City Life: Prague - The red Bond is back - licensed to knock on doors in the night

THE EYES are steely, the jaw has a determined jut and the gun is held in a purposeful grip. Agent Zeman, the top Czech crime-buster, is back, and only his 1970s hairdo gives away his Marxist-era pedigree.

With uncanny timing, as the Communist Party tops opinion polls, television is showing again the first of 30 episodes of Major Zeman, Communism's answer to James Bond, who braved capitalist decadence and bourgeois degeneracy to round up such anti-socialist elements as pop singers, British spies and dissidents. Many episodes are based on real operations by the former secret police, the StB. Former prisoners and dissidents who suffered state oppression by the StB have protested at the return of Major Zeman and launched a legal action.

"Czech television is promoting Communism in flagrant breach of the law," said Stanislav Drobny, president of the Association of Former Communist Political Prisoners.

None the less, the repeats are a big hit: the first episode was watched by 2.3 million people, a quarter of the population. Television executives justified their decision as a means of helping the country to come to terms with its past. To counter pro-Communist accusations, each episode is followed by a documentary about the era of dictatorship.

Although it was people power that toppled Communist in November 1989, there was little mass resistance to Soviet occupation - unlike in Hungary, Poland and East Germany - even during the 1968 invasion. Most people made a tacit deal with the re-gime not to rock the boat in exchange for creature comforts. Ivan Gabal, a sociologist, said: "Sixty per cent of the population lived in a family where they could afford to have children; they had a flat, a car and a weekend holiday home." Or, as a television presenter said: "We were all little Major Zemans".

Ten years ago, demonstrators defied police officers on whom Major Zeman was modelled to bring down the state, but nostalgia for the certainties of socialism is spreading beyond the evening's entertainment. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia is leading polls at 23 per cent, according to the Institute for Public Opinion Research, the first time since 1989 that it has taken the lead. The governing Social Democrats scored 17.5 per cent and the Civic Democrats 21 per cent.

President Vaclav Havel said the poll was a warning to democratic parties to stop "their flirting and games" and to think what is best for the country. Few believe there is much demand for a return to a one-party state but support for the Communists is an indication of the ennui throughout the political system and how weary voters are of a stream of privatisation scandals and squabbling parties that seem more concerned with self- aggrandisement than the national interest, say analysts.

The Czech Republic, once the star economic performer of the former Communist bloc, has been told by the EU that it risks missing the next round of admissions as countries such as Slovakia and Latvia snap at its heels. Brussels says Prague is failing seriously to tackle corruption, and to reorganise a weak banking sector, and tolerates poor government institutions and endemic anti-Roma racism.

With such a sense of drift, it is not surprising support for the Communists is rising, said Mr Gabal. "Rising support ... is not nostalgia for the one-party system, it is a protest, because there is no other way for people to display their frustration ... Socialism worked in providing work and salaries. Now there is rising unemployment and 300,000 people have not received their salaries."

The Communist Party's deputy chairman, Miloslav Ransdorf, said: "Popularity is not dependable but the party will do its utmost to turn protest votes into positive support."

Should support for the Communists continue to rise, the future of the Czech Republic's integration into Western Europe could be threatened.

The Czech government came under pressure for its lacklustre response to Nato's Operation Allied Force against Serbia earlier this year and the Communist Party is openly anti-Nato. Agent Zeman would approve.

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