World

An iron grip on “Devil’s Island”

Peter C. Newman December 17 1979
World

An iron grip on “Devil’s Island”

Peter C. Newman December 17 1979

An iron grip on “Devil’s Island”

Peter C. Newman

At a time when an ideological thaw is sweeping Eastern Europe’s other satellites, the iron fist of the Soviet Union is methodically transforming Czechoslovakia into a hermetically sealed colony, the Devil’s Island of the Soviet Empire. With a touch of surrealism worthy of Kafka, the Czechs find themselves in the incongruous position of being charged with helping to

resolve the Soviet bloc’s energy crisis. In a series of secret pacts with Moscow, the puppet regime of Gustav Husak has undertaken to build the 23 440-megawatt nuclear reactors on dispersed sites, which by 1990 will be powering Communist industrial expansion from Vladivostok to the Austrian frontier. It was mostly to maintain a politically sanitized environment for this essential assignment that Leonid Brezhnev, who had personally ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, insisted on the recent crackdown against the handful of so-called "dissidents” who still dare to speak out on behalf of the Czech nation.

This huddle of courageous survivors

who remain faithful to the Charter 77 ideal are routinely beaten up during police interrogations; their youngsters are kept out of universities and doctored pornographic pictures involving their wives and husbands are circulated. More than one dissenting family has woken up to find its pet dog nailed to the front door. They are denied work in their professions. Julius Tomin, a Charles University philosophy professor, who along with his wife, Zdena, is among the chief surviving Chartist spokesmen, is an assistant night watchman at the Prague zoo. Others serve as bellhops, taxi drivers and garbagemen. Jaroslav Kladiva, a wellknown Marxist historian who endorsed Dubcek, spent years washing corpses at the Prague morgue.

Husak’s treatment of the Chartists may have pleased the Kremlin, but it has done little to further his hopes of achieving the respectability or even legitimacy for his government that has always eluded him. Not only did the Communist parties of France, Spain, the U.K. and Italy condemn the recent mock trials, but some demonstrations went unimpeded in both Hungary and Poland.

Husak is particularly vulnerable to Chartist accusations that despite communism’s noble theories of equality, it’s only the party faithful who get to ride the big Tatra-603 limousines (which cruise the streets of Prague like hungry black sharks), who can afford to shop in the Tuzex hard-currency stores, and generally to enjoy the good life denied ordinary workers. With its most effi-

cient sectors taken up by the complex Russian nuclear assignment, the Czech economy is wallowing in something very close to chaos. Nothing seems to operate according to schedule; without an effective system of incentives, production-line workers have become sloppy and uninterested. Five hundred Skoda cars were recently returned by some dissatisfied but hardly discriminating buyers in Morocco. The shortage of willing labor is so acute that 5,000 apprentices have been quietly imported from northern Vietnam; there are reports of some garrisoned Soviet troops putting in factory shifts.

Czechoslovakia’s functioning economy has gone underground. As much as a quarter of the country’s gross national product

flows out of illegal “independent’’ jobs which allow people to afford the expensive but available consumer goods that make life tolerable. Most individual effort goes into building and furnishing their chatas— the country cottages that remain the only form of private property allowed by the state. The sole remaining option for foreign travel, holiday tours to Yugoslavia, has just been outlawed. Prices of most consumer goods went up 50 per cent last July; the cost of gasoline doubled. The Soviet Union has served notice that it will not increase its subsidized gasoline exports to Czechoslovakia beyond 1980 levels and a proposed natural gas deal with Iran recently fell through. As a result, the Czechs will increasingly be forced to purchase their oil supplies on the expensive Rotterdam spot market, when their capacity for earning hard-currency funds has never been lower.

It’s the ultimate irony that the only way to save the Czech economy may be through precisely the kind of decentralization of authority and introduction of limited competition that Dubcek proposed.

As the economic situation deteriorates, alternate forums of protest are quietly gathering strength. Even though private printing presses are outlawed and the unauthorized use of copying machines brings a maximum three-year jail sentence, underground publishing is flourishing. Book manuscripts are laboriously copied and recopied by typewriters that produce a dozen clear copies at a time. At least 250 titles are in circulation at the moment and a private tutorial system for dissenters' children operates out of Prague apartments. ("Tell me,” pleads one poem written by a teenage pupil, “what sense there is in being young here . . .”)

If any mass protest can be expected it will probably be religious. Two-thirds of the Czech population is nominally Roman Catholic and despite the Flusak regime’s unrelenting persecution of the church’s hierarchy, which has left 10 of the country’s 13 dioceses without bishops and most parishes bereft of ordained priests, the crowds continue to worship. Since few Czech citizens, except for its functionaries, place much confidence in the Flusak government or in the Communist system, noone seems particularly surprised by the ebbing spiral of events. But the visitor walking through the Renaissance arcades of Prague’s old quarter can’t help but wonder how much longer this unhappy country can go on holding its breath.