PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- As many as 200,000 protesters marched through central Prague on Monday in an emotional groundswell of anti-government defiance that almost certainly signaled the end of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia.
Demonstrations against the hard-line Communist regime of Milos Jakes also spread for the first time to large provincial cities, including Bratislava, Brno and Pilsen.
Protesters moved through the capital shouting "Freedom, freedom!" as bastions of the hard-line Communist state began to crumble.
Suddenly on Monday evening, both Prague Radio and the state television began carrying reports that aired sharp criticism of the government, while heads of the capital's two largest universities expressed solidarity with a weeklong anti-government student strike.
There also were signs of a split within the Communist Party hierarchy.
Prague Radio reported that the capital's party boss, Miroslav Stepan, complained that many in the party were taking what he called "a neutral stand" on the present turmoil and spoke of "certain symptoms of a power struggle."
Earlier, the country's leading dissident, Vaclev Havel, said he had received what he called "feelers" from s enior figures within the regime.
"We are watching the end of Jakes," one veteran Western diplomat here declared. "He has nothing left."
In a further blow to Jakes, East German leader Egon Krenz canceled plans to visit Prague today. The move underscored the growing isolation of the Czechoslovak regime, even among its Warsaw Pact allies.
Moscow went public with its disapproval of the regime last week, a move that many analysts at the time believed sealed its fate.
Czechoslovak television on Monday read a government appeal for calm. It was issued after an emergency plenary meeting of the national government, as well as the Czech and Slovak regional governments.
The appeal noted that the government was in favor of dialogue to resolve the country's problems, but said answers "could not be sought in an atmosphere of emotions, passions and anti-socialist actions such as have occurred over the past few days in Prague."
The appeal concluded by defending the brutal police action last Friday in breaking up a student protest in Prague.
"No government in a legal state can suffer the violation of its constitution and the laws of its country," it said.
However, the statement is expected to have little impact on the wave of anti-government feeling rolling through Prague.
The United States has denounced the Friday crackdown, and on Monday it canceled a proposed visit to Washington of party ideological chief Jan Fojtik. A State Department statement said the visit would be inappropriate "because of the violent police actions this past weekend during which scores of peaceful demonstrators and U.S. and other international media representatives were brutally beaten . . . ."
Among the banners and the sea of red, white and blue Czech flags carried by marchers Monday, there was no longer fear, only the powerful scent of victory.
As they rallied first in the city's main Wenceslas Square, and later, as they marched through adjoining streets, demonstrators shouted a slow, taunting, "Jakes, Jakes" followed by a more direct chant of "Jakes out!" and "We want a new government!"
One banner read, "We Want a Government With a Higher I.Q."
Riot police prevented marchers from approaching Prague Castle, residence of the country's President Gustav Husak, a leading figure among the hard-liners who took power in 1968. But there were no reported incidents of violence.
Residents and office workers along the route waved, applauded and hung their own national flags from windows.
"Yesterday I thought it would take weeks for the government to resign. Today I think it will be days," a 33-year-old research engineer in the crowd said.
Added an elderly woman in a voice heavy with emotion: "God help us all--we've waited 21 years for this."
It was 21 years ago that the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia to overthrow the liberal government of Alexander Dubcek and place the present hard-liners in power.
The size of the demonstration and the dramatic change in content of the state-controlled media surprised even the most seasoned diplomatic observers, who admitted the pace of opposition to the country's hard-line leadership was accelerating far faster than expected.
Hourly newscasts on official Prague Radio swung wildly, with the 4 p.m. news summary carrying only bland official statements, while a similar summary one hour later aired unprecedented direct and open criticism of the government.
Czechoslovaks sitting down to the main evening television news were stunned to hear the government's loyal mouthpiece report that 200,000 of their fellow citizens were in the streets of Prague expressing a lack of confidence in the politicians, in the Communist Party and in the government of Czechoslovakia.
The newscast reported that both the dean of the Technical University and the rector of Charles University, the country's largest, had decided to support anti-government student strikes.
Czech television also reported that students and teachers in 29 Prague secondary schools had agreed spontaneously to strike, but that students would attend class "to hold a dialogue with teachers about subjects that could not previously be discussed."
Earlier in the day, small, hand-typed signs appeared in subway stations and store windows, announcing a two-hour general strike for next Monday.
Theaters, universities and secondary schools in the capital closed for a week in protest against what is being referred to now as the "police massacre" of students last Friday, and students' emissaries departed for regional cities in the country to press for support.
The newspaper of the previously docile Socialist Party printed accounts of last Friday's police attack on students and called for a "fundamental change in the political climate." Newspapers in the capital were sold out virtually before dawn Monday, and clusters of Czechoslovaks gathered to read copies of the Socialist Party paper that were posted in public places.
There also were reports that coal miners in northern Bohemia had agreed to join next Monday's general strike.
"There are no longer dissidents in the secret little ghettos," said dissident leader Havel, referring to the small, isolated band of intellectuals that has resisted the Communist leadership for the past decade.
"We're now in a time where there are the beginnings of a real opposition in our country," he said. "It's the most important time in 20 years."
Havel announced the creation of a new opposition grouping called the Civic Forum as a coalition of public interests prepared to negotiate with the government about the crisis.
"Civic Forum came into existence last night, but I can't predict its future," he said.
Havel said any individual or group "that finds the need" could be part of it. "It's open to all people who want democracy in this country," he added.
The new group issued an initial list of four demands, including the resignation of those connected with the 1968 invasion of the country--a list that would include Jakes and Husak.
He said the organization could develop along the lines of East Germany's opposition New Forum.
Havel also said a representative from miners in northern Bohemia had telephoned him Sunday and said an appeal had been issued for all miners in the region to join next Monday's strike. If the miners do join the protest, it would be another ominous signal for the regime.
The bedrock of the government's support has long been an unspoken social contract that workers would remain quiet as long as they were provided material goods and a decent standard of living.
Czech economists privately claimed that Jakes has mortgaged the country's future to keep Czechoslovak stores full.
Havel said he believed recent contacts he and other opposition leaders had received from senior figures in the regime were a sign that the struggle within the Communist Party for a successor to Jakes was now under way.
"Various power groups intending to go for the leadership are putting cards up their sleeves, so that at the right time they can take them out to trump others," he said.
He said the common characteristic of all the contacts was that opposition interests "would be taken into account when the time comes."
"There are no facts, no specifics," he added. "There are even the moments when they seem to be trying to emulate each other so they can say they were the first to contact us."
The rise of a national crisis invariably draws Czechs to the heart of Prague, a place dominated by an equestrian statue of St. Vaclav, a 10th-Century Bohemian ruler who personifies the Czech nation. He is better known in the West through the traditional Christmas carol as "Good King Wenceslas." The statue is situated at the upper end of a gently sloping broad boulevard called Wenceslas Square. It was there in 1968 that thousands gathered to voice support for the "Prague Spring" reform movement that was crushed by Soviet tanks. A year later, it served as the setting for one of the East Bloc's most dramatic protests against Soviet domination, the self-immolation of university student Jan Pallach. Now it is again the magnet for protests, this time for tens of thousands demanding democratic reforms.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times