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Czech Republic: Prague Spring Blooms Again

Washington, 29 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Central European University Press in Budapest, Hungary, has just published a 600-page book containing 140 documents entitled "The Prague Spring '68." The release is part of commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The documents in the book feature minutes of Politburo meetings, U.S. intelligence reports and KGB-recorded transcripts of conversations between Soviet Party leader Leonid Brezhnev and his Czechoslovak counterpart, Alexander Dubcek.

The book relies on the secret archives of each of the former Warsaw Pact states. Materials in the book were selected and annotated by Jaromir Navratil, an important ally of Dubcek's in 1968 and now an historian in Prague.

Some texts tug at the heartstrings, as for instance the first address to the Czechoslovak Writers' Congress by Vaclav Havel, now president of the Czech Republic, who was only 31 in 1967. He described how stunned he was listening to a Czech translation of a statement by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn condemning censorship. Havel was elated by the prolonged, thunderous applause that followed. As Soviet leaders had forbidden any public mention of the Solzhenitsyn statement, Czechoslovak Politburo member Jiri Hendrych stormed out.

Havel praised the speakers' "courageous openness." But then he asked if "tomorrow's reality will not simply once again, as so many times before, spit at today's beautiful words?" He wondered if all the bold thoughts he heard expressed would be "still binding in the end?"

Another document, from Brezhnev aide Andrei Aleksandrov-Agentov, recalls how the Soviet leader suddenly descended on Prague in December 1967 to save his counterpart, Antonin Novotny. For 18 hours without a break, Brezhnev conferred privately with Czechoslovak leaders, one by one. Everyone offered the same opinion: Novotny lost his authority. Furious, Brezhnev flew home. His mission failed. His last words to his hosts: "Do as you wish." Three weeks later, hardliner Novotny was replaced by reformer Dubcek.

In the press and in public meetings, free discussion of forbidden topics spread across the country. The exoneration of communist victims began, as did a probe into the alleged suicide of Jan Masaryk, democratic leader and foreign minister, in 1948. Political parties began to form.

But East Germany forbade its press to report on Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria blocked tourist travel. Every week or so, Warsaw Pact leaders huddled to discuss the alarming loosening of communist power in Prague.

On July 29, 1968, in a crisis atmosphere, Soviet and Czechoslovak leaders met at a railroad crossing in Slovakia, on the Ukrainian border. Brezhnev lamented that in Czechoslovakia "like mushrooms after a rain, all types of organizations sprout, placing themselves at odds with the communist party."

He warned that "a weakening of party leadership inevitably leads to the activation of the rightist forces, and even overtly counterrevolutionary forces, which seek to discredit the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, remove it from power, tear your country out of the socialist commonwealth, and ultimately change the social system."

Dubcek did not counter the charges. He called for "preserving and bolstering fraternal and friendly relations" with the Soviet Union. He said he and his comrades were "hurt by the many accusations leveled against us, accusations that go far beyond the bounds of ordinary polemics conducted between parties and socialist countries."

On August 9, Brezhnev pleaded on the phone with Dubcek, whom he called Alexander Stepanovich, or just Sasha, to put the media under party control and get rid of rightwing leaders. Four days later, Brezhnev phoned again. But he was no longer an uncle talking to an errant nephew. He demanded to know just exactly when Dubcek would crush reform. Dubcek asked for more time. Also in the volume is the letter, signed by five Czechoslovak hardliners on August 3, which appealed to Brezhnev, "to lend support and assistance with all the means at your disposal. Only with your assistance can the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic be extricated from the imminent danger of counterrevolution."

One of the signers handed over the letter to a Soviet Politburo member in a man's room in Bratislava. Their meeting had been arranged by the KGB station chief.

In his talks with his allies just before the invasion, Brezhnev cited that letter as "an invitation" for military intervention. Stamped top secret, the letter was locked away in the Kremlin's archive with instructions from Konstantin Chernenko, Brezhnev's successor, not to open without his permission.

Drowning as we are in postcommunist malaise, remembering the Prague spring of 1968 is therapy. Those were days of moral clarity. Heroes and villains were easy to tell apart. On one side were dissenters who risked life and liberty demanding democracy. Facing them were bureaucrats backed by five armies who insisted on censorship, clung to absolute power and pledged fealty to Moscow.