The growing domestic turmoil here raises questions not only about the imprisoned intellectuals and the police harassment, but also about the future of Czechoslovakia's present leadership and its relations with the West.
The questions arise because the crackdown that followed publication of Charter 77 in the West was uncertain, albeit widespread and frequently harsh.
Charter 77, a dramatic plea for human rights guaranteed by the Helsinki agreement and by Czechoslovakia's own constitution, was signed by some 300 of the country's citizens, many of them well-known intellectuals or former Communist Party functionaries.
The signs of uncertainty in the government's response have led some observers to conclude that there is confusion at the top about how to deal with the situation, which has attracted international attention. Several Western European countries have criticized the crackdown, and Wednesday the Carter administration, in a State Department statement, sharply condemned Prague and accused it of human-rights violations.
Some observers here believe that police authorities or other ultra-hard-liners within the ruling Politburo - perhaps with secret Soviet support - may be trying to use the outbreak of dissent as a means to gain more power. They would do this by showing that Husak may have been too lenient in the first place, allowing the dissent to surface, or not clever enough to handle it once it did.
Some Czechoslovaks who are not among the dissident intellectuals feel that the police are not firmly under government control.
For example, a handful of charter signers have lost their jobs recently, while many others, some of whom work in the same places, have not. Since the names of charter signers has never been published here, it is difficult for an employer to know who signed the document unless a police official calls up to tell him.
Others feel that in Czecholslovakia, as in other Soviet bloc countries where dissent has suffered recently, the government trying to fine-tune the crackdown. The idea is to make it harsh enough to silence the critics but not so harsh that it will look bad at the Belgrade conference this summer, where 35 nations will gather to assess progress under the Helsinki accords.
Western diplomats here and elsewhere admit however, that their real insight into what is happening within the tightly conrolled, Moscow-dominated Husak regime is very limited.
But whatever happens to the charter signers or their demands for greater individual freedom, one here expects a public uproar or revolt, or any changes, even minor, in the ruling Politburo unless specifically approved by the Kremlin.
The Czechoslovaks ae looked upon as the most passive people in the Soviet bloc. "They are the ones most under the Soviet thumb," says one diplomat, "and they don't even wiggle." The Soviet-led invasion here in 1968 that ousted the leadership of Alexander Dubeck met little of the kind of resistance that Soviet troops in Budapest in 1956.
"This country is just no problem for the Russians. They have no respect for the Czech capability for resistance and are much more worried about Poland, where the elements of a political opposition could form, and East Germany," another adds.
When the Soviets came in 1968, their troops stayed and are still here. Authoritative sources say there are actually more Soviet troops here - at least six divisions - than is commonly reported in the West.
The dilemma for Husak, who is both party chief and president, is especially complex, in the Western view. It is made more so they feel, because he is not regarded as one of the more clever Communist leaders.
Although a hardliner himself, Husak is viewed as more moderate than other leading figures who could challenge him.
Husak's task since 1968 was to try to "normalize" things, to get the people - probably the most Western-oriented of any within the Communist bloc - to accept a brand of orthodox cow, and to forge some sense of national purpose.
In the view of many experienced Westerners and some Czechoslovaks, however, Husak has failed to do that. The few gains he may have made in popular acceptance both at home and in the West in recent years may well be wiped away by reaction to the police measures now in evidence here.
Unlike Hungary, whose citizens resisted Soviet forces in 1956 and where many liberal Communist leaders were killed, the fall of Dubcek was largely passive. The result is that there are still almost half a million former Communist Party members here who were in jail or have, been in menial jobs and excluded from government since 1968. They represent a shadow force that has always caused Husak to look over his shoulder.
Husak eventually released those jailed but many are now among those who signed the charter. Husak undoubtedly feels humiliated and probably worried.
"When you put as many people away as we did," said one Czech," you are just bound to have trouble."
The word that many diplomats use to describe the result of Prague's efforts since 1968 is "stagnation," born of the lingering hangover from 1968 and the split it caused in the party.
The Czechoslovak economy, while still in better shape than most in Eastern Europe, has slowly lost the edge it once had and now suffers from management inefficiencies arising from inflexibility that was critized at the last party congress in October.
Ironically, one result of the crackdown on dissidents here may be a prolonged government subsidy of basic commodity prices so as not to add any worker unrest to that to the intellectuals.
Most economists feel that Czechoslovakia must raise consumer prices if it is not to get into a deeper hole.