Thursday 22nd August 2019 will be the 51st anniversary of the Soviet led invasion of Czechoslovakia, it’s an anniversary that increasingly passes largely unnoticed save perhaps in Prague. Now that the Soviet Union is history, even with Russia on the rise in the east, people have plenty of other things to be concerned about. It’s been 51 years since Soviet troops and most but not all of their Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21st 1968.
|Prague street scene - 51 years ago|
The Warsaw Pact invasion crushed the political and economic reforms known as the Prague Spring, led by the country's then new First Secretary of the Communist party Alexander Dubcek. Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet hard-liners in Moscow, probably correctly in the light of later events between 1989 and 1991, at least from their narrow perspective, saw the reform movement as a serious threat to the Soviet Union's hold on the Socialist satellite states, they decided to act. In the first hours on the 21st August 1968 Soviet planes began to land unexpectedly at Prague's Ruzyne airport, and shortly Soviet tanks would soon be trundling through Prague's narrow streets.
The Soviet-led invasion helped establish the Brezhnev Doctrine, which Moscow said allowed the U.S.S.R. to intervene in any country where a Communist government was under threat. The Soviet backed occupation of Czechoslovakia lasted until the velvet revolution brought an end to the Communist dictatorship in November 1991 as the Cold War ended. It was always contested - the reformist communists were finally defeated in the mid 1970's just as detente created the Helsinki accords which inspired Charter 77. Russia’s attitude to the invasion can still touch raw emotions, evens in the Czech and Slovak republics.
Tensions in the relationship between the Czechs and Slovaks (and other nationalities) has existed since the republic was formed in 1918. The perception that Prague (and the Czechs) ran the republic touched a raw nerve in different parts of the republic. Ironically the Communist dictatorship which was resisted by dissidents, former reformist communists and ordinary citizens, kept the lid on tensions within Czechoslovakia between Czechs and Slovaks.
The West's focus on Prague, the Czechs and the former Czech dissidents meant that tensions between Prague and Bratislava were largely, but, not entirely missed. The welcome regular pronouncements about curbing the arms trade and arms exports did not go down well in Slovakia were a significant portion (but not all) of arms production was based. With the dictatorship gone, it took only a few years for the former state to split into the Czech and Slovak republics - both of whom became independent states on January 1st 1993, joining the the EU in May 2004 as they returned to Europe.
Now the Velvet revolutionaries are well into middle age, as are the rest of us who watched the fall of the wall and communism in Eastern Europe. Now the visible symbols of communism are long gone, the unemployed and the homeless, invisible under communism are back as are the gleaming shopping centres and the well stocked supermarkets are part of normal life rather than the preserves of the communist elite.
In Prague the Communism museum is increasingly difficult to find, and perhaps healthy or irrelevant to younger Czechs. More importantly perhaps a generation of Czech and Slovak voters have grown up with democracy and no fear or a personal understanding of the fear of the secret police, the knock on the door in the night, or border guards and informers. They also don't have to worry about any consequences of expressing their opinions in work, education or at leisure and they have also have no limits on their no freedom of movement (beyond costs) within the EU - all of which has to be the ultimate positive.