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The Novotny regime in Czechoslovakia

The Novotny regime in Czechoslovakia fell in December 1968 due to lack of economic reforms unresolved political problems of the Slovak part of the country, and Novotny’s failure to deal with growing friction between the regime and the country’s intellectuals and students. Dubcek was appointed the new president, however during the Prague Spring, the reforms that were brought in by the new leadership began to pose many problems.

Although, according to several sources, Moscow felt it necessary to introduce some economical reform in Czechoslovakia, one of the most faithful Warsaw allies, the extent to which the Spring went proved too far for the orthodox leaders of the Soviet Union. After trying to put pressure on Dubcek to make him halt back the reforms, USSR came to the final decision – invasion. On August 21st Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact troops. This essay looks at the situation that developed in Czechoslovakia during the memorable Spring of 1968, and focuses on the factors that finally pushed USSR towards invading one of its allies.

Behind the invasion were sets of considerations, political as well as military. I will assess the importance of these considerations in the essay. When in the winter of 1967 Novotny invited Brezhnev to help him against opposition within Czechoslovakia, Brezhnev washed his hands off the affair, saying: ‘It’s your business’; . The relaxed attitude at this stage suggests that Moscow felt it was time to introduce some reforms in Czechoslovakia in order to modernize the country where, under Novotny ‘the economy had atrophied and the morale had sunk’; .

A few days after Brezhnev’s visit the revolt against Novotny’s regime came into the open at a Czech Central Committee plenum. Shortly thereafter, at the plenum of January 3-5, 1968, Alexander Dubcek replaced Novotny as party secretary. It is interesting to look at the question of new leadership in Czechoslovakia, to what extent did USSR support it? Alexander Dubcek was an obscure forty-six-year-old Slovak party functionary, brought up and educated in USSR . According to P. J. Mooney ‘Dubcek’s pedigree was impeccable’;.

Moscow was happy with Dubcek’s appointment, even though his ambition to renew the party was known, Brezhnev sent his congratulations . It seems rather ironic that Moscow supported the new regime, however yet there was no evidence that Dubcek was planning to liberalize the Czechoslovak political system as much as he did. Dubcek was seen as a loyal party member, and the communiqu that followed the meeting of Brezhnev and Dubcek in Moscow in the end of January 1968 spoke of the ‘full identity of views on all questions discussed’;.

In my opinion at this point not even Dubcek imagined where the reforms would lead and how quickly the situation would develop. The new leadership had to face multiple problems, it had to satisfy the demands of the intellectuals, students and other reform-minded groups within Czechoslovakia, while at the same time assure the Soviet Union of loyalty and show awareness of the extent to which the reforms will go. ‘Dubcek fell between two stools’; . He sought to find balance, regarding the internal situation he promised there would be no return to ‘administrative methods’; of governing.

At the same time he tried to reassure those who concerned about the weakening of principles of socialism by telling them the new regime would not go too far. On the 23rd of March the Soviet concern at the trend of events was expressed to Dubcek and his colleagues at the Dresden conference. This was an emergency meeting of the Warsaw Pact members (excluding Rumania), as the allies felt the threat of Czechoslovak reforms to the common policies of the Warsaw bloc.

One of the factors that especially alarmed USSR was that Dubcek hinted at more Czechoslovak independence in foreign affairs, which meant that Prague would seek better relations with West Germany. USSR also expressed concern over the following developments: the call for modification of censorship, an increase in the role of Parliament; talk of a ‘socialist market economy’; and a greater inner-party democracy. Brezhnev saw all these developments as playing into the hands of the West, and perhaps even suspected some Western involvement in the Czechoslovak affairs.

