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Hatred of Soviets doesn't keep Czech from seeking car deal

This major Soviet air and army base figures on no standard Czechoslovak map, but within hours of learning that Moscow's occupation troops soon would start going home, Libor Balaban found it in his decade-old Volga sedan. The 40-year-old lawyer was so determined to sell his Soviet-made car to the departing troops that he repeatedly asked for directions along the 30 miles from Prague.

"The soldiers will give me more money than a Czech," Balaban reasoned, "because they are rather crazy, and the political situation in Russia is not so clear, and this may be their last possibility to acquire a rusting luxury before heading home."

Although Balaban speaks no Russian, a sign in Cyrillic characters written by a friend helped attract a small knot of potential Soviet buyers at a parking lot near the Red Army commissary.

As one Soviet fighter-bomber after another took off from a nearby airfield in a conversation-deadening roar, Balaban said he had been offered rubles, earrings, even gemstones for his car. He was holding out for Czechoslovak crowns and, in any case, was still testing the market to gauge the car's resale value.

Visibly awed by the sight and sound of so much military equipment, Balaban watched a detail of Soviet soldiers stuffing loose trash into sacks and sighed: "I should have brought my son to see this _ so many planes and tanks and trucks and soldiers. I had no idea about this place.

"It is terrible for our country," he said, referring to the bitter legacy of the Aug. 21, 1968, invasion by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact armies that ended Czechoslovakia's brief experiment with reform communism.

Asked whether he was glad to know that Soviet negotiators now say the troops will start withdrawing by the end of February, Balaban replied, "I have been waiting for this for 21 years, since I was a teen-ager.

"It's my small satisfaction," Balaban said, explaining that since neither he nor his parents were ever Communist Party members, he had been prevented from pursuing the career he had wanted by the purges and discrimination carried out under the so-called normalization imposed by Moscow and its Czechoslovak Communist agents.

He gestured at the Soviet soldiers and civilians lined up to enter the commissary and said, "My private feeling is that I hate them. But business is business."

Judging by the remarks of one young Soviet officer's wife, the garrison may have learned something from living in Czechoslovakia, even though the Soviet soldiers and their families were kept isolated from the local citizenry.

In chatting outside the well-stocked commissary with two foreign correspondents, Aksana Serdova freely gave her name and paid no heed to a sign declaring the area off limits to all but "holders of Czechoslovak identity papers."

Yes, she said, she was aware of the demonstrations in Prague and the provinces demanding total withdrawal of the 73,500-man force _ and their estimated 30,000 dependents _ by the end of this year.

She said she had been here for four years. Personally, she said, she wanted to be among the last to leave, invoking, as have Soviet negotiators, the lack of housing and jobs at home for those departing.

She accepted the withdrawal as part of the Soviet policy of perestroika, as President Mikhail Gorbachev's restructuring is called. "We have started perestroika and must go on," she said, "and this is one of the results."

Far from upset by the prospect, she added, "Once the Soviet Union is like this country, life will be better there."