Czechoslovakia Changes With Magic of the Figure Eight

Karel Kovanda, a Czech infant in 1948, was a Prague activist in 1968. In 1988 he is a manager at an Orange County technological firm

Czechoslovakia's yearning for democracy erupted in 1968, 20 years ago this month, after several seasons of efforts to reform the country's planned economy. The magnificent "Prague Spring" was a few heady months of barely fettered freedom, symbolized by the name of Alexander Dubcek and the slogan of "socialism with a human face."

In 1988, the new year has less promise for my friends in Czechoslovakia, although there has long been a magic associated with years ending in eight. Any Czech can list a series of important events at such times, dating all the way back to the death of Otakar II (1278), the last king of the last native Premyslid dynasty. Then remember the founding of Prague's Charles University in 1348, the Prague defenestration of 1618 which triggered the Thirty Years' War and the radical-democratic revolution of 1848.

The years with eight have been especially magical in this century: Four of them have been truly epoch-making for Czechs and Slovaks, fundamentally changing their historical destiny.

In 1918, the Czechoslovak Republic was founded, on the debris of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, restoring independence lost during the Thirty Years' War. Ironically, nostalgia for that multinational melting pot is these days stronger than ever, as the people look at their prosperous Austrian neighbors with a could-have-been-us feeling. But the 70th anniversary of Czechoslovak statehood will be remembered only cautiously by the Communist Party; the event is inextricably linked with Thomas G. Masaryk, the country's founding father who had no patience with communism or with Soviet Russia.

In 1938, Czechoslovakia was dismembered. "Munich" has since become a part of the international political vocabulary. It refers to a treaty signed by French and British politicians that awarded Adolf Hitler major chunks of Czechoslovakia in order to ensure "peace in our time." The Czechs were not even invited to the parley. This is the one anniversary about which there is a national consensus.

In 1948, three years after democracy was restored following the defeat of Germany, a communist coup d'etat inaugurated a regime that, with small changes, has remained in power to this day. Official celebrations of "Victorious February," as the coup is called, will be self-congratulatory and elaborate, although hardly anyone outside the party bureaucracy has anything to celebrate.

Prague Spring started early, on Jan. 5, 1968. After a protracted stormy session, the Communist Party Central Committee announced the resignation of Antonin Novotny, who had headed the party for some 15 years, and the election of Dubcek to his job. Few people were familiar with this modest Slovak politician in his 40s, but within weeks it became obvious that his leadership would mean much more than just a change of top personalities. After some initial hesitation, Dubcek and his lieutenants encouraged the country's intellectuals to discard the shibboleths of the past and to speak their minds or, as the Czechs would say, "to speak the way your mug grew on you."

The consequences were extraordinary. Issues of the nation's past that had been taboo for decades were reopened to public scrutiny. New organizations and clubs sprouted like mushrooms. Labor unions started advocating interests of the workers rather than those of the party. The press was as free as could be, even to excess. Dubcek's leadership, communist though it was, became among the most popular the country had enjoyed--ever.

But not for long. This offensive for democracy was arrested on Aug. 20, 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into the country. It came to a screeching finale the following April, when Dubcek was ousted. Prague Spring will continue to be officially portrayed as "creeping counterrevolution." The anniversary of the Soviet invasion will be treated very, very gingerly--and perhaps ignored completely.

With memories of 1968 still so vivid, Czechs and Slovaks find today's news from the Soviet Union rather puzzling. They follow it carefully: Russian television, originally installed for the benefit of Soviet troops, is widely watched by the population at large and the newspaper Pravda is routinely sold out after any important Mikhail S. Gorbachev speech. Gorbachev's efforts at perestroika obviously sound like echoes of Czechoslovakia's own economic reform of the mid-1960s. His glasnost sounds like the ferment of the Prague Spring--it's as though 20 years later, the Soviets are admitting the Czechs had been right after all.

Indeed, Dubcek's name, unmentionable in a positive context for almost two decades, was acknowledged last fall in Moscow. And a leading Soviet historian even agreed that the issue of the August, 1968, invasion ought to be "reconsidered."

In Czechoslovakia, however, precious little has been changing in the meantime. Extreme conservatives have even appropriated an old argument of the liberals, suggesting that Czechoslovakia shouldn't have to emulate the Soviet Union in everything; that is, Czechoslovakia shouldn't be forced to become more open.

The country's leaders, headed by Gustav Husak, waited months before addressing Soviet reform ideas--and then paid them only lip service. As Prague wits observe in a bilingual pun, perestroika translates into Czech as prestroieni : The alliterative Czech word means disguise rather than reconstruction.

In the absence of a Masaryk, some Czechs look for a savior abroad. Many have fallen for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the most popular Soviet leader since Josef Stalin of the World War II years. Then, when Gorbachev failed to bring Dubcek back from oblivion during his visit to Czechoslovakia last year--or even to reshuffle the Czechoslovak leadership--his admirers were disappointed. That such expectations even existed suggests how naive and out-of-touch with political realities a people can become.

But the Communist Party leadership eventually did change. President Husak, 74, the crusty veteran Slovak communist whose long career included everything from fighting the Nazis in the Slovak mountains to being tortured as a victim of a show trial, last month resigned the top spot in the party.

Like Novotny's resignation 20 years ago, Husak's departure could foreshadow epoch-making changes in this year of an eight. But this time around there was no stormy protracted session of the Central Committee. This time around there was no subsurface ferment waiting for an opportunity to erupt. There was no economic reform requiring some Czechoslovakian glasnost to help out Czechoslovakia's perestroika ; indeed, the very words economic reform have been virtually banned for about two decades.

No liberals live in the party leadership. All the potential Dubceks had long been purged. Their nemesis during the 1970s was one Milos Jakes, an official of the Ministry of the Interior beholden to the KGB. Jakes headed the Communist Party's audit commission, one of the handful of quislings who actually sent a letter of "invitation" to the Soviet troops in August, 1968. If Husak presided over the purge of every liberal party member, Jakes did the purging. Last month, Jakes won Husak's job.

With the epoch-making events happening in years of eights, a certain numerological mystique has become attached. There is a certain hope--or fear, on the part of those in power--that something might radically improve the lot of the country this year. Given the flux within the Soviet Union, anything is possible, but if 1988 does change Czechoslovakia's history, it will be despite the new Communist Party leadership, rather than--as happened 20 years ago--because of it.

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