This was a major political concern, as Western influence could undermine the ideological unity of the satellite countries. As Brezhnev put it: ‘Imperialism has attempted to weaken the ideological-political unity of the working people in socialist countries… ‘; The communiqu of the Dresden Conference stressed the danger of ‘militaristic and Neo-Nazi activity’; in West Germany and the need ‘to carry out practical measures in immediate future to consolidate the Warsaw Treaty and its armed forces. Also came a clearly expressed warning to Czechoslovakia, the conference members stated that it was expected of the new Czechoslovak leadership to ‘insure further progress of socialist construction’;. Dubcek was also ‘advised’ to seek financial aid from the Warsaw Pact allies, rather than developing economic relations with West Germany. Dubcek had received the first warning from the Soviet Union. Nevertheless he continued to promote freedom of speech and spoke of the need to make the party the servant and not the master of the people.

Debate widened and ‘one issue led to another as the political onion was unpeeled layer by layer… ‘; Novotny was replaced by Svoboda on March 29th – a new president who supported Dubcek. Another warning came from Moscow, this time not only from Brezhnev, but also from the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Semyonov, who stated that unless Dubcek and Svoboda keep, order Russian troops would intervene. On 31st March of Soviet Minister Marshall Grechko, who empowered 35 000 troops in the country to impose martial law if necessary, arrived at the Red Army headquarters in Czechoslovakia, underlining this threat.

According to J. Steele ‘in March Brezhnev still hoped that Czechoslovakia’s Communists would block the dangerous trends themselves, provided they were aware of the weakness in their own ranks’; . This view was sure to change after the Czechoslovak Central Committee approved of the Action Program on May 5th. ‘If the Soviet leaders did begin by hoping that delaying tactics would resolve the Czech problem, they evidently were disabused of this idea in early April, when the Dubcek regime’s new ‘action program’; was adopted.

This program, approved after a week long meeting provided new guarantees of freedom of speech, broader electoral laws, more power for parliament and government versus the party apparatus, greater scope for non-Communist groups, and other economic and political reforms. It was a sixty page document entitled: ‘Czechoslovakia’s Road to Socialism’;, released in a summary form on April 9th. The Action Program confirmed Moscow’s fears. USSR approved of order above all things, therefore the situation in Czechoslovakia appeared so dangerous. It was unpredictable.

Up to this moment, the Soviets maintained a cautious attitude towards Czechoslovakia, the press kept quiet about the situation. The Action Program though was regarded by the Soviet leaders ‘as a dangerous departure from orthodoxy that ultimately might threaten the basis of party’s legitimacy everywhere, the Soviet Union included. ‘; It became clear that to stop reforms, USSR would have to take a harder stand on the issue. Dubcek and his followers weren’t controlling the situation, at least not in the way Kremlin felt it needed to be controlled.

On April 12th for the first time the press commented on the situation. Pravda condemned ‘rightist excesses’; that allegedly were showing up in Prague. Already at this point, USSR felt threatened by the extent of reforms taking place in Czechoslovakia, though at first there was a certain degree of support for the new leadership, Moscow was longer certain about Dubcek’s intentions and felt the need to somehow influence the situation in Prague. The Czechs realized the need to assuage Moscow’s doubts, and Dubcek went to Moscow in early May.

The following was said by Josef Smirkovsky (Chairman of the Czech parliament): ‘We must understand the fears of the Soviet Union which has in the mind not only Czechoslovakia, but also the security of the whole socialist camp. Even so, the Soviet comrades declared [on Dubcek’s visit to Moscow] that they do not want and will not interfere in Czechoslovakia’s internal affairs. ‘; Possibly Czechoslovakia was getting the wrong impression from the Soviets, however I believe that Czechoslovakia at this stage should have started acting more carefully, Kremlin’s stand was obvious by mid-May.

Czechoslovakia had received enough hints and warnings from USSR, but all was ignored. According to P. J. Mooney: ‘…despite Czechoslovak protestations, it must have looked to Moscow as though Czechoslovakia was going the way of Hungary in 1956’;. Brezhnev and his colleagues did not take long to decide that they might have to intervene by force. It is not known exactly when this decision was reached, however several factors indicate there were hesitations within the Soviet party about what approach to take towards Czechoslovakia.

