Because of a research error, Czechoslovakia's deputy interior minister, Jan Ruml, was misidentified in a June 3 Outlook article. (Published 6/17/90)

IN PRAGUE a story is told of a couple awakened in the middle of the night. Terrified, they peek through the door at a sinister figure in a trench coat, who announces, "I'm from the secret police." Relieved, the couple open the door and invite him in. "Thank God it's you," they say. "We were afraid it was Civic Forum."

Civic Forum has become the butt of cynical Czech humor, a sign of the ups and downs of the movement that led Czechoslovakia's revolution. Civic Forum now seems poised to win parliamentary elections this Friday and Saturday. But it has faced a strong challenge from Christian Democrats and a smear campaign that portrayed Civic Forum as infiltrated by ex-Communists with secret police ties.

Because the smear campaign against Civic Forum has been orchestrated by Interior Minister Richard Sacher, who has authority over the secret police, it has been dubbed "Sachergate" by Lidove Noviny, a newspaper that supports Civic Forum. The story of Sachergate illustrates how difficult it is to establish honest political discourse in a society where secret police manipulation and deceit once permeated every sphere of life. It also demonstrates a preoccupation with the secret police (the StB) that has overshadowed most other issues in the election.

Sachergate began in mid-April after Oldrich Hromadko, head of a Civic Forum commission on the secret police, and Ladislav Lis, a Civic Forum leader and member of Parliament, criticized Sacher for retaining hundreds of secret police officials in their posts. They charged that Sacher had surrounded himself with "persons who have contacts with the old structures" and stressed that the secret police "could function as it did before the revolution within one hour." In addition, Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslav Prochazka, also from Civic Forum, complained that Sacher planned to use the secret police to gather information on the "moods of the public."

Rather than reply to the substantive criticism, Sacher retaliated by leaking secret police files on Hromadko and Lis to Lidove Demokracie, the newspaper of the People's Party of which Sacher is a leading member. On April 18, Lidove Demokracie reported that Hromadko had worked for the secret police in the 1950s as a border guard and was involved in the killing of two Czechs attempting to flee the country. The paper also alleged that Lis had worked for the secret police in the 1960s. Next, Sacher used the Interior Ministry to attack Prochazka. On April 23, the Interior Ministry Inspector General, apparently on Sacher's instructions, issued a formal ruling that Prochazka had committed the crime of being a threat to state security by his disclosures. The next day, the Czechoslovak human rights movement, Charter 77, issued a statement defending Hrodmadko and Lis, noting that both left the Communist Party over 20 years earlier and participated in dissident activities for over a decade and that Lis was jailed by the Communists for human rights work.

On April 25, Charter 77 and Civic Forum activist Peter Uhl warned that using the secret police to discover the "moods of the public," as Sacher proposed, would justify spying on political parties. Later, Uhl, who now heads the Czechoslovak government press agency, complained that a bugging device installed in his apartment by the Communist regime had not yet been removed and that the same was true of bugging devices installed in apartments of other Charter 77 members.

President Vaclav Havel, who remains overwhelmingly popular despite Civic Forum's problems, at first declined to intervene. But on April 25, for reasons that are not understood, the president's office sided with Sacher. A Havel advisor described the criticism of Sacher as "absurd and unfounded" and emphasized Sacher's "morals, honor and character."

In early May, Civic Forum and the People's Party reached a sort of truce. Hromadko left Civic Forum, Prochazka left the Interior Ministry and a Civic Forum supporter, Jiri Ruml, became the new deputy interior minister with direct responsibility for the secret police. The parties also pledged to avoid personal attacks in the future. But despite Havel's pronouncement that "Sachergate is now over," numbers of Czechs have said that, because of Sacher's charges, they would vote for the Christian Democrats rather than Civic Forum. Just as foreigners were mystified by Watergate, it is hard for an American to understand why Sacher's charges have had such an impact, especially given the less than savory history of the People's Party to which he belongs. Before 1948, the People's Party was a small Christian movement with a rural base. After the Communists seized power in 1948, the party chose to avoid extinction by collaborating with the Communists in a ruling National Front -- a collaboration that lasted over 40 years. The People's Party finally broke with the Communists only after the revolution led by Civic Forum began last November. In the latest stage of its strange career, the People's Party was chosen to form an election coalition by the Christian Democrats, who have since been the principal beneficiaries of Sachergate.

