Since the Carter administration took office, the United States has virtually frozen its relations with Czechoslovakia. But Western diplomats and human rights campaigners here are divided over whether this policy is promoting some measure of liberalization in one of Eastern Europe's most repressive societies or merely making matters worse.
While U.S. ties with many other communist states, notably Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia, have prospered under the Carter administration, relations with Czechoslovakia have remained on ice. By the admission of both sides, all important diplomatic negotiations between Washington and Prague have been shelved al least until the fall.
U.S. diplomats in Prague say the time is simply not right for conducting negotiations. They point to the continuing harassment of Czechoslovakia human rights campaigners, the fervor with which the leadership is stressing its loyalty to the Soviet Union, and the approached of the 10th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of the country in August 1968.
A Foreign Ministry official blamed bad relations on what he described as a U.S. policy of differentiating between communist countries at Czechoslovakia's expense.
The United States has favored certain Soviet bloc countries, rewarding regimes which demonstrate any sign of independence - whether over domestic policy as in Hungary or in foreign affairs as in Romania.
"If the present government showed any willingness to act in Czechoslovakia's national interest rather than emphasizing the Soviet connection ad nauseam, we would respond," said a U.S. diplomat. "The problem here is that these people just won't take any initiatives - and until they do something to help themselves, nobody else is going to help them."
The major obstacle blocking progress toward better relations is the failure to complete an agreement on U.S. property claims growing out of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Under an agreement initialed in 1974 but then rejected by Congress, Czechoslovakia would have paid more than $20 million in settlement of $70 million worth of claims for compensation from nationalization.
In return, the United States would have handed back more than 18 metric tons of gold, now worth around $110 million, which was originally taken from Czechoslovakia by Nazi troops during World War II and is being held in Fort Knox.
Without a final agreement on claims, say U.S. diplomats, there can be little progress on a wide range of other negotiations. These include a consular convention, technological and cultural exchange, and finally a lowering of tariffs, which would lead to the substantial increase in trade between Czechoslovakia and the United States.
But at the Belgrade conference earlier this year, U.S. delegates singled out Czechoslovakia for failing to implement the Helsinki declaration and Czechoslovakia reacted with a further round of repression against its human rights activists.
"Right now we are in a holding action," remarked a U.S. diplomat. "Any improvement in Czech-U.S. bilateral relations now seems to depend on improved U.S.-Soviet relations, and that in turns depends an a SALT agreement."
Among human rights activists here, there is no difference of opinion over whether the United States should try to improve its relations with the present Czechoslovak government.
"There's no such thing as the Czech authorities," one human rights activist said. "There are Soviet authorities and Czech who carry out their orders. Its better to talk to the Soviets direct."
An elderly intellectual took a diferent view: "I think its very unwise to shut a whole people off, as the United States is now in danger of doing with Czechoslovakia. The West should exploits as many openings as possible. Detente means that someone like me can read Western newspapers, travel abroad, have foreign friends and in general lead a normal life. When relations are bad, all these avenues are closed to us. We are the first to pay for a cold war."
A similar point was made by Jiri Hajek Czechoslovak foreign minister in 1968 and one of the original signatories of the human right group Charter 77.
"I think that the problems of human rights in this part of the world is closely linked up with the improved East-West relations in general. Anything that helps detente also opens up the possibility of human rights being respected here," he said.
Hajek was careful not to critize President Carter, who he believes performed a valuable service by focusing world attention on violations of human rights. But Hajek is worried that some Western politicians use the human rights issue as an instrument not to promote detente, but to retard it.