Czechoslovakia's Communist Party completed a five-day congress today that offered an outward show of respect for Mikhail Gorbachev's political shake-ups in the Soviet Union but appeared to exclude any similar change in Eastern Europe's most doggedly conservative country.
Nearly 17 years after a Soviet-led invasion catapulted him to power, party Secretary General Gustav Husak, 73, set a tone of low-key contentment with Czechoslovakia's slow but relatively stable economic growth, its insistently orthodox Marxism, its intolerance of all dissent and its aversion to expanding ties with western countries.
Speaker after speaker extolled Gorbachev, who has launched a crackdown on indiscipline and corruption, is overhauling top personnel and is planning a "radical reform" of the Soviet economy. However, there were no significant changes in the enduring leadership that crushed Czechoslovakia's 1968 reform movement and zealously identified with former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Criticism of corruption was muted, and evaluations of the prospect for improved East-West relations were skeptical. Moreover, despite repeated calls for improved economic management, neither the word "reform" nor any concrete new policy steps were mentioned.
"Many critical comments of all kinds were voiced," said Husak. "The mainstream, however, expressed total support for the political course of the party."
The outcome seemed to support assessments by both western diplomats and Eastern European sources that Gorbachev's agenda of renewal would only be extended selectively to Moscow's allies in Eastern Europe in the coming months. "In a strange way, Czechoslovakia for the first time under this leadership appears somewhat independent from the Soviets," a diplomat said. "They're stressing continuity and stability, the old ways, at a time of great change."
Moscow's view of this was hinted in its selection of Mikhail Solomentsev, a Politburo holdover from the Brezhnev era, as head of its delegation here. Diplomats noted that Brezhnev attended Prague's last party congress in 1981 and that Gorbachev is expected to lead the Soviet delegation to East Germany's next month.
To be sure, Communist leaders here took pains to imitate the procedures and rhetoric of the recent Soviet party congress. "The way in which the Soviet Communist Party dealt with the issues . . . is directly calling upon us to approach our own tasks and problems with a much more critical view, with boldness and an innovative spirit," declared Premier and Presdium member Lubomir Strougal.
Behind the outward spectacle, however, traditional policies and hard-line views seemed unmoved. Husak, for example, briefly raised the issue of corruption but quickly assured delegates that "this is not the first time" the problem has been studied. He indicated that disciplinary steps taken in 1983 were sufficient, and he then turned a second reference to "criminal elements" into a denunciation of those who pursue "the so-called struggle for human rights."
Similarly, Husak seemed to undercut Strougal's vague references to economic reorganization, in effect rejecting the trend toward market regulation of the economy pursued by reformers in Hungary, China, Poland and Bulgaria.
Outside the congress, staged in a convention center sealed from the public and the noncommunist press, the decade-old constants of Czechoslovak political life remained unaltered. Average citizens took advantage of special supplies in the stores but otherwise showed no hint of interest in the congress.
Meanwhile, the capital's longstanding circle of intellectual dissidents endured Prague's heavy-handed police tactics. Secret police agents dogged at least five activists of the Charter 77 group and conspicuously stationed black sedans outside their homes.
Western journalists were issued a formal warning not to speak with government critics.
"Whenever a meeting like this occurs, there's a mobilization of the police," said playwright Vaclav Havel, one of the founders of the Charter 77 group. "It's not that we ever plan anything -- we never march or wave placards. It just shows that the authorities are afraid of everything."
Critical observers here believe that the public and the Soviets have tolerated the political stagnation here because of the leadership's ability to deliver what by Eastern European standards are relatively comfortable living standards.
Although economic growth has been sluggish and international competitiveness has declined during the 1980s, the reported growth rate of 3.2 percent in 1985, the third positive year in a row, looked good compared with either reform-oriented Hungary or crisis-stricken Romania, Poland and Bulgaria.
Czechoslovak leaders hope to maintain this trend during the coming five years by working to increase efficiency, discipline and savings of energy and material in existing industry rather than building new factories.
Yet critics believe that both the Czechoslovak Communists and their Soviet overseers prefer to risk long-term stagnation here than awaken the country's long-dormant political instincts. "Even small changes in the balance of power may bring unpredictable results," said Havel. "The status quo, no matter how bad, is better for them than risking change."