20 August 2008

40 years ago - Prague crushed by Soviet imperialism

On August 20 1968 under direction from Moscow, the armies of the USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, the "German Democratic Republic" and Bulgaria invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the liberal reform minded government led by Alexander Dubcek - first Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. It is a day that shall live in infamy as one of the darkest moments of freedom in the Cold War.

Dubcek simply wanted to open up the one-party Marxist-Leninist state of Czechoslovakia to some fundamental freedoms - the right to free speech, to criticise the government, a free press and freedom of travel. In short, he wanted to remove the totalitarian control the Czechoslovak state had imposed upon the minds and bodies of its citizens. Moscow's aging autocrats were frightened by such notions as free speech, so went forth to overthrow his administration and impose a client regime. They were days that shook the world.

It started with what is famously known as the "Prague Spring". Dubcek launched bravely his "Action Programme" . It included:
- Complete freedom of speech and the right to criticise the government;
- Freedom of movement within Czechoslovakia and to leave Czechoslovakia;
- Freedom of association, allowing the creation of non-state authorised organisations;
- The end to arbitrary arrests, outside the rule of law;
- Liberalising government enterprises to respond to market conditions;
- Adjusting economic policy to reflect the needs of consumers as well as producers;
- Federalisation of Czechoslovakia into two states (Czech and Slovakia);
- More decision making within the Communist Party at the local level.

Now it didn't include surrendering the Communist Party monopoly on power, but it was one giant leap forward - moreso than now exists in China, and indeed Russia today.

The result was a flourishing of civil society, a new political party sprung up, and criticism appeared not only of past policies, but also the Soviet Union. The people of Czechoslovakia could express twenty years of dissent and dissatisfaction, and debate what to do next. To Leonid Brezhnev it was - how dare they! Negotiations started between Moscow and Prague about how to handle all of this, the chief concern was not to undermine the authority of the communist party. These negotiations ultimately failed, despite commitments by Dubcek to support the Warsaw Pact, it was clear he was no longer a client of Moscow. 200,000 troops entered Czechoslovakia on 20-21 August 1968 with 2,000 tanks.

72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed in the invasion and occupation. The USSR distributed an alleged "invitation to intervene" from the Czechoslovak Communist Party, since confirmed to be have been partly true in that five leading members asked Moscow to intervene. Tens of thousands fled Czechoslovakia, and the standoff with Moscow began. Dubcek was arrested and taken to Moscow, he was returned, forced to concede Soviet control and ultimately resigned the following year.

The invasion was raised at the UN Security Council, and naturally vetoed by the USSR. It caused ripples amongst communist parties worldwide. China opposed the invasion, because it was the USSR (it supported the Hungarian crackdown in 1956), but others were split. Meanwhile, after Dubcek resigned, criticism of the government became illegal once more, and passports were withheld - liberal members of the Communist Party were purged, and Czechoslovakia reverted to totalitarian Marxism Leninism, with the state controlling all, and tolerating no dissent.

The Prague Spring was a brave attempt to advance political freedom in a state that had been denied all by Soviet imperialism after World War 2. It failed, but inspired the liberalisation of the 1980s, with Mikhail Gorbachev citing it as a great example that influenced Glasnost and Perestroika.

Today of course Czechoslovakia is no more, and split into two independent states. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are free members of the EU and NATO, and in Prague today you can visit the Museum of Communism and learn much of the bleak life under Marxism-Leninism and the events of the Prague Spring. I visited it a few years ago, and it is a great reminder to the young of why one should be eternally vigilant for freedom. Dubcek was vindicated and became Speaker of a freely elected Czechoslovak Parliament in 1989, a role he held until he became leader of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia and sat in the Czechoslovak Parliament in that role until he died tragically in a car accident on 7 November 1992.

Forty years ago today the flickering light of hope and freedom was crushed by Soviet tanks - it is only fitting that the people of Prague today can not only talk about it, but have that freedom and much much more. Russia perhaps should pause for a moment and reflect why Prague and Bratislava prefer to be with NATO, and note its role in this dark moment in history.

UPDATE- In the Daily Telegraph today, BBC journalist, Czechoslovakian born John Tusa recalls the events forty years ago, he was 32 then.

"On August 21, 1968, Prague Radio warned: "When you hear the national anthem, you'll know it's over." As the recording played the anthem, the sound smothered by gunfire, I wept."

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