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Czech Republic: The Velvet Revolution -- The Legacy of 1968

  • Jolyon Naegele



Czechoslovakia's "Velvet" or "gentle" revolution which erupted ten years ago this week was the result of three related factors -- the legacy of 1968, geopolitics, and the dissipation of fear. In the first of four reports, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back at how the legacy of 1968 contributed to the eruption of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, 1989.

Prague, 15 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 crushed the Prague Spring reforms and resulted in the installation of a hard-line regime that stymied development in all fields for the next two decades.

A massive purge of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and society was demanded by the Soviet Politburo and implemented by Prague Spring leader Alexander Dubcek's successors, Gustav Husak and Milos Jakes. The result placed largely unqualified party apparatchiks in key positions.

In the Czech lands, potential opponents of the regime were relegated to manual labor or jailed. The purges were carried out with considerably less vehemence in Slovakia, enabling proportionately more qualified people to hold onto their jobs.

Less than three months after replacing Dubcek as party chief in April 1969, Husak made it clear to a journalists' conference that dissent had no chance:

"No opposition forces, no anti-communist forces in Czechoslovak society have the faintest hope of success. This is not due to some aspect of foreign policy but actually to our own domestic forces, which are absolutely sufficient for us to liquidate disruptive, anti-communist groupings and tendencies here."

The purge was officially known as "normalization" and bore certain resemblance to an inquisition -- making political and social survival dependent on whether one approved of the Soviet intervention. In the course of the 1970's a variety of intellectuals from across the political spectrum became increasingly outspoken in their opposition to normalization and ongoing violations of human rights.

The police state, however, cracked down on every perceived attempt at challenging its authority. The human rights activists who organized the Charter 77 petition which called on the authorities to respect their own country's laws and international treaties in early 1977 soon found themselves being harassed, forced to emigrate or else imprisoned. The signatories came from across the political spectrum but included numerous former Communists. The state was no less vigilant in its repression of a non-government human rights monitoring group, the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Accused (VONS), which was founded the following year (1978).

In April 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Prague, raising hopes he would help start the rehabilitation of Dubcek and the other 68ers. Many viewed perestroika and glasnost as a potential resumption of the Prague Spring reforms and as such unworkable in Czechoslovakia without a reevaluation of 1968, including a condemnation of the invasion. Despite enthusiastic crowds that turned out to welcome him, Gorbachev made no mention of the need for a policy shift. Once again hope was succeeded by despair.

At the end of the year, Husak gave up the top party post to his fellow normalization hardliner Milos Jakes, but remained president.

The start of 1988 marked the 20th anniversary of Dubcek's appointment as party chief and the start of the Prague Spring. Since his ouster, Dubcek had been expelled from all party functions, barred from public life and relegated to working as a locksmith in Bratislava. He was relatively reclusive and declined invitations by dissidents to take an active role in the opposition. That began to change with the 20th anniversary. Dubcek began granting interviews to foreign journalists, defending his behavior in 1968 and after and demanding his full rehabilitation. Few initially took him seriously since for the charismatic Dubcek to return to power the old guard communists -- Husak, Jakes, and the others -- would have to go.

In a bid to rekindle his popularity and prove he was not a stuffy bureaucrat but a regular guy, Dubcek sang a Slovak rendition of Green Green Grass of Home for western reporters.

On August 21, 1988, the 20th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, several hundred peaceful protesters gathered without serious incident in Prague's Wenceslas Square. But the protesters dispersed in a single direction and within minutes were joined by thousands of onlookers. Suddenly 10,000 Czechoslovaks from all walks of life were marching through the center of Prague that Sunday afternoon chanting, with hardly a policeman in sight.

"We want freedom", they chanted. Some cried, "Long live Dubcek", others, "to the castle" -- the seat of the head of state. The police eventually arrived and used force to disperse the protesters.

Another demonstration erupted on October 28, the 70th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's founding. Again Dubcek's name echoed across Wenceslas Square.

January 1989 marked the 20th anniversary of the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach whose act was a protest to awaken Czechs from their growing acceptance of the Soviet occupation. Dissidents planned to commemorate Palach's act by laying flowers near the spot on Wenceslas Square where he set himself alight. But the secret police detained several of the dissidents, including Vaclav Havel. A week of demonstrations ensued.

Havel was tried, convicted and sentenced to eight months in prison but released after four months following domestic and international pressure. That day Dubcek showed up on Havel's doorstep to congratulate the dissident playwright. Dubcek remarked that the only one missing was Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek -- as Havel represented the non-communist opposition, Dubcek the former communist opposition and Cardinal Tomasek the religious opposition. Dubcek then went to visit the cardinal.

But Dubcek's visits and demands for rehabilitation angered communist party chief Jakes. He made the following comments to a closed meeting of party officials. "They say Dubcek was liquidated by tanks. What tanks liquidated Dubcek? He was in power eight months after the armies arrived. And because it was shown that he was incapable of calming this society, of finding a solution, the party democratically sacked him as an incompetent person. The central committee decided and someone else took his place. And democratically they stripped him of his membership in the party... "

Precisely because Dubcek was a former communist party leader, Jakes and his cohorts perceived him as a key threat. They were equally wary of other ousted communists, who had grouped themselves into an increasingly outspoken association known as Obroda (renewal).

Czechoslovak Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, when asked in late October in Vienna whether the time had come to review 1968, responded that he could not rule out the possibility but that it was not just up to Prague. "The year 1968 is not just a matter for Czechoslovakia. It is a matter for other countries."

Days later demonstrators in Prague once again clashed with police who brought in busses to haul off the large number of detained protesters.

The crowd whistled and screamed its approbation, chanting, "you are not Czechs!"... "This is not freedom!"

Days later the Berlin Wall was opened. Eight days later, on November 17, the Velvet revolution erupted in Prague and one week after that Dubcek addressed a crowd of several hundred thousand on Prague's Wenceslas Square with outstretched arms, symbolically embracing them. That night Jakes and his entire Politburo resigned. By the end of the year Dubcek was speaker of the federal parliament and the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel was president.

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