On May 17th Kosygin (the Soviet Prime Minister) visited Dubcek for a ten-day ‘work-and-cure’; meeting at Karlovy-Vary, while simultaneously Marshall Grechko was meeting for a six-day round of conversations with defense officials in Czechoslovakia. T. W. Wolfe believes Kosygin’s surprise visit and his desire to assess the current situation suggested that at least some elements of the Soviet leadership were still hopeful that Dubcek could be prevailed upon to assert stricter party control over the reform movement, sparing USSR from intervention.

However P. J. Mooney has a different opinion on this. ‘Kosygin visited Prague to discuss the ‘strengthening of the Warsaw Pact’, or closer control over Czechoslovakia’;. Moscow continued following a two-track policy. Pressure was exerted on Czechoslovakia to slow down reforms, and at the same time USSR was preparing for the invasion. By the end of May it was announced that Warsaw pact maneuvers would take place on Czechoslovak territory in June.

This helped USSR to test grounds during June and July, and became a major pressure tool. Nonetheless reforms continued. On June 27th, National Assembly voted to abolish censorship, one of the key promises of the Action Program was now realized. As well as that the same day a manifesto calling for more radical reform was published: ‘The 2000 Words’;. According to T. W. Wolfe, ‘The 2000 Words’; confirmed the soviet fear of what would happen to the press once censorship was abolished and no longer fell under the control of the party .

He also states that June 27th can be identified as one of the major turning points in the Soviet response to Czechoslovak reforms. ‘From the early days of July throughout the remainder of the month, Moscow mounted a steadily intensified war of nerves against the Dubcek regime, against the backdrop of military moves which implied that the Soviet Union was preparing for an armed intervention should the Czechs persist on their democratization course’;.

June was followed by a period known as the July Crisis. On July 11th an article by I. Aleksandrov was published in Pravda, attacking ‘The 2000 words’; as evidence of ‘activation of right wing and counterrevolutionary forces in Czechoslovakia’; and drawing a comparison with the situation that developed in Hungary in 1956 calling for Soviet intervention. As USSR became more worried about the situation, it was decided to express the concerns in a form of a written warning.

Along with Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland on 15th July a letter was written addressing the Czechoslovak leadership: ‘we cannot agree to have hostile forces push your country away from the road of socialism and create a danger of Czechoslovakia being severed from the socialist community. ‘; The ideological grounds for intervention were prepared – Czechoslovakia was the concern of the whole socialist camp. The letter also laid emphasis on Party’s loss of control of mass media. The ‘Warsaw Letter’; served as an ‘unambiguous warning’; .

It was one of USSR’s final attempts to pressurize Czechoslovak leadership into slowing down the reforms. This was followed by a demand from Moscow for an immediate meeting of the full Soviet Politburo and the Czechoslovak Presidium. However, due to the fact that the West was becoming aware of the situation the political considerations were becoming more evident. Brezhnev couldn’t afford to follow a soft policy towards a rebellious satellite country. At the time of the Cold War USSR had to be seen as a major power with strong support of the Warsaw Pact allies.

Also considering the development of the Sino-Soviet relationship throughout the sixties and USSR’s loss of influence in Albania, Kremlin had to be careful not to loose more communist allies. According to Edmonds USSR politically had every reason to be concerned at the effect on the world communist movement. Poland and Eastern Germany put the Soviet Union under pressure. The leaders of these countries, Gomulka and Ulbricht, insisted on USSR’s interference into Czechoslovak affairs, as they were worried about the effect the reforms had on their regimes.

