Soviet Retreat Gives Impetus to Reform Communists Are Shunned as Czechoslovakia Prepares for Vote - a Letter from Prague

Article excerpt

FROM their cubbyholes in a downtown campaign hall, volunteers for Czechoslovakia's newly sprung political parties hand out buttons, posters, and brochures.

The country's first free election in decades is scheduled for this weekend. Campaigners from more than 10 parties, including Civic Forum, the Christian Democrats, and the Greens, vie for support from a steady stream of visitors. But absent from its designated cubbyhole is the Communist Party.

Since November 1989, the country's transitional government has focused on asserting independence from communist control that tightened its reign in the spring of 1968.

One-third of the 70,000-plus Soviet troops that have occupied Czechoslovakia have already left the country; the remaining two-thirds are slated for withdrawal by the year's end.

Indeed, communism is viewed with open suspicion and Soviet influence is increasingly rebuked as Czechoslovak tentativeness transforms into confidence. Graffiti along buildings and highways equate the Czech Communist Party with the Nazi Party of Germany's 1930s. Some members of President Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum even tried to ban the Communist Party from taking part in the coming election. "Can you imagine such stupidity?" exclaims a disgruntled government adviser. "How can we call ourselves a democracy when we try to outlaw a party?"

This low level of political culture is because of Soviet domination, he says. Czechoslovaks are unfamiliar with debating issues and campaigns. But with constant denunciations of the past and no prescriptions for change, he wonders just how reform will work. Even with specific programs, there is little chance for a countrywide consensus, because of the government's fragmented structure, with five assemblies on the republic and federal levels. …