Given the contrast between Civic Forum's role in ousting the Communists and the People's Party's four decades as Communist collaborators, how could Sacher's charges about what Hromadko and Lis did in the 1950s and 1960s hurt Civic Forum? I asked Civic Forum spokeswoman Jana Ryslinkova, who has a Ph.D. in natural science, if she could decipher Sachergate for me.

"It's not easy even for Czechs to understand," she said. "Sacher was supported by Havel and Civic Forum for his post. But after a few months, we had the impression that he was not really willing to change the secret police. The facts are clear enough, proving that he was trying to brake the movement to dissolve the secret police. Civic Forum began to press him to explain what was going on. Sacher and the People's Party then turned it into a political conflict. Then Havel made statements which seemed to support Sacher.

"But the mystery is why people generally didn't support Civic Forum's position on this. They are after all against the secret police and for controlling them. There are three reasons. First, Sacher as a personality has become quite popular. Second, he is a Catholic, known as a religious person, and is trusted. Third, nobody really understands how the secret police worked. And because Sacher was trusted as a personality, people assumed that keeping former secret police officials in office was a tactic for controlling them.

"Then people were so mad about what Hromadko did nearly 40 years ago, when he was a chief guard at a border post, his soldiers shot and killed two people. All he did was write a report about it. But people were so angry that we had to remove Hromadko from political life. This was a personal tragedy for him. The report was misused against him twice. First, in 1970 by the Communists when he was expelled from the Party -- and now.

"It would have been very easy for us to have responded to Sacher's charges by saying how the People's Party collaborated with the Communists until almost the end. There are things from his past that we could have brought up. Some in Civic Forum wanted us to take the offensive. But we decided not to respond in this way. Once you start, it becomes impossible to stop and degrades the country's entire political life." Civic Forum deserves credit for refusing to adopt Sacher's tactics. Indeed, during the revolution, Civic Forum warned that four decades of secret police manipulation and deceit had poisoned society and that tolerance and honesty in public discourse would be difficult to establish. Sacher's dirty tricks at the expense of Civic Forum provide an ironic validation of this prediction.

Sachergate also raises the specter of broader misuse of files with the names of 150,000 Czechs who collaborated with the secret police. Civic Forum proposes that these files be kept secret but transferred to "an authorized group responsible for determining that candidates for public office did not collaborate." Civic Forum leader Jan Urban observed, "We know how easy it was for the secret police to break a person and how much effort was needed to remain humane and clean."

While Civic Forum has called on all parties to conduct a confidential screening of their election candidates, it is concerned that the secret police may have already tampered with the files in order to create confusion. On May 18, Urban warned that such tampering might be part of a larger secret police disinformation campaign with the aim of discrediting leaders of all the political parties. A week later, Sacher disclosed that 10,000 confidential secret police files were missing from the archives and that the only existing copies were in the hands of the Soviet KGB.

Meanwhile, 23 different parties, including the Party of Friends of Beer, are contesting the election. Voters will elect 300 members of Parliament from 12 different districts. It is expected that Civic Forum and the Christian Democrats will together receive roughly 60 percent of the popular vote and that the Greens and the Communist Party will place third and fourth with about 10 percent each.

The major parties have few policy differences; even the Communists advocate political democracy and a market economy. Civic Forum alone emphasizes that the transition will require real sacrifices, its platform quoting John Kennedy's 1960 inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

In contrast, the Christian Democrats suggest that a vote for them will result in Western-style affluence, with little sacrifice required. Their television ads show a prosperous Austrian neighborhood, with voice over, "Vote Christian Democrat -- this is not an illusion."

Stephen Cohen teaches at Georgetown Law Center.