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From the archives: Protests Topple Czech Regime

PoliticsCzech RepublicParties and MovementsPrague (Czech Republic)Communist Party of ChinaDiplomacyWarsaw (Poland)

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- The hard-line Czechoslovak regime cracked under the weight of mass public dissent Friday after one of the most extraordinary days in the country's postwar history.

It was a day that saw the downfall of repressive Communist leader Milos Jakes and the rise of an obscure Politburo member, Karel Urbanek, 48.

Urbanek's appointment as party general secretary followed the mass resignation of both the Communist Party's 13-member ruling Politburo and 14 department heads who collectively make up the party's Secretariat.

It was also the day of an emotional reappearance in the capital by Alexander Dubcek, the long-disgraced architect of the 1968 "Prague Spring" reform movement.

The roar from the 300,000 Czechoslovaks that greeted the former Communist Party leader as he emerged onto a fifth-floor balcony overlooking the city's main Wenceslas Square seemed to unleash emotions held tight since Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks crushed Dubcek's liberal experiment and the Kremlin installed hard-liners 21 years ago.

And it was a day that saw members of the fledgling opposition group Civic Forum interrupt their news conference with word that Jakes had resigned. They embraced, broke open champagne and listened to their leading spokesman, playwright Vaclav Havel, raise his glass and toast, "Long live a free Czechoslovakia!"

Friday's developments in Czechoslovakia represent the latest in a series of stunning political changes in the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe--beginning in Poland and Hungary before sweeping through East Germany and Bulgaria.

In addition to losing the party leadership, Jakes was thrown out of the Politburo and also lost his job as head of the party secretariat.

Five other prominent hard-liners were also demoted out of the Politburo, including party ideologue Jan Fojtik.

Reporting on the Central Committee seating, secretariat member Zdenek Horeni told reporters that the committee declared that a strategy of democratization and restructuring is irreversible.

He said the committee also invited organizations from outside the ruling party to join in a dialogue to find a political solution to the country's problems.

The Central Committee also urged swift action on new laws liberalizing the rights of assembly and association and greater press freedoms.

Horeni said that details of this new policy will be fleshed out at a another Central Committee meeting to be convened before mid-December.

But it was not a total victory for the reformists. Prague party boss Miroslav Stepan, the man generally viewed as responsible for last week's police crackdown on a student demonstration, kept his post in the Politurbo, while reform-minded members including Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec lost their places.

Political analysts believed that Friday's shake-up would not be the end of changes in the ruling hierarchy.

"Round 2 is coming," said one Western diplomat.

Adamec, the man most analysts believed would succeed Jakes as party secretary, resigned both from the Politburo and the prime minister's post.

Czechoslovakia's Communist Party Central Committee was meeting into the early hours this morning to nominate and elect replacements for a new Politburo.

As news of the Politburo's resignations spread, a party atmosphere swept the capital's central area.

People gathered around television sets in storefront windows, smiling, cheering and congratulating each other. Car horns honked, and trams rang their bells.

"I think it will be a party. We will be here all night," Andrea Swarc, a Prague housewife, said.

The choice of Urbanek, a trained economist and former head of the party in the Czech republic, came as a surprise. He was mentioned only in passing among those awaiting the possible succession to Jakes and was described by one political analyst as an ambiguous figure.

"He's someone who at times came out against dissident groups, but not as vociferously as others," this analyst said.

One Western diplomat here described Urbanek as "benign."

Urbanek's immediate task will be to steer the Communist Party through its present crisis and to prepare for negotiations with the opposition--talks that could lead to the diminution of the party's monopoly of power and the rebirth of political pluralism in Czechoslovakia. Opposition figures say they are determined to remove the constitutional provision that guarantees the leading role of the party.

Urbanek's appointment to lead the party was seen as significant for two reasons: First, his relative obscurity leaves him untouched by the failure of the party's senior leadership--those in charge during the recent years of repression and ineffectual performance as well as during the past week's crisis.

"I wouldn't say the population would see him as responsible for something," a Western diplomat said.

Secondly, Urbanek can be more easily accepted by the conservative Central Committee, even though he has shown tinges of reformism.

Together the Politburo, where Urbanek has served since October, 1988, and the Secretariat are the two entities that constitute the country's power center.

"We have failed to justly assess the processes taking place in Poland, Hungary and especially in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and their influence on our society," Jakes was reported by the Czechoslovak news agency CTK as telling the Central Committee in a brutally candid speech before resigning.

Indeed, the political changes in Czechoslovakia have occurred with breathtaking speed.

It was only 10 months ago that playwright Havel was arrested for attempting to place flowers at the place on Wenceslas Square where Czechoslovak student Jan Palach burned himself to death in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of the country.

The anniversary of Palach's death has long been a rallying point for the opposition movement. This year the demonstrations surrounding the memorial observances lasted for five days and were brutally suppressed by police.

On Friday, the capital was a sea of anti-government graffiti and wall posters, many of them supporting a general strike planned for Monday. One major reason for Friday's emergency Central Committee meeting and the change in political leadership was an attempt to undermine the general strike.

Urbanek has virtually no public profile in the country. In recent times he has been in charge of monitoring political reforms and their effect on party function, not a job usually considered a power base in the party.

For the past year, Urbanek has headed a commission dealing with "cadre policy," a post dealing with promotions and recruitment matters, both areas that affect the future shape of the party membership.

The news of the Politburo's resignation came as leaders of the Civic Forum appeared in what has become the opposition's regular evening briefing for the international media. As Havel and Vaclav Maly shared microphones with Dubcek--who was explaining that he still believes "socialism is reformable"--Havel's brother Ivan scurried onto the stage and whispered in Vaclav's ear.

After Dubcek finished his answer, through which Havel leaned forward in evident tension, the news was announced by an opposition journalist.

Havel, Dubcek, Maly and a student leader jumped to their feet and embraced on the stage as cheers broke out from supporters in the crowd. Someone hurried forward with a bottle of champagne and glasses.

"Long live a free Czechoslovakia!" shouted Havel, his glass lifted high.

"It's a mass execution," said a Czechoslovak journalist, grinning and shaking his head in amazement.

"I have no special illusion about gentlemen who will replace those who have just resigned," Havel cautioned.

These men, he said, "were the men who organized a coup and . . . the occupation of our country. As long as these people do not return to the Central Committee, it means the door has opened and we can take the steps to begin the life of a democratic Czechoslovakia."

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