dozen languages. And they believe their work helped make possible communism’s undoing--a claim that enjoys broad support in the region.

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“They talk in these countries about emerging democracies. We talk about emerging corruption and emerging dictatorships,” said Kushev, an intense man in a tweed blazer whose Polish-born wife accompanied him to Prague. “If we are going to report on how democracy works, we’d better be in a democratic country and not a post-Communist country.”

The distrust of things Eastern runs deep at the stations. For years, their secretive world in the gated, heavily guarded Munich headquarters was a place of intrigue, where good and evil were separated by a thick line on the map and a job well done sometimes meant risking your life.

Some emigre broadcasters concealed their identities by using on-air pseudonyms. A terrorist bombing injured three employees in 1981; there were persistent rumors of KGB efforts to poison the cafeteria salt. CIA and KGB agents continuously infiltrated the building’s ranks--the CIA even paid for broadcasts until 1971--making the labyrinth of hallways and news studios also a multilingual laboratory for espionage.

A top editor of the Russian service defected to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, admitting he had been a spy. A Czech service employee was once arrested for peddling Soviet MIG fighter jets. Other agents have been exposed when newly elected Eastern European governments perused Communist-era intelligence files and happened upon their names.

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“I know (a CIA spy) . . . and he has pointed out some of the others,” said a veteran Munich employee.

Emigres have been the slowest to make the break with the Cold War past, but others also warn against moving too quickly into the murky waters of post-communism.

Wayne Brown, an American who began working for the stations when Nikita S. Khrushchev ruled the Soviet Union, worries that staff hired locally in Prague will not understand democratic principles or American standards of fairness and objectivity. Even in Munich, he said, employees from the East have censored unflattering news about President Clinton, explaining later that they feared it would reflect poorly on the United States. “Just tell it how it is,” Brown instructed. “Please, don’t help the U.S.”

The unsettled feelings explain, in part, the recent bus tour of Prague and its gleaming diplomatic quarter in Troja. Of 288 Munich-based employees offered jobs here, more than two-thirds have either said no or have yet to make up their minds. Management is hoping visits to this picturesque medieval city, among the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, will win over the undecided.

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The trip included a three-hour tour of castles and historic buildings, an evening at a 500-year-old beer hall and a shopping excursion to Kmart, one of the most conspicuous post-Communist additions to Prague, complete with a Little Caesar’s pizza parlor. “Prague is a great center of democratic ideals, and we think the events of 1989 make that rather clear,” said Klose, the stations’ new president, referring to the so-called Velvet Revolution, the nonviolent overthrow of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Established with money from the CIA, Radio Free Europe began broadcasting into Eastern Europe in 1951 and Radio Liberty followed two years later with programs to the Soviet Union. Although the CIA funding was ultimately ended, the stations never altered their focus, swelling into a force of 2,500 people beaming news and commentary in 23 languages at an annual cost of more than $200 million.

The broadcasts were never intended to last long--the first programs were taped in New York and lobbed into the East from a truck driven to the German-Czechoslovak border--but when communism took root in Eastern Europe the two stations also dug in. The Munich headquarters had been designed to be easily converted into a hospital, but the conversion never took place.

Instead, staffers became comfortable and entrenched, marrying, building homes and taking full advantage of Germany’s generous labor laws. “You couldn’t fire (ex-Nazi leader Heinrich) Himmler if he were working here,” one station official told National Review magazine in 1984.

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Top employees reportedly earned six-figure U.S. salaries, and almost everyone was awarded six weeks of vacation, unlimited sick leave and abundant housing allowances.

But that all began to change with the revolutions of 1989 and the collapse two years later of the Soviet Union. With communism having surrendered, Clinton and the U.S. Congress declared the twin broadcasts all but dead.

Their burial was averted, thanks to a frantic international campaign by Czech President Vaclav Havel and other influential post-Communist personalities.

But the stations’ future was only tentatively secured. Budgets were slashed to a third of their Cold War peak, and the stations were guaranteed U.S. taxpayer funding only until 1999. The broadcasts to Hungary and Afghanistan were eliminated and the Czech and Polish sections were cut loose and given until September to find private donors, a task they have yet to accomplish.

