From Mon Apr 30 08:21:51 2001
Date: Sat, 28 Apr 2001 17:19:54 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: Prague Spring
Article: 119116
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Prague Spring

By Domenico Rosa, January 1988

The recent 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia has sparked renewed political activism that augments the ongoing struggles in Poland. In Prague, 10,000 demonstrators chanted “Dubcek, Dubcek” and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops and free elections. In Moscow, 500 activists, organized by the fledgling Democratic Union, called for a return to a multi-party government and shouted “Prague, Prague.”

On the evening of August 20, 1968, over 500,000 Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, a treacherous and brutal act that shattered the reform movement which had generated worldwide interest. In order to avoid senseless bloodshed, the Czechoslovak government decided against a futile military response and instead ordered peaceful civilian resistance.

By the next day the entire country had been occupied, and tanks rolled down the streets of the major cities. Alexander Dubcek, the first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and other reform leaders were handcuffed and flown to secret locations. The emotional oral confrontations between the unarmed civilians and the edgy soldiers and tank crews provided a dramatic spectacle on the evening news.

The “Prague Spring” began in January 1968 when the stalinist Antonin Novotny was forced to resign as first secretary of the Communist Party. The reformers embarked on a “new course” that was based on the recognition and public admission that twenty years of stalinist rule had been a dismal failure. This “new course” called for a return to “socialism with a human face” and “democratic socialism.” In less than eight months, profound political and economic changes were implemented, creating a sensation on both sides of the iron curtain.

In 1946 the Czechoslovak Communist Party received a plurality of 38.7% of the votes in a relatively free and open election. In February 1948, a political crisis arose, and the Communist Party seized absolute power. As a result of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's machinations, from 1948 to 1953 there followed a series of purges, arrests, show trials and executions. The Czechoslovak Communist Party was recast in the form of the perverse apparat, the brutal secret police-based system that Stalin had created twenty years earlier. Novotny was a prime mover and beneficiary of the purges, becoming first secretary in 1953 and president in 1957. He ruled as a virtual dictator making effective use of the secret police, political intrigue and patronage.

Novotny was able to keep a tight lid on the ferment that erupted within the Soviet bloc during his tenure. In 1953 Stalin's death led to a wave of riots and strikes in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, Imre Nagy became prime minister of a reform government that lasted until the stalinists ousted him in 1955. In February 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev delivered his famous “secret speech” that denounced some of Stalin's crimes and launched his destalinization campaign. Political crises soon erupted in Poland and Hungary. In Poland, Wlawdyslaw Gomulka established a “national communist” government following a personal confrontation in which he convinced Khrushchev to halt the Soviet forces that were heading for Warsaw. In Hungary, continued stalinist rule led to large popular demonstrations that erupted into a full-scale revolution that toppled the communist regime and returned Nagy to power. Nagy's inability to control the revolution and his plans to withraw from the Warsaw Pact and declare neutrality contributed to the bloody Soviet invasion in November 1956.

In 1964 Khrushchev was deposed and replaced by Leonid I. Brezhnev as first secretary and by Aleksei N. Kosygin as prime minister. Destalinization and liberalization came to an abrupt halt, and an official program to rehabilitate Stalin was begun.

By 1967 Czechoslovakia faced enormous problems: a population crippled and powerless after twenty years of submission to stalinist rule; economic stagnation arising from dogmatic stalinist “iron and steel” central planning; a work force without initiative and demoralized by incompetent managers and political hacks who controlled the trade unions; cynical students staging periodic demonstrations and following silly western fads; intellectuals unhappy with strict censorship and constant repression; a civil service stifled by the absurd stalinist dual bureaucracy whereby every government ministry had a duplicate entity within the Communist Party apparatus; a moribund Communist Party controlled by a collection of mediocre bureaucrats known as apparatchiks, corrupt political insiders and ruthless opportunists.

In the autumn of 1967 discontentment with Novotny's rule was widespread even within his handpicked central committee which was trying to engineer his resignation. In December Novotny's last two schemes—a personal appeal to Brezhnev and a military coup—both fell flat. When the central committee reconvened in January, Novotny had no option but to resign as first secretary, although he was allowed to retain the cerimonial office of President. Dubcek, a centrist among the reformers, was unanimously elected first secretary on Jan. 5.

The censored press had not informed the public about the intense power struggle within the central committee, although bits and pieces had filtered through foreign sources. The cautious public was unsure about what to expect from Dubcek's election. On the surface, his personality and background indicated nothing more than an honest, clean apparatchik. There was, however, a strong underlying feeling that profound changes were to follow. This was demonstrated on January 7 when Dubcek attended a soccer match and received prolonged, spontaneous applause from the spectators.

The reformers had definite objectives: revitalization and democratization of the entire Communist Party apparatus, with all deliberations and debates made public; dismantling the dual bureaucracy and entrusting the day-to-day government operations to the professional civil service; establishing an independent judiciary; eliminating censorship; decentralizing economic planning; and overall emancipation of all sectors of society.