It was decided to hold a meeting in Cierna on July 29th. According to sources, the Czechs displayed solidarity and support for Dubcek’s regime. Moscow’s calculation that the Czech leadership will crack under pressure and ask for USSR’s intervention proved to be wrong. It was agreed that USSR would withdraw the troops from Czechoslovakia in the near future. This took place in Bratislava on August 3rd. The leaders of the Warsaw Pact partners met to endorse on the truce reached in Cierna. However the wording of the Bratislava conference was ‘woolly’; and the meeting resolved nothing.

Issues discussed were very general, therefore the interpretations of the meeting were different for both sides. The Czechs left Bratislava feeling they convinced the others of their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact, believing their sovereignty was assured. The Bratislava declaration was ‘a document which the Czechs could interpret as a license to continue their reform program’; . Yet USSR got a very different understanding. They hoped the Czechs would halt the reforms, setting up a pro-Russian administration. If that failed, they would ‘invite’; Russians to resolve the situation by arresting Dubcek and his supporters.

As well as that they were hoping the party would re-gain control of the press. Though at one point it may have seemed USSR gave in to Czechoslovakia, and ‘the world had witnessed another David-over-Goliath victory’; , the Soviet Union was soon to break the illusion. On August 10th the proposals for revising the statutes of the Czechoslovak communist party were published, condoning the rights of the minority to state its views in public after a majority decision had been reached. Edmonds believes that this in the eyes of orthodox communists was the crime of factionalism.

How could this be allowed in a system where public opinion prevailed that of an individual? The political and military considerations that were pressurizing Kremlin became too evident. Ignoring the Cierna and Bratislava conferences, the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20-21st. In my opinion, one of the primary factors that USSR was bothered about was the fact that Czechoslovak reforms were drifting out of the party’s control. According to Steele, Dubcek and his colleagues had shown neither the will, nor the determination to control the developments.

USSR always had influence and control over the Warsaw Pact countries, reforms were never allowed to go too far. It was clear that the further the Czechoslovak system changes, the harder it will be to reverse it, and once re-gain control of the situation. There was also the threat that extremist groups in Czechoslovakia will seek independence from the USSR. This in turn could undermine the Soviet reputation in the whole world. This brings us to the following factors behind the decision to invade. USSR was put under pressure not only by the strategic position vis–vis the West, but also the opinions of the whole communist camp.

China strongly criticized USSR for lack of control over the situation, and leaders of Poland and East Germany suggested Soviet Union’s intervention, before things got out of hand and reforms spread all around the buffer states, the so called ‘domino theory’;. Steele believes that Moscow couldn’t afford another defection. As well as that the effect on the regime within Soviet Union itself was hard to predict. Each new development in Czechoslovakia increased the difficulty of holding the line against reform at home. At the same time, the arguments against the invasion remained weak.

There was the likely effect that the invasion might bring on the other communist parties in the world. China at this point was already out of the question, so the only power that could be concerned was Cuba, and Castro was too dependent on USSR anyhow. There were the communist movements in the West, but none of these were strong enough, or really recognized. The question of potential Czech resistance – in Hungary 1956 a lot of Russian lives were lost. Yet Czechoslovakia was different; there was no traditional enmity towards the Russians, neither the desire to fight.

Besides, after Cierna and Bratislava conferences the Russians could invade using the element of surprise. This is where military considerations come in. Seeing as Warsaw Pact maneuvers had been continuously in progress since July, the massive invasion of Czechoslovakia could be conducted successfully. Finally came the concern about West’s reaction. The Russians calculated that if the invasion would have any effect on dtente or the talks with US about the reduction of strategic arms (which were to come near in the future), this would be very short-lived.

Czechoslovakia remained in the Russian sphere of influence. At the point US was more concerned with the war in Vietnam, and the elections that were to come that year. Although there seemed to be a share of hesitation among the Politburo members, the decision to stop the reforms by force was reached. Looking at the factors that led USSR towards the invasion, perhaps this was no surprise. It seems like there wasn’t really an alternative, especially taking into the account the immediate circumstances that led to it. The Soviet leadership chose ‘to resort to repression rather than to bow to reform’;.

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