Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks were met by unarmed Czech and Slovak protesters in the streets of Prague during the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Photo: Wikipedia
On August 21, 2018, Czechia, Slovakia, and all of Europe remember the 50th year since the Prague Spring, a push for greater freedom, reforms, and liberalization in the former Czechoslovakia, was violently suppressed by an armed invasion of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
Between 200,000 and 650,000 troops and at least 2,000 tanks from the Soviet Union and some of its communist Eastern European satellites invaded Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20 – 21, 1968, to stem the political, economic, and cultural liberalization started by country’s communist leadership.
The then Communist Bulgaria (the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (1944/46 – 1989)), a puppet regime installed in Sofia by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the years immediately after World War II, also participated in the Warsaw Pact intervention against the Prague Spring with two regiments numbering over 2,000 troops and some 30 tanks.
The brutal Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion with some 30 divisions caused the death of 137 Czechoslovak citizens, leaving several hundred wounded, and causing up to 300,000 to escape to the West.
The Prague Spring began as an initiative for reforms for establishing “socialism with a human face" begun by the then new first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Alexader Dubcek.
In April 1968, Dubcek announced his 10-year plan for building “socialism with a human face" – as opposed to the Stalinist atrocities of the post-World War II period. It provided for a multiparty electoral system, greater freedom of speech, and religion, end of travel bans, and economic reforms.
In June 1968, Dubcek’s government officially ended government censorship of the media, a previously unthinkable move for the Soviet-run communist bloc.
As the reforms in Czechoslovakia threatened all communist regimes in Eastern Europe, including the one in Moscow, the other communist states reacted in July in a communique.
They declared that Czechoslovakia’s liberalization reforms threatened “the common vital interests of other socialist countries", in others words, the stability of these very regimes stablished by the Soviet Union as puppet governments across Eastern Europe after the end of World War II.
The Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, attempt to debilitate the momentum of the Prague Spring by meeting with Dubcek in July in the small border town of Cierna nad Tisou.
Dubcek defended his reforms but also pledging allegiance to the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact and the Comecon, the communist bloc’s economic alliance.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia by the forces of the USSR and the communist regimes of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the former East Germany (Romania and Albania refused to participate) was carried out under the pretext of helping the communist regime in Prague against a “counter-revolution".
It has been described as the largest military mobilization operation in Europe after World War II.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia reacted by issuing a statement calling on the country’s citizen “not resist the advancing armies, because the defence of our state borders is now impossible".
Nonetheless, ordinary Czechoslovak citizens staged spontaneous demonstrations against the invasion that subsequently resulted in clashes with the occupying force.
The first skirmishes broke out in front of the Radio Prague building. That is where the victims of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion have been honored at remembrance ceremonies since the end of the communist regime in 1989.
The leading reformers of the Czechoslovak leadership at the time – Dubcek, Prime Minister Oldrich Cernik, Jozef Smrkovsky, Frantisek Kriegel, President Ludvik Svoboda, Deputy Prime Minister Gustav Husak and others were arrested and taken to Moscow.
They were returned after several days, having agreed to the stationing of Soviet troops along the Czechoslovak border and to the reinstating censorship of the media under an agreement known as the Moscow Protocol.
The 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring epitomized the so called Brezhnev Doctrine under which Moscow proclaimed its right to intervene in countries where communist regimes might be under threat.
On January 16, 1969, Charles University student Jan Palach set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square to protest against the continuing Soviet occupation, and died three days. His sacrifice made him a national hero, and led to a new wave of demonstrations and civil disobedience against the Soviet invasion.
More unrest broke out in March 1969 after Czechoslovakia beat the Soviet Union team in two matches at the World Ice Hockey Championships.
Dubcek was forced to resign as first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in April 1969, as he lost Moscow’s confidence that he could contain the discontent with communist rule.
He was replaced by Husak who retained the leadership until the Velvet Revolution at the end of 1989 which overthrew Soviet rule.
After the end of formal communist rule in Eastern Europe in 1989 – 1991, the former Warsaw Pact countries, including Bulgaria, apologized for the suppression of the Prague Spring.
In 2013, on the 45th year since the Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the controversial Monument of the Soviet Army in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia was painted in pink by unknown activists who also wrote on it, “Bulgaria Apologizes" in in Czech and Bulgarian.
The Soviet Army Monument in Sofia was decorated by unknown activists back in August 2013, on the 45th year since the suppression of the Prague Spring, with inscriptions saying, “Bulgaria Apologizes”. Photo: CC
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