Eugene Menert calls himself "a stokerphilosopher."
The 46-year-old Czechoslovakian is a philosopher by training and profession. But in Prague last January, Menert, along with several hundred other Czechoslovak citizens, signed his name to a demand for human rights known as "Charter 77."
After that, he was fired from his position at theAcademy of Sciences and given a job as a coal-stoker in a railway station.
Today, Menert, is in his Austrian capital along with half dozen other charter signers who, under pressure from the hard-line Communist government in Prague, have been allowed to leave their homeland as political exiles in the last few weeks.
But for many of the other 730 signers who either have refused to be kicked out or have not been given the choice of staying or leaving, life is "worsening in every way," Menert says.
"There are three kinds of repression being used," says Zdenek Mlynar, a former secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the most politically important charter signer to come out so far.
"There are court proceedings against certain persons and no one knows what will happen. There are people losing jobs; 80 signers that I know of personally plus others who are put out of work for refusing to sign petitions denouncing the charter. Then there are individual acts of repression," such as taking away play-wright Pavel Kohout's apartment and car, forcing him to live in an isolated region and "virtually banning him from Prague."
"The idea is to frighten other people so they will not sign, to get those who have signed to withdraw their signatures, or to force others to emigrate," Mlynar says.
[Reuter, quoting emigre sources in Vienna, reported Saturday, that Mlynar and another charter signatory now in Austria, philosopher Jaroslav Krejci have been deprived of their Czechoslovak citizenship. The sources said Mlynar had received a letter from the Czechoslovak embassy saying his citizenship had been revoked because he had made statements "harmful to the interests of Czechoslovakia" since arriving in Vienna with his wife in June.]
"It's not like losing your job in the West," adds charter signer Jan Lestinsky, a 40-year-old former technician in a steel plant.
"The papers the Communist Party collects on you go with you everywhere, so you are really being sentenced to unemployment. No firm would dare to hire you."
At a refugee camp south of Vienna, others who have managed to slip out of the country in recent weeks and who are not politcally active persons or charter signers paint a similarly grim picture.
"All the top jobs now are going to 100 per cent Communists," says a 36-year-old mechanical engineer, who with his wife and four-year-old daughter fled here recently. "Many of those people have no real education but they get the jobs because they are okay politically.
"There were a lot of economic and political reasons why we left, but primarily it was the dominating influence of the Communist society on our everyday life. And it's getting worse. There is no criticism at all. You are not allowed to utter it and if you do you lose your job.
"Life is dependent on the local Communist official. There is nothing they don't know or that you can do without their judgment. I am 36 years old, have never done anything wrong, but I have a 200-page file in this office."
Perhaps more than any other single manifesto coming out of Eastern Europe in recent years. Charter 77 has had a profound and far-reaching influence in both Eastern and Western countries. In brief yet eloquent prose the charter argues that Czechoslovak citizens should be permitted to have the rights pledged to them by the Prague government when it signed such international documents as the 35-nation Helsinki agreement and the United Nations Charter.
"Those cannont be treated casually," says Mlynar.
"Once human rights became the subject of international agreements, the East Europeans can no longer say that such matters are purely internal affairs. They must not get out of those agreements."
"That is why it is so important, Mlynar feels, to keep the dialogue going with the East at the Belgrade conference to review implementation of the Helsinki accords and to get still more agreements.
Despite the harsh reaction of the Gustav Husak government after the charter was slipped to the West for "Whatever happens, it was definitely a worthwhile and positive thing. It was the result of years of repression and that some people stood up and cried out is a fact that can never be denied again. It was important to say that governments that gave the impression they were prepared to ad here to international principles were not keeping their word."
Seven months later, the new exiles here feel that the problem posed by the charter for the Prague government may be having some beneficial effects.
"The government's reaction gave us great publicity," says Mlynar. "Human rights had to be discussed, even if in a negative way. The whole complex of questions is now in the public consciousness and it is impossible to liquidate that."
The forcing of many intellectuals either out of work or into menial jobs, says Menert, also brought them into more contact with workers. The charter has been criticized as an elitist movement by the government. But Menert says that among the workers "there was sympathy, absolutely: a silent sympathy."
Similarly, he is waiting for the new school term to start to see whether children of people who were politically oriented and not enthusiastic government supporters, but who did not sign the charter, will be allowed into school. In the past, many of those children have lost their places in school.
"You must remember that in 1969 and 70, a half-million people here suffered from persecution." Mlynar said, as a result of the more liberal brand of communism that Alexander Dubcek tried to introduce before Soviet tanks overthrew his government. Mlynar was a key Communist official in the Dubcek era.
"Now, the charter has concentrated the government's attention on 700 persons, so conversely the others may be in a better position for the first time in a long while," he said.
"But don't think for a minute that the government is becoming more liberal. It is a government that can't decide anything on its own without Moscow, and it is difficult to see precise examples of leeway. But there is a trend to differentiate."
When it first appeared, the charter had about 240 names on it. Now there are three times as many. The document, ironically, has also become a safety valve for some critics whose names were not known outside the country and could therefore have been in danger as easy targets for the government.
"The charterists have helped the Czech people and the reaction from the West has helped the charterists," says Menert, who was a visiting professor at Stanford University 10 years ago.
"The government is sensitive to its image and I'm sure without the outside pressure this repression would have taken even harder, more uncivilized forms."
Yet, the Husak government has succeeded at least in making it much more difficult for beleaguered Czechoslovak human rights campaigners to get their message out. Police surveillance of all dissenters is close, though the persistent foreign visitor can still get to see acquaintances, as British playwright Tom Stoppard said recently.