The fundamental question now is indeed whether this action will bring about more freedom or more repression."
The speaker is gray-haired, 69-year-old Jan Patocka a former philosophy professor who has emerged as the leading spokesman for a group of some 300 Czechoslovaki human-rights activits openly challenging this tightly controlled, hard-line Communist regime for more freedom and democracy.
The action Patocka refers to is the publication in some Western newspapers two weeks ago of the so-called Charter 77, an unprecedented civil-rights manifesto written and signed here and then slipped across the border to the West.
In brief, it asks that Czechoslovak citizens be guaranteed the human rights contained in U.N. resolutions and the declaration of the 35-nation Helsinki Conference on Ewropean security and cooperation, both ratified by the government, and those rights contained in the Czechoslovak constitution.
Slowly but steadily, the publication of the charter and reports of its contents, reaching back to Prague, have stirred tension and unease in government, among the signers and within a small but curious segment of the population.
A group of Hungarian scholars has sent a letter of support to the Czechoslovak signers of Charter 77, the first such expression of solidarity from another Soviet bloc country, the Associated Press reported from Vienna. Philosopher Ferenc Feher, one of the Hungarian signers, said in an interview on Austrian radio, "The question of the charter is an all-European issue.")
Although the drama unfolding here is thus far limited mostly to the fate of a handful of intellectuals and former party functionaries, the uneasiness and open dissent is greater now than at any time since the liberal but short-lived Communist rule of Alexander Dubcek was toppled by a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968.
Thus far, signers have been subjected to harsh denunciations as traitors and sell-outs to the West in the government-controlled press. Four men, including well-known playwright Vaclav Havel, have been arrested and taken to the huge yellow-walled Ruzyne prison outside the city. A score of others, including Patocka and play-wright Pavel Kohout, have been interrogated there more than once. Telephones are no longer working in many homes; some dissidents have lost their jobs. No one knows what will happen next.
"It was difficult to look ahead and see which way it would go," Patocka said in an interview here on the question of the charter's probable effects.
"But we felt this was a unique opportunity to present a certain civic attitude and to give back to the people a certain moral dignity. That dignity is still here', Patocka adds, despite the general image of the Czechsolovaks as the most docile and least given to resistence among the Eastern bloc.
"A demonstration of this dignity has already been observed in the way people have reacted with steadfastness to the campaign of pressure on them."
The unique opportunity that gave birth to the charter was the July 1975 Helsinki declaration, specifically its portions on wider freedom of travel and contacts between East and West, he said.
"Certainly Helsinki was at the beginning of all this. We were waiting to see if the Helsinki principles would be implemented here, if they would have the force of law. One had to do something as a citizen, as a human being, to insure that these rights that were given to us would not remain a dead letter.
"As a matter of fact," Patocka continued, "the rights we have are only another phase of the obligation one has to exercise and defend them."
The charter signers depict themselves as Czechoslovak loyalists seeking more flexibility from the present government and not trying to over-throw it. Some feel, despite the current crackdown, that over the long run the government of Gustav Husak is capable of such flexibility; others disagree.
"In the first days after the signing," Patocka said, "We were very joyful, with people saying that at least people can do something that is not illegal."
But in the aftermath of the crack-down, the leaders increasingly have called openly for support from Western Communist parties in Italy, France and Spain. These "Eruocommunism" parties are anathema to the Kremlin. Thus, there are now probably more pessimists than optimists among the dissenters about finding some leeway in the Husak government.
Still, Patocka said, "I would believe this action should bring our leaders to ask themselves whether they are not victims of delusion when they believe they can manipulate the public.
"They don't make a distinction between a purely formal consent, which the public gives almost mechanically, and a sincere consent. If they could make this distinction, they would become very skeptical."
Patocka is not a Communist Party member. But a colleague who is a former party member, and who asked not to be identified, said in another interview that "if we thought the charter would lead to repression we would not have done it."
"Being a Communist myself, I know well the situation inside the party, and its leaders are the victims of their own bureaucratic apparatus. We must reckon with that. But I am sure that the charter must bring an improvement in the fields of democracy and public life.
"The demands are loyally formulated . . . to the true socialist ideals that have nothing to do with the current practkes here.
"It is true," he added, "that our way of acting was a little unusual. But modern forms of socialism" in his view, "which we are not yet used to will become the form of communism."
"This change in the process - the charter - is aimed at accustoming the public and also the leaders to deal with public opinion, which wants greater publicity about the process of government.
"And if we could accustom our leaders to think with regard to critics that one will never be able to suppress completely, that a critic will sooner or later come out, if we could do that, it would already be a great result," he said.
Although there are certain similarities to the recent stirring of dissidents here and in Poland, East Germany and even the Soviet Union, there are also important differences.
Poland is viewed by experienced observers as the most volatile, an assessment based on the Polish temperament as well as on the general spectrum of reported unhappiness, which includes not only some intellectuals, but also some worker groups and a powerful church.
In East Germany, the dissidence is a combination of some intellectual protest plus the uncertain impact of some 100,000 people who, since Helsinki, have applied to emigrate to the West.
Here, it is mostly an intellectual undertaking, and there is no sign of critical support from the workers or elsewhere, except possibly the church - whose leaders stated they did not sign the charter, but they have refrained from attacking it.
But many diplomats here believe the government, however, has fallen into a trap on the charter. Aside from the signers, few people here knew about it when it was first published.
By eventually attacking it publicly, the government has made more and more people aware of it - and curious about what it says, since they are being asked to denounce it. The charter has never been published here nor have all the signatures been identified.
But, some 60 per cent of this country about the size of North Carolina with a population of 14 million, can receive West German or Austrian radio and television. Details about the charter are becoming more widely known than many Czechoslovaks thought was possible had the government not made a fuss over it.
Yesterday, the Communist newspaper Rude Pravo denied Kohout's allegations that there was any "witchhunt" going on here. The party daily also attacked former party secretary Zdenek Mlynar who it claimed "harried several communists to their deaths" in the 1968 crisis here. Mlynar, a former Dubcek supporter, also issued an appeal this week to Western Communist leaders to help bring pressure on the Husak regime.
Rude Pravo also blastee Austrian Socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky after Kreisky announced Tuesday he would see what he could do to have democratic socialist governments aid the dissidents here.
"If Mr. Kreisky and those who are so worried about us really want to do something for human rights, they have enough opportunities in their own countries," the editorial said.