While other Eastern European countries flirt with ways to revive detente behind Moscow's back, Czechoslovakia has remained an obedient pupil, diligently emulating the Soviet Union's retreat behind a wall of hostility toward the West.
The lingering trauma of the ill-fated Prague Spring, when liberal reforms wrought by Alexander Dubcek's government 16 years ago were briskly crushed by Soviet tanks, has dictated careful adherence to the tone and content of hard-line policies made in Moscow.
The painful memories of 1968 and the docile compliance of the succeeding government have imbued the population with a despondent apathy toward politics that is dispelled only in flashes of self-deprecating wit.
The subservient nature of the Communist authorities is captured in a popular joke making the diplomatic rounds that asks why Czechoslovakia is the ultimate neutral country. Answer: It never intervenes in its own internal affairs.
In contrast to East Germany and Hungary, whose leaders have taken exception to Moscow by contending that small countries in the East and West should try to relieve tensions between the superpowers, Czechoslovak party leaders strive desperately to stay in Moscow's shadow.
"The world cannot be divided into big and small countries," said Zdenek Porybny, foreign editor of Rude Pravo, the Czech Communist Party daily. "All this talk of a special role for small countries is greatly exaggerated.
"The socialist bloc must work together as one, because by following aggregate policies we can accomplish more."
The standard Czech position on East-West relations, as espoused uniformly by party officials, remains wedded to the Soviet line that steps toward arms control and a new era of detente can begin only after Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles are removed from Western Europe.
The apparent conversion of East Germany and Bulgaria from advocates of communist bloc orthodoxy into defenders of enhanced trade and dialogue with the West has left the government of Communist Party chief Gustav Husak looking ever more isolated in its unflinching support of Soviet dogma.
As other Warsaw Pact countries have tried to bolster their economies by cultivating favorable trade and financial arrangements in the West, Czechoslovakia has oriented its economy even more toward the East. More than three-quarters of the nation's trade is now conducted with Soviet Bloc countries; nearly half of the total is with the Soviet Union.
This kind of Marxist conservatism is rooted partly in the ossified structure of Czech party leadership. The ruling Politburo has remained virtually unchanged since 1970 and all key members are said to favor the hard-line Kremlin faction that has tried to blunt changes that were promoted by deceased Soviet president Yuri Andropov and his backers.
"The Czech party people don't like change," a senior western diplomat said. "They are much happier with the apparent government paralysis under Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko than they were with the efforts to end corruption and improve efficiency under Andropov."
Czech officials admit that their country's agonizing ordeal during the Dubcek era has engendered caution among their policy planners.
"We have learned that it is wise not to go too fast," said Richard Dvorak, a Foreign Ministry counselor who formerly served as ambassador to Moscow. "Our experience shows that even a small country should not be too precipitate; it must be very careful to consider the impact of any reform.
"When you think about our experience, imagine what kind of enormous consequences could occur in a big country like the Soviet Union if you instituted major and sudden changes."
Such caution is also reflected in the country's almost moralistic aversion to accumulating debts with western banks. Western diplomats say that Czechoslovakia, with its impeccable credit rating and tiny debt burden, has had to spurn numerous suitors among western banks eager to offer credit.
Czech party officials cite Poland's debt problems as the chief cause of the political crisis spawned by the Solidarity uprising in the Gdansk shipyards four years ago.
"Poland's troubles all began for economic reasons," explained Rude Pravo's Porybny. "The government had to repay the debts by imposing restrictive economic measures and that's when the political situation blew up."
In a similar manner, Czechoslovak government officials take pride in their ability to resist the temptations of falling into heavy debt, which they say is the main reason East Bloc countries like Hungary must try desperately to boost their exports to the West.
Prague's emotional and political links with Moscow have been reinforced lately by a shared visceral distrust of any reconciliation between the two Germanys.
Mindful of its seven-year occupation by Hitler's armies, Czechoslovakia, along with Poland, has avidly participated in the Soviet-led propaganda campaign against alleged West German "revanchism," or attempts to regain Eastern European territories lost in the war.
Last week, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov flew to Czechoslovakia to join Husak and other top party officials in commemorating the 40th anniversary of an anti-Nazi uprising in Slovakia. In toasts and speeches, they roundly condemned West Germany for purportedly trying to "undermine the socialist system" of East Germany and to incorporate that part of Czechoslovakia known to the Germans as the Sudetenland.
"We were the first to be invaded by Hitler, so we are much more sensitive than other countries to those voices calling for a return to a greater German empire," said Frantisek Kouril, the Czechoslovak government spokesman, in an interview.
"These tendencies in West Germany can be seen in the great attention given to reunions and meetings of Sudeten Germans. Compared to its predecessor, the Chancellor Helmut Kohl government gives greater support to these people and does not attempt to suppress their cause."
Kouril and other government figures stressed that their concern about resurrected German interest in Czech territories began to grow last spring when West German President Karl Carstens, since retired, spoke at a massive rally of Sudeten Germans near Munich.
"These are not just folk festivals," explained Porybny. "We see these events as part of a larger, long-term process to change the postwar political realities of Europe."
But in a more pragmatic sense, as a western diplomat suggested, Czechoslovakia's common cause with the Soviet Union in opposing any rapprochement between the two German states is "a welcome combination for the party leadership of mixing a national worry with a chance to win more points with big brother."