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The Prague Spring

    Dubček: ”Socialism with a human face”.
 Dubček: ”Socialism with a human face”.
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

In a Communist Party rent by conflicting Stalinist and reformist impulses, Czech-Slovak tensions, and interference from Moscow, Dubček looked like an inoffensive candidate for party leader. He had spent his childhood in the Soviet Union and spoke fluent Russian, and his political career, based mainly in Slovakia, had kept him removed from internecine rivalries in Prague. Nor did he bring a particularly strong pro-Slovak agenda to the table.

He did bring, however, a gentle, humane manner after two decades of brutal centralized rule. No fiery orator, he nevertheless stoked the hopes of a rising technical elite by coining the phrase "socialism with a human face" in one of his speeches.

The main charge now leveled against him is naivety. Essentially, he guilelessly encouraged the republic's citizens to express themselves, without carving out sufficient political space under the Soviet umbrella for such activity. In Henderson's analysis, he effected a policy that would later be known in the Soviet Union as glasnost (openness), without having prepared the way with enough perestroika (restructuring).

Hence the ephemeral Prague Spring. The press opened up, publishing critiques of the Stalinist era without fear of censorship. Politicians spoke frankly about the dire state of the economy. Parliament, which had served for 20 years as the mere executor of policy cooked up in the Communist Party, began to assert itself. People applied for passports and travelled freely, so long as they could scrape together the funds. "An amazed Western Europe delighted as a shabby, cheerful throng emerged from behind the supposedly impenetrable Iron Curtain as if it wasn't there," Henderson writes.

Throughout the period, Dubček resisted Soviet demands that he curtail the nation's new openness.

The era ended abruptly in August, when Warsaw Pact tanks crashed into Prague on August 21. It was the first and only joint military action in its history. The invaders had been "invited" by a Slovak party functionary named Vasil Biľak, who was rewarded with a spot on the Czechoslovak Communist Party presidium that he held until 1988. Dubček and other leaders were called to Moscow, and compelled to sign the infamous Moscow Agreement, which sanctioned the stationing of Soviet troops on Czechoslovak soil.

A slow purging of remnants of the Prague Spring began. Dubček lasted as party chief until 1969. By 1970, he had been expelled from the party and forced to work as a mechanic in Krasňany, a village close to Bratislava, where he remained under police surveillance until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Politicians who supported Dubček's reforms were sacked en masse, and hundreds of thousands of sympathisers were expelled from the party.

Under new party leadership - another Slovak, Gustáv Husák, replaced Dubček in 1969 - a process known as "normalisation" began. Husák had established himself in the 1960s as a supporter of Dubček's reforms, with a particular interest in raising the status of Slovakia within the state. This aspect of his reform agenda survived the crushing of the Prague Spring; all other elements disappeared.

In October 1968, a constitutional amendment federalized the state, declaring that "The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic is made up of the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. Both Republics shall have equal positions with the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic." The amendment led to the creation of a Slovak government, complete with a parliament existing alongside the Czech government and parliament.

Yet at the party level, where the real power resided, the system remained "asymmetric": there was no Czech counterpart to the Slovak CP, only a Prague-based Czechoslovak CP. So the normalization process inevitably maintained Prague as the main seat of power, and the amendment in the end effected little real change.

Still, the Slovak ideal of federalism, even in the hollow form that it actually took, emerged as the only reform to outlive the Prague Spring. This led to Czech-Slovak tensions that would fester even after the fall of Communism. "A common Czech contention is that during the Prague Spring, while the Czechs were more interested in democratisation, the Slovaks were concerned only with federation - increasing Slovakia's power," Henderson writes.

 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

But given the Czech demographic superiority, the Slovaks needed a form of federalism to gain a say in national decision-making, Henderson argues. "[T]he structures that provide access to political power are a prerequisite for effective democratic representation. For the Slovaks, democratisation and federalisation were never [mutually exclusive] alternatives," she writes.

Of course, given the sweep of the normalisation process, that argument was largely academic. Slovaks did gain from Bratislava's new status as the capital of Slovakia - before it had merely been the provincial center of Western Slovakia. This opened up jobs in a new bureaucracy. And the party doled out more jobs to Slovaks within federal ministries in Prague. As a result of this relative dynamism, the Slovak Communist party was "less moribund" than its Czech counterpart heading into the 1980s, Henderson argues.

Meanwhile, repression hung over the entire state. On August 21, 1969, one year after the Warsaw Pact invasion, police brutally repressed a mass demonstration in Prague, setting the tone for the next two decades. Dissidents such as Václav Havel, one of the leaders of the Prague-based Charter 77 movement, landed in jail for publishing opinions deemed subversive. Whereas popular support for the government soared during Dubček's tenure, by all accounts it plummeted during normalisation. But with no political outlet for dissent, the population generally sank into apathy. The economy, meanwhile, though hardly booming, still provided one of the highest standards of living in the Eastern Bloc.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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