YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

New Czech Leader in Ironic Role : Prague Cautious About Gorbachev-Style Reform

December 19, 1987|CHARLES T. POWERS | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — In his cabled congratulations to the new head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev expressed confidence that the new chief, Milos Jakes, would press ahead with the "renewal of socialism" in Czechoslovakia.

But the appointment of Jakes, who is 65 and has been regarded as one of the conservatives in the Czechoslovak party's ruling Presidium, suggests just how difficult and slow the process of reform is going to be in the Soviet Bloc.

Jakes was appointed Thursday to replace Gustav Husak, 74, who assumed the job 18 years ago at a time when the instructions from Moscow were very different. Husak took over after Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops smashed the "Prague Spring" reforms of 1968, and his rule was devoted largely to putting the lid on the kind of reforms that are now being encouraged by Gorbachev.

Jakes, in a speech before the party Central Committee, indicated Friday that the message from Moscow had been received clearly. He said he intends to guide the party in a "democratic, creative atmosphere, so that we can assess problems openly. . . ."

But he called on the 1.7 million members of the party to unite and to resist attacks from abroad. He said that "social ownership of the means of production, planned economy and the leading role of the working class and the Communist Party" are principles that were "attacked in 1968 by right-wing opportunists and revisionists," and that "today our opponents would like the economic restructuring and a restructuring of social life to bring about a retreat from the fundamental principles of socialism."

"They will not live to see that," he said. "We took a lesson from 1968-1969 and know where such a retreat leads." he said.

The use of terms like glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), which are much in vogue these days in Moscow, seems ironic in Czechoslovakia, where for years intellectuals have been jailed or exiled and the lucky ones among them assigned as postal workers or taxi drivers.

They may seem ironic to Husak, too, who had clearly fallen out of favor with Moscow in recent months. In last month's celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union, Husak's early departure was interpreted as a sign that not all was well in the relations between the aging Czechoslovak leader and the new-breed Soviet leadership.

Purge of Party Members

The irony also extended to Jakes, who presided over the commission that purged 460,000 people from the Czechoslovak party rolls after the ouster of party leader Alexander Dubcek in 1968.

Although political analysts are reluctant to suggest that Jakes will resist, as Husak did, Gorbachev's urgings for reform, the appointment of a man so closely linked to the harshest days of hard-line communism indicates that changes in the old style are being approached with great caution.

Czechoslovak dissidents, led by the human rights group known as Charter 77, remain active, protesting treatment of political prisoners and appealing loudly for international agencies to intervene on behalf of imprisoned intellectuals, some of whom, they say, are suffering from serious illnesses.

Other dissidents, taking up environmental issues, have been publishing underground documents protesting, among other things, nuclear power stations.

These activities suggest to many hard-liners in the party, with some justification, that increased "democratization of public and political life"--a phrase from Gorbachev's congratulatory cable to Jakes--is likely to result in a further amplification of opposition voices.

No Dramatic Change Seen

Critics of the regime were quick to express their doubts that the change in leadership signals a dramatic change for Czechoslovakia. The playwright Vaclav Havel said in an interview with Austrian radio that the Jakes appointment is a "provisional solution."

"It proves that changes are necessary," he said, but added that Jakes "is not the right man."

Havel went on to say, though, that Jakes could prove to be a transitional figure like the Soviet leaders Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko, who helped "prepare the ground" for Gorbachev.

If the Soviet leader has found what may be an interim solution in Czechoslovakia, he remains obviously impatient with other seemingly intractable problems in the satellite nations.

The outstanding example is Romania, where President Nicolae Ceausescu's government has been faced with an unprecedented level of public protest, including a rare strike in November by 10,000 workers in the industrial city of Brasov.

Severe Power Cutbacks

For the fourth straight winter, Romania's 23 million citizens are facing severe cutbacks in electric power, which restrict homeowners to the use of 40-watt light bulbs and indoor temperatures so low that people must wear heavy coats indoors. Food is in such short supply that the West German government offered to contribute food for ethnic Germans living in Transylvania. The offer was rejected.

Gorbachev has made no secret of his displeasure with Ceausescu. He was observed snickering and passing apparently derisive notes to colleagues during a Ceausescu speech last month in Moscow. But it is much less apparent what, if anything, he plans to do about the autocratic Romanian leader, whose heavy-handed style recalls the Stalinist period, which is so far out of fashion in Gorbachev's Soviet Union.

Los Angeles Times Articles