There was no set plan for achieving these objectives and no way of determining the ultimate results. The reformers went out of their way to reaffirm repeatedly their loyalty to the Soviet Union and their adherence to the Warsaw Pact. They remembered the Soviet invasion of Hungary and wanted to avoid a similar fate. However, they felt that the reforms were essential and inevitable in order to establish a viable claim for retaining power.

Events soon started following their own course. Public opinion and the press became the key instruments for dislodging conservatives from their posts. Government archives were opened to investigators. Renewed interest in political developments led to a phenomenal increase in sales of newspapers and magazines. Public disclosures about corruption, abuses of power and the political trials of the 1950's aroused immense public anger and forced many resignations. Some officials committed suicide. The corrupt general Jan Sejna fled and was given political asylum in the United States.

In March the censors voluntarily ceased to function, although the law ending censorship was not passed until June. Novotny resigned as President and was replaced by Ludvik Svoboda who had commanded the Czechoslovak corps that had distinguished itself in the Eastern Front during World War II. Swoboda had been awarded numerous Soviet military decorations. After the war, he became a victim of the purges, was jailed and was later assigned as a bookkeeper to a remote cooperative. Subsequently, he was rehabilitated at Khrushchev's personal insistence and was appointed to the army's historical institute. The intent of his appointment was to reassure the Soviet leaders.

In April the central committee formally approved the “action program” of reforms. At this meeting Dubcek mentioned the need to return to “socialism with a human face.” In May plans were announced for convening an extraordinary congress of the Communist Party in September. The task of the congress would be to debate and ratify the reforms and to elect a new central committee which would exclude most of the remaining conservatives.

By this time, the Soviet leaders were having grave concerns about the startling developments in Czechoslovakia. To the Czechoslovaks the reforms strengthened the power of the Communist Party. The Soviet leaders felt that the Communist Party, and therefore the Soviet Union, was losing control. The continued assurances by the reformers that they were loyal to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact did not offset the fact that most of the men who were obedient to Moscow had been removed from office. The elimination of censorship had led to the publication of some articles that criticized the Soviet Union, proposed leaving the Warsaw Pact and declaring neutrality, and asked for a return to a multi-party system. The reformers would not yield to Soviet pressure for halting the reform process and restoring censorship. Many meetings were held between Czechoslovak and Soviet officials, culminating in a heated three day confrontation at the end of July. The Bratislava agreement that followed gave the impression that the crisis had been resolved.

In setting the stage for the invasion, the Soviet bloc press had been publishing a barrage of bogus articles giving the impression that the Czechoslovak party had been taken over by a small group which was under the spell of West German “revanchists” and other “imperialists.” The official communique following the invasion stated that the troops were sent in response to an appeal from “statesmen and party representatives” requesting assistance against “the threat of counterrevolutionary forces who were plotting with foreign forces hostile to socialism.”

The Soviets planned to set up a puppet “revolutionary government of workers and peasants.” This plan was foiled by President Svoboda who secured the release of the arrested reformers and forced the Soviets to negotiate with them. As a result of these Moscow negotiations, Dubcek and other reformers were reinstated. However, the Soviets regained control of the secret police and proceeded to dismantle the “Prague Spring” from the inside. Dubcek was ousted as first secretary in 1969, expelled from the party in 1970 and given a job as a forestry inspector.

The “Prague Spring” became a historical footnote. Dubcek and the other reformers faded into obscurity depicted in the West as naive dreamers who expected to convice Brezhnev and Kosygin that the apparat could be successfully converted into democratic socialism.

Eventually, Brezhnev and Kosygin became captives of the apparat. Kosygin's proposed limited reforms were shelved by the party bureaucracy, and he was permitted to retire as prime minister only a few months before his death. Brezhnev ushered in an era of unprecedented privileges, perks and corruption for the bureaucracy, although the overall standard of living declined. During the last years of his life he was almost totally incapacitated, but he had to be retained as a front-man and died in office in Nov. 1982.

Today Brezhnev is in disgrace and is blamed for the “era of stagnation.” Soviet novelist Daniel Granin has described Brezhnev's cabal as a bunch of “money-grubbers, fleecers, high-flown con men, heros of cynicism and black marketeers.”

The course of history has intervened. References to the “Prague Spring” are being made in the world press in conjunction with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's programs of “glasnost” and “perestroika” involving openness and economic restructuring. Last January, the Italian newspaper, L’Unita’, published a startling interview with Dubcek, his first since being deposed. Dubcek referred to “perestroika” as being “indispensable” and of having a “profound connection” with his own reform program of 20 years ago.

Dubcek lamented the loss of 20 years and pondered “about what could have been accomplished in these years with the ‘new course’ and about the advantages which there would have been for our country and for socialism.”

Not many reformers have been able to survive. Dubcek has lived to see the seeds of the “Prague Spring” take root in the heart of the apparat that crushed him 20 years ago.