Prague's Paradise Lost the Velvet Revolution Has Been Followed by a Period of Doubt and Witch-Hunting. the West Can Help, and Learn from, Czechoslovakia

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FOR Martin Palous, longtime dissident and current Deputy Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, the mood of this moment in post-communist Prague recalls the despair of the ancient Israelites who, having fled Pharaoh, found themselves stranded in a wilderness, yearning for the fleshpots of Egypt. "We're somewhere in the middle of the Red Sea now," he says, "and everyone is grumbling."

For Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's playwright-president, the gentle revolution seems to have brought out the worst in his countrymen - "an enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every imaginable human vice.... Society has freed itself, true, but in some ways it behaves worse than when it was in chains."

Two-and-a-half years after the revolution, euphoria has turned to anxiety and anger. The ironies are extreme. In the once-totalitarian East, the former communists have become the most proficient capitalists, inheriting much of the wealth and influence they formerly wielded. Familiar with the exercise of power, they are well positioned to profit from the opportunities of buccaneer capitalism. Meanwhile, most Czechs and Slovaks, outmaneuvered by the new entrepreneurs and bewildered by the sudden necessity to compete for what once was guaranteed, succumb to a politics of blame and resentment.

The forthcoming parliamentary elections, June 5-6, threaten to sunder the uncertain union between the Czech and Slovak republics. In the Czech lands, Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, a Thatcherite free-marketeer who has directed the country's rapid privatization, seems likely to become prime minister of the Czech republic. In Slovakia, Vladimir Meciar, a former communist who skillfully recast himself as a Slovak nationalist, is expected to win. The clash is of both ideology and personality, for while Mr. Klaus promises a capitalism without constraints, Mr. Meciar pledges a return to the old authoritarian social contract.

Between them is President Havel, seeking like a latter-day Lincoln to hold the nation together against the polarizing extremes. He retains great respect as a moral compass for the nation: 90 percent of all Czechs and 66 percent of all Slovaks approved of his performance in a recent poll, his highest rating since the revolution. But the president is elected by parliamentary vote, not popular mandate, and in the cauldron of animosities that the Federal Assembly has become, he could fall to an alliance between Slovak nationalists and anti-Havel Czechs.

Though it seems unlikely, would the country divide if Havel resigns? Who else could bridge the chasms of culture and ideology? Perhaps Alexander Dubcek, the reform communist who led 1968's Prague Spring. …