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Prague Spring 1968

By the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union and its satellite countries were facing more and more serious economic problems that necessitated the introduction of some economic reforms. The Soviet leaders, tired of paying heavy subsidies to support the feeble economies of the satellite countries, compelled their leaders to listen to the reformers. Thus, the first buds of 1968's Prague Spring blossomed in the field of economics. However, Communist reformers quickly realised that economic reforms also required changes in the totalitarian political system. The appointment of leader of Slovak communist Alexander Dubček to the position of Party Secretary in 1968 marked the beginning of an eight-month period known as the Prague Spring. The aim of the Czechoslovakian reformers was to combine socialism with democracy and blend economic security with civil liberties thereby creating ‘socialism with a human face'. At first, it seemed that the Soviet Union would tolerate reforms in Czechoslovakia, but quite quickly the position changed. Alarming news of attempts to follow Prague's example filtered in from the other satellite countries; in Poland, riot police had struck out against student demonstrations directed mainly against Soviet dominance. All this raised fears that the Czechoslovakian initiatives could jeopardise Communist rule throughout the Eastern bloc. In March 1968, Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1956 and now Chairman of the KGB, warned that ‘the methods and forms by which the work is progressing in Czechoslovakia remind one very much of Hungary'. Dubček understood that the Soviets now posed the same threat to Czechoslovakia as they had to Hungary in 1956 and was quick to reassure Moscow not only that his country would remain in the Warsaw Pact, but that the Czech Communist Party would also retain its monopoly on power. This time it was not enough. The GDR, Poland, Hungary and also the Ukraine, where the Communist leader Petr Shelest was afraid of the spread of the Czechoslovakian virus to the western areas of the Ukraine, especially after the restoration of Ukrainian autonomy in Slovakia, all pressed Brezhnev to stop the reforms in Prague. Under pressure, Dubček had to promise that the liberal reforms would be reversed. With time, however, it became increasingly clear that even if Dubček had wanted to, he was not in a position to keep such a promise. Therefore, with the help of Shelest and the new leader of the Slovak Communist Party, Bilak, the search began in Czechoslovakia for the ‘second centre', which had to move Dubček from power and ask the Warsaw Pact to help Czechoslovakia to crush the ‘counter-revolution'. Several provocative actions were initiated by the KGB under the code-name ‘Progress', which sought to fabricate evidence of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy by Western intelligence services and thus justify a Soviet invasion. After some hesitation, the Soviet leaders decided to intervene militarily and stop reforms in Czechoslovakia. On 14 August 1968, the Soviet ambassador in Prague met secretly with the leaders of the ‘second centre' and informed them that Soviet troops would move into action on the night of 20 August to support the creation of a ‘provisional government of workers and peasants.' The leader of the ‘second centre', Alois Indra, replied with a guarantee that the majority of the members of the ruling institutions would support the putsch when the Soviets arrived.

On 18 August 1968, the Soviet defence minister, Andrei Grechko, summoned the commanders participating in operation ‘Danube' (the ongoing Warsaw Pact exercise) and announced: I've just come from the Politburo session. The decision was made according to which the troops will move into Czechoslovakia in order to suppress and if necessary, crush and liquidate the counterrevolution. This we will do even if it means the outbreak of a third world war. The Soviet army was prepared to meet NATO forces in Czechoslovakia. If such a meeting were to occur, the troops were ordered to stop immediately, not to open fire under any circumstances and wait for new commands. Remembering how the Soviet officers understood the situation, Viktor Suvorov recalls that they had orders to ‘take control of as much territory as possible. Then let the diplomats decide where the border will run between Eastern and Western Czechoslovakia. It is a matter of honour that Eastern Socialist Czechoslovakia should be larger than the western part'. Some hours before the invasion, the USSR informed the American leadership of its decision and instructed its ambassador to inform President Svoboda of the planned invasion and ask for his support. Svoboda refused to do this, although in order to avoid extensive bloodshed he promised that Czechoslovakia's army would not resist. True to his word, Svoboda ordered the armed forces to stay in their barracks.