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By this fall, the payroll will have been pared to 420, and many technical operations will have been combined with the Voice of America, the official broadcast of the United States, which promotes U.S. policies with government-approved programming. Employees will earn between 25% and 40% less than in Munich; they will receive sharply reduced benefits. Non-Americans with less than 10 years’ service will even lose their pensions.

“There is this feeling that we were all overpaid and we are now being punished for it,” said Nick Jameson, a 9 1/2-year employee from England who has sued the stations over his lost pension. “Prague is a lovely city, but there is enormous anxiety over the way management has handled this move and what it means for employees in the future.”

Because of the high costs of doing business in Germany, officials said only a handful of the services could have survived the budget cuts had the stations remained there. Even with the move, many employees remain hesitant to leave Germany because they will lose generous unemployment benefits. Under German law, the stations agreed last year to pay nearly $40 million to people who were laid off or took voluntary severance packages.

“We’re in the process of reinventing ourselves from top to bottom, which means running cheaper and more efficiently,” said Robert Gillette, the broadcasting director and former Los Angeles Times correspondent. “That’s hard to do in a country with the highest labor costs.”

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The relocation, which started in January and will take about six months to complete, is projected to save the financially strapped stations millions of dollars a year, mainly in lower operating costs due in part to hefty subsidies from the Czech treasury.

The Czech government was so eager to shed the stigma of its Communist past--and find an anchor to the West--that it made available a building near pricey Wenceslas Square for less than a nickel a day. The stations will pay maintenance costs for the building, a prewar stock exchange that was enlarged in the 1960s and housed the Czechoslovak federal legislature until its dissolution in 1992.

“We are expressing our appreciation to Radio Free Europe for the building of democracy and the free distribution of information here,” said Miroslav Purkyne, deputy finance minister, adding that financial considerations took a back seat to political ones.

Some Czechs complain that the stations have taken advantage of the country’s enthusiasm for being accepted by the West. When RFE / RL reneged last month on a promise to pay $1.5 million in past maintenance bills for the building, the Czech government protested but dutifully picked up the tab.

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Czech officials insist the investment will pay for itself many times over: With Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in its clutches, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization cannot be far behind, they say.

“This will be a clear indication that we belong to the West,” Havel said in a radio interview. “I can hardly imagine that for example, and God forbid, in a situation of some threat, some confrontational situation in Europe, the West would abandon us . . . when it now has put here a radio station that spreads through the world the basic values of the West and of freedom.”

But the stations that will begin broadcasting in Prague will not be the same ones that the world has known for more than 40 years.

The RFE / RL research branch and its vast Cold War-era archives--more than 400 tons of materials--have already been handed over to a private foundation funded by philanthropist George Soros and renamed the Open Media Research Institute.

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The Czech and Polish services also have received new names and have essentially become private contractors that sell programming to the main RFE / RL stations. By this fall, when their U.S. funding runs out, the two services may begin running commercials or, perhaps, go off the air.

“There is no point in doing this if we are just going to become another rock station,” said Piotr Mroczyk, a former Solidarity activist who heads Radio Wolna Europa, the Polish service.

Station officials in Prague are carefully watching Mroczyk and his Czech counterpart, Pavel Pechacek at Radio Svobodna Evropa, for hints about the road to private sponsorship. The main stations have five years to find independent funding and a self-sustaining post-Cold War niche in a region where private stations are proliferating and the size of the RFE / RL audience is in decline.

Some staffers bemoan the slipping quality of broadcasts, saying management has been so preoccupied with money and moving that it has paid little attention to content and mapping a vision of the future. Morale is also low and the sense of mission lost, they said. “A lot of people feel that instead of all the agony . . . it would have been better to close with dignity,” said an administrative employee.

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Others, however, point to the important, albeit diminished, role the stations play in many countries, especially in setting standards for local journalists still struggling with the distinction between news and commentary, and in encouraging them to challenge official versions of events.

Last March, two Radio Free Europe reporters were beaten up in Slovakia for broadcasting news critical of the government, and the Slovak Ministry of Communications shut down programming for a day.

Both are evidence enough, some staffers say, that it is too early to pull the plug.

Murphy reported from Prague and Miller from Munich.

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