CZECHOSLOVAKIA

Dangerous Islands Of Independence

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 22 1988
CZECHOSLOVAKIA

Dangerous Islands Of Independence

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 22 1988

Dangerous Islands Of Independence

CZECHOSLOVAKIA

At the western end of Prague’s historic Charles Bridge, the most striking structure in an exquisitely beautiful city, is a quiet square with a low, whitewashed wall. Daring youths once went there under cover of night to scrawl slogans protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. But for the past several years, young Czechoslovaks have gone there for a different reason: they cover the wall with graffiti, poems and pictures memori-

alizing a man whom they regard with an almost cult-like reverence: John Lennon. And each Dec. 8, the anniversary of the rock star’s murder in 1980, hundreds of young people crowd the square in a candlelight memorial. Prague police attempt to discourage people from joining the crowd, and they regularly paint out the slogans on the wall and keep a careful watch on the square. But the graffiti keep reappearing. In Prague’s rigidly conformist atmosphere, the “John Lennon Wall” is one of the few opportunities for young Czechoslovaks to express independent views. Danger: By Western standards, such slogans as “Imagine” or “I love John” carry no obvious

political meaning. But in Prague, where the authorities frown on virtually all independent public action, they have a wider significance. “Our leaders are nervous of anything that they do not have under control,” says Bohumir Janat, a leader of Charter 77, Czechoslovakia’s most active dissident group. “Totalitarianism has a fundamental tendency to rule over every person totally—so every little island of independence is seen as a danger.” Most Czechoslovaks, however, seek personal independence in a more private way. Only a handful actively support such groups as Charter 77. To do so would expose them to police surveillance, the loss of jobs or of educational opportunities—

and possibly jail. For the majority, personal freedom begins at midday on Friday, when many offices and shops empty. Tens of thousands load up their Skoda cars and head for the countryside. There, in thousands of tiny weekend chalets, Czechoslovaks create a sphere of personal enterprise—energetically digging at their garden plots or remodelling their rural retreats. Work: Some Czechoslovaks joke that if they worked as hard during the week as they do on weekends their country’s economic problems would be solved. Indeed, the country’s economic system offers few incentives for hard work. There is virtually no private enterprise and few opportunities to spend money. While the stores along Wenceslas Square and Prague’s other main shopping streets are well-stocked with Eastern Bloc products, the variety is limited, and quality is generally low. And although Czechoslovaks enjoy one of Eastern Europe’s

highest standards of living, inefficiencies can result in sudden shortages of essentials. As a result, many Czechoslovaks participate in the country’s flourishing black market—and expend considerable effort trying to obtain Western currency. Foreigners are peppered with requests to exchange Western money for Czechoslovak korunas at twice the official exchange rate— because most prized Western goods can be bought only in special stores that accept hard currency. In Prague restau-

rants, even packages of Western cigarettes are accepted more eagerly than Czechoslovakian money as tips. Task: The man whose task it is to overhaul this system is MiloS Jakeá, general secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist party since last December. Jake§, 66, began his working career in 1937 as an electrician at a shoe factory run by the Bata family, which later moved its headquarters to Canada. A Communist since 1945, he is closely associated with former leaders who collaborated with the Soviets in 1968 to crush the ambitious reform program introduced by then-party leader Alexander Dubßek. Western diplomats and others in Prague de-

diplomats Prague scribe Jake§—who is married, with two grown sons—as a careful, colorless career manager. Spokesmen for dissident groups are more dismissive. As long as Jake§ and his associates hold the leading positions in Czechoslovakia’s Communist party, they maintain, the party’s official position that the 1968 invasion was justified to prevent a restoration of capitalism will almost certainly not be revised. And there is virtually no likelihood that the type of political openness now seen in Moscow will soon come to Prague. -ANDREW PHILLIPS in Prague