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Czech Republic: Thirty-Five Years Ago, Prague Spring Reforms Brought To Bitter End

Thirty-five years ago this week, soldiers from five Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia, ending one of the most ambitious attempts at political reform to emerge in communist Europe. Around 200,000 troops, led by the Soviet Union, crossed the border late in the evening on 20 August 1968. By morning, Czechoslovak communist leader Alexander Dubcek's "Prague Spring" was effectively finished, the victim of a nervous Soviet leadership that saw the early seeds of its own undoing. RFE/RL takes a look back at that fateful day that both presaged the revolutions to come two decades later and may have hastened them along.

Prague, 19 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty-five years ago this week, Warsaw Pact troops invaded what was then Czechoslovakia to put an end to democratic reforms now known as the "Prague Spring."

On the night of 20-21 August 1968, around 200,000 soldiers from five countries, led by the Soviet Union, crossed the border. The troops met with little resistance, and by dawn the entire country, including the capital Prague, was effectively occupied.

Radio Free Europe's Czechoslovak Service, broadcasting from Munich on 21 August 1968, reported the breaking events: "Yesterday, on 20 August 1968, at about 11 p.m., the Soviet, Polish, East German, Hungarian, and Bulgarian armies crossed the borders of the Czechoslovak Republic. This happened without the consent of the [Czechoslovak] president, the speaker of parliament, the premier, the first secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee [Alexander] Dubcek, and those authorities."

The invasion marked the end of a brief but intense experiment in democratization that began at the start of the year with the appointment of Alexander Dubcek as party leader.

Central to the reform was an action program announced in April that relaxed controls on censorship and expression. The outpouring of dissent that followed -- including an influential article called "2,000 words" that questioned, among other things, the leading role of the Communist Party -- proved too much for then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces had been amassing on the Czechoslovak borders in the months of July and August. When the Czechoslovak leadership failed to heed Soviet warnings to stop the reforms, the order to invade came on 17 August.

The size and swiftness of the invasion took Czechoslovaks by surprise. Many awoke, with no prior warning, to the sound of tanks on their streets. Dubcek himself was stunned, reportedly saying, "I can't believe they did this to me."

The soldiers reached central Prague by early morning. One of the first objectives was to shut down Czechoslovak state radio, not far from the main Wenceslas Square. The radio was eventually captured, but this did not stop reporters from filing their reports, which were later broadcast from underground transmitters or radio stations outside the country. Here is one such report from radio correspondent Slava Volny.

"In Wenceslas Square, gunfire is heard at a quarter to twelve [in the morning]. People are running into adjacent streets. An ambulance car is racing down the square. Up the square a tank is coming. Its machine gun is operated by a soldier."

Dubcek and fellow reformers were captured that day and eventually taken to Moscow for questioning. Dubcek was later replaced as party leader by the more malleable Gustav Husak.

In the months and years to come, a massive purge would lead to the installation of Soviet loyalists in positions of authority throughout the country. Tens of thousands of Czechs would be forced to emigrate -- and many thousands more to withdraw from public life. The winter that followed the Prague Spring would last 20 years.

The invasion will always have special significance in postwar European history. It exposed deep divisions within the Warsaw Pact between the Soviet Union and one of its supposedly staunch allies, Czechoslovakia. It also shattered illusions about Soviet power and marked a breaking point in relations between then still-powerful communist parties in Western Europe and the USSR.

Czech historian Karel Kaplan told RFE/RL the invasion personified for the West the plight of Czechs and Slovaks -- and by extension the captive nations of Eastern Europe. "In 1968 and afterwards, it played a significant role. Because of that, many people in the world, many people who were interested in political affairs and also those who were not interested in politics -- in the West and in Eastern Europe -- learned what 'Czechoslovakia' was," Kaplan said.

Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the fall of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union relegated the Prague Spring and its aftermath to the history books. Few ceremonies will be held to mark the date.

Kaplan said the events of 1968 are now mainly of interest to specialists. "Czechoslovakia [and the Prague Spring] in those times played a very important role in European politics, but I think that at present it is a historical matter," he said.

Nevertheless, Dubcek's reforms found an echo in Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost" and "perestroika" in the 1980s. The difference was that conservative forces in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by that time had weakened to the point that they could no longer stop the reforms.

It's possible the Warsaw Pact invasion even hastened the demise of communism. After 1968, true believers in communism were few and far between. Loyalists installed by Moscow in Czechoslovakia and promoted throughout the Eastern bloc proved so incompetent that the regimes eventually collapsed under their own weight.

(RFE/RL's Olga Kopecka and Jana Mesarosova contributed to this report.)

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.