A sultry summer after the Prague Spring

Forty years ago, in the small hours of August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Soviet forces comprised the overwhelming majority of the invasion - half a million troops and 5,000 tanks - though there were also Poles, East Germans, Hungarians and Bulgarians.
Though the drama of 1968 has been compared to what just happened in the Caucasus, Czech President Vaclav Klaus has been quick to reject any parallels, saying in an interview with several Czech media outlets a few days ago: "In 1968 Czechoslovakia did not attack Subcarpathian Ruthenia, and the pro-reform Czech leader Alexander Dubcek did not resemble President Saakashvili in word or deed." President Klaus added emphatically: "I refuse to accept the widespread, simplified interpretation which paints the Georgians as the victims and the Russians as the villains. That is a gross oversimplification."

Trends unprecedented in the socialist world appeared in Czechoslovakia's social, political and economic thinking in the mid-1960s. By the first half of 1968, they had become powerful enough for Communist hardliners in Czechoslovakia and neighbouring countries to worry that the pillars of socialism - and their own power - were being undermined. The Prague Spring, as the unprecedented pluralism in Czechoslovakia was known, was stifled by an armed invasion to install a conservative uni-partisan regime.

The invasion ushered in a 20-year period of so-called "normalisation". During this time, whatever happened in Czechoslovakia was coordinated with Moscow and closely monitored by Soviet army generals, KGB officers, their Czechoslovak collaborators and covert agents.

At the time, Moscow insisted that the invasion was necessary to preserve socialist unity. How is it thought of now?

Some say it was both a tragic error that drove a wedge between Czechoslovaks and Russians for years and a horrendous blunder that sounded the death knell of the socialist experiment - free social development was out of the question after tanks came to Prague. Others say that the invasion was a wise military action that prevented World War Three (at that time, Moscow was wary of Nato exploiting Czechoslovak instability, as Nato troops were active along the Czechoslovak border in those days). Many in the Czech Republic now agree that it was a disastrous folly.

Russian historian Rudolf Pikhoya, who has studied the invasion, does not think it was well-grounded.

"First, the military occupation of Czechoslovakia had no legal grounds whatsoever. It was determined not through usual diplomacy, but as a political issue. It concerned only the Communist parties. The situation did not demand military intervention - Czechoslovakia did not attack anyone and had no armed conflict with anyone.

"Second, Moscow and Prague clashed in a world of `bloc diplomacy'. The Soviet Union had, in fact, consulted with the United States over the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

"When Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met US Secretary of State Dean Rusk on June 22, 1968, the latter assured him that the United States would act with reserve in respect of the Czechoslovak situation. It really did not intend to intervene.

"Third, the conflict of August 1968 was not simply Soviet-Czechoslovak. This must be made clear once and for all: many other sides participated, and we should not overlook the part played by the leaders of other socialist countries - Poland's Wladyslaw Gomulka, Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, East Germany's Walter Ulbricht and, last but not least, Hungary's Janos Kadar, who became determined to station a Hungarian contingent in Czechoslovakia as early as July 2, while disputes about a prospective invasion were still being discussed at the Kremlin.

"Fourth, a part of Czechoslovak leaders - Bilak, Indra, Kolder, Kapek and Svestka, to name but a few - were active in preparing the invasion. It was a so-called `party policy'. It had nothing in common with international diplomacy and did not provide Russia or its neighbours with anything good."

The year 1989 brought the collapse of the Communist bloc, and liberals led by former dissident Vaclav Havel came to the helm in Czechoslovakia.

The nation started a long and painful return to the values crushed by tanks in 1968. Twenty years were stolen from Czechoslovakia. They remained in the public mind as a painful wound that would not heal.

"Those who came through the horror of the invasion hate Russian occupation," said Kamila Mouckova, hero of the Czechoslovak resistance. "They hate Russian violence. This injury will not heal before our generation sinks into its grave."

There were casualties among Soviet troops and Czechoslovak civilians. A commemorative plaque on the Podoli embankment in Prague says: "Soviet invaders brutally shot Karel Parisek, 15, and Karel Nemec, 16, on this spot on August 24, 1968. RIP".

Eight Muscovites came to Red Square on August 25 with protest posters, and were arrested. Almost all of them were later exiled.

No hero or martyr of the Czechoslovak Resistance is revered more than Jan Palach, a 20-year-old student who committed suicide by self-immolation as political protest in Wenceslas Square opposite the National Museum on January 16, 1969. More self-immolations followed.

Forty years later, the wall of the National Museum is still pockmarked with plastered-over bullet and shrapnel holes.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus to Prague newspaper Mlada Fronta DNES

What do you think of the Caucasian conflict?

I am very worried. As a matter of principle, I denounce the Georgian aggression in South Ossetia, which resulted in civilian casualties. I also denounce the massive involvement of Russian troops. I am sorry that reality is not seen clearly, that myths arise again and again, and that a political game swirls around the tragedy - it is a real tragedy for millions in the Caucasus. Ordinary people, not politicians, are the victims, as always.

Can we compare the present situation in Georgia with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968?

They are incomparable. In 1968, Czechoslovakia did not attack Subcarpathian Ruthenia [part of Czechoslovakia before WWII that was incorporated into the Soviet Union by Allied decision at the Yalta Conference in February 1945]. Czechoslovakia was not an aggressor invaded in retaliation.

To what an extent did the Kosovo precedent influence the present situation in Georgia?

It was a great, principled impact. The secession of Kosovo gave Russia strong justification for its action. I am afraid this precedent will echo many times, and not only in the Caucasus.


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