Thanks to this, the invasion took place without any major problems. At dawn on 21 August, half a million soldiers with the support of 5,000 armoured vehicles and 800 airplanes, recruited from all of the Warsaw Pact countries except Romania (which refused in a bout of anti-Sovietism), marched into Czechoslovakia. At intervals of less than one minute, a total of 120 AN-12 aircraft landed in Prague airport; by the end of the morning an entire airborne division had landed. At 4.00 am, troops reached the Central Committee building and arrested Dubček and five other members of the Presidium, sending them first by plane to prison in the Ukraine and then on to Moscow. There was no military resistance but from the first of hour of the invasion, there was massive civil protest and resistance. A crucial role in this was played by the radio, as broadcasters prevented the Soviets' pre-prepared declaration of a ‘revolutionary government' from being transmitted. Instead, they ensured that the statement of the Dubčekite majority protesting against the invasion was broadcast. When Soviet soldiers fighting the resistance eventually occupied the radio building, the broadcasters continued to transmit via a network of studios and small regional and army transmitters. An attempt to take over the Presidium of the Czech Communist Party failed; when putschists hiding in the Soviet embassy in Prague turned to President Sovoboda with a petition demanding that he form the new government around them, Svoboda kicked them out. By this time, the streets of Czechoslovakia's cities were full of people protesting against the invasion.

Leaflets were distributed and angry people accused Soviet soldiers of acting like fascists, which made them feel very uncomfortable. In several places, barricades were built to hinder the movement of Soviet tanks while in others, tanks were attacked by people throwing Molotov cocktails. At least 4 tanks were destroyed and 18 soldiers killed during these clashes. The Soviets responded in their customary way by killing at least 94 people, one of whom was a 15-year old boy painting ‘Go Home' on a wall. At the same time, a baby and his mother, who was trying to protect the boy, were shot by a trigger-happy psychopath using the machine gun on his tank. The Soviet invasion caused the most profound shift in the Czechoslovakian outlook since World War II; people who had been divided in 1948 became united in 1968. The Czechoslovakian experiment with humanised socialism and its military suppression effectively destroyed any base of support that Communism had enjoyed in the past.

This put Brezhnev in a difficult situation; even though Western governments' protests against the invasion were relatively mild-on 23 August, the Soviet Union and Hungary easily blocked the UN Security Council draft resolution condemning the invasion and on 31 August, NATO ambassadors noted in their communiqué that the situation around Czechoslovakia ‘poses a menace to the security of the US and its allies'-the Warsaw Pact forces had occupied a country whose only legal government had protested against the invasion and refused to cooperate with the Soviets. Thus, Brezhnev again found himself having to deal with Dubček, whether he liked it or not. The Czech leaders were interned in Moscow where they were put under pressure by pro-Soviet Czechs and threatened by the Soviets that if they refused to accept the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia and were not prepared to revoke liberal reforms, there would be war in Czechoslovakia. Ultimately, Dubček conceded defeat and signed the Moscow Protocol in which he basically accepted the invasion. Many people looked on this as Munich-type capitulation, others were not so condemning. In reality, the ‘compromise' achieved was more useful to the ‘old forces' in Czechoslovakia and abroad, paving the way for a slow takeover of power. The crushing of the ‘Prague Spring' boosted the Soviets' self-confidence and gave them the impression that they could behave as they wished on the world stage. At the same time, the longer-term costs of the Soviets' success in 1968 were high.

All this went unnoticed by the Soviet leaders as they continued to enjoy their success. In November 1968, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev prepared the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine' that obliged Moscow to intervene by force to defend the ‘socialist gains' of its allies. Over the following decades, however, the Brezhnev Doctrine was challenged by a growing tide of intellectual, social and political protest in Central and Eastern Europe. Resistance was not suppressed in Czechoslovakia until the beginning of the 1970s. Only in 1969 was Dubček replaced by Moscow's protégé, Gustav Husák. On the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion, spontaneous demonstrations broke out in several places around Czechoslovakia. Units of the security services and the People's Militia, together with 20,000 handpicked army troops, brutally attacked their own people, even opening fire on unarmed crowds. On the streets of Prague and Brno alone, five people were left for dead on the pavement. That was finally the end of the ‘Prague Spring'. Such a situation made people desperate; in January 1969, a Czech student, Jan Palach, committed self-immolation in protest against the Soviet invasion. A similar act of protest by a Polish patriot named Siwak in Warsaw in September 1968 went unnoticed because the Polish media was forbidden to report it. Jan Palach was followed by other patriots in Czechoslovakia and in the Baltic countries. All this nevertheless could not anymore save the Prague spring.