Czech Rebels: From a Trickle to a Torrent


For years there was only darkness.

The brief dawn of reform that came with Alexander Dubcek in the 1968 "Prague Spring" was crushed so completely by the repressive regime installed in its aftermath that for seven years, no opposition existed.

A regime filled with incompetents and characterized by crudeness managed to purge its opponents with undisputed efficiency.

The extent of that efficiency, coupled with the trauma of the Soviet invasion, explains why Czechoslovakia is nearly the last of the Warsaw Pact nations to rise up against its hard-line Communist rulers.

Only in 1975, when Czechoslovakia, along with the other nations of Europe, signed the Helsinki Accords--the document guaranteeing basic human rights--did a flicker of hope burn that, today, 14 years later, has ignited a protest that has swept the nation.

"It gave Czechs something to hang on to," said one analyst familiar with the opposition. "They felt it. It was a handle."

It was enough of a handle that in January, 1977, about 1,000 Czechoslovaks--mainly intellectuals, writers and actors--put their names to a short document demanding basic human and civic rights that became known as Charter 77.

Its birth was calamitous.

Driving through Prague's main Wenceslas Square on a snowy January night, playwright Pavel Landovsky, one of the charter's signers, was stopped by police as he guided his battered Saab automobile toward the city's main post office.

On the back seat were nearly 1,000 envelopes, each containing a copy of the charter and the names of those who signed it.

The crackdown was immediate and severe.

A second opposition group called VONS--the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted--was formed in early 1979 as an arm of Charter 77, but both remained small, with no more than a few hundred activists.

Those who dared to defy the system paid the price.

Dissidents were harassed, jailed and constantly followed by Czechoslovak secret police.

But the regime went beyond the dissidents themselves and hit at their families and those Communists who had supported Dubcek when he spearheaded the brief period of reform in 1968.

The first hint of new hope for opponents of the regime came only in January of this year, when leading individuals protested the repressive use of police and the lack of free expression.

The protest came long after the impact of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policies of political and economic reform and openness had set in motion major changes in neighboring Poland and Hungary. But it was a beginning.

As recently as two weeks ago, dissident sociologist Jan Urban sat in his small Prague apartment, talking of the new pluralism in Hungary and Poland and the collapse of hard-line regimes in neighboring East Germany and Bulgaria. He knew the time for freedom had come.

His only worry was whether the Czechoslovaks, already robbed once, were ready to try again.

"No one knows what is going to happen," another dissident sociologist, Martin Palous, said prophetically a few hours before the now-famous Nov. 17 student demonstration. "We're entering a new period of history, and no one knows what is going to happen."

The potent mixture of students demanding change and the truncheons of the regime's riot police ignited a process that within the space of a few days turned the tiny opposition into a mass protest movement that has extended deep into the Communist Party and even into elements of the government itself.

The critical breakthrough for the opposition came when dissident playwright Vaclav Havel telephoned Jan Skoda, general secretary of the small Socialist Party, and asked for help.

Havel had already had secret contacts with Skoda, whose party is a member of the Communist-dominated National Front that rules Czechoslovakia.

Skoda, who understood the direction of events, agreed to join a meeting of regime opponents two days later that would give birth to the loose coalition of opposition interests dubbed the Civic Forum.

His presence provided an entirely new and vitally important dimension to the opposition.

In a single stroke, a legal political party, long linked with the regime itself, had jumped ship and allied itself with the opposition.

"Dissidents no longer exist in secret ghettos," declared Havel. "We're now in a time where there are the beginnings of a real opposition in our country."

From its inception, the Civic Forum has shown a sophistication and deftness unseen in Czechoslovak politics in more than four decades.

Its leading public personalities may have had such careers as playwright and sociologist, but they settled into the Czechoslovak political arena as if they had been born to it.

The group's best-known figure, Havel, has consistently risen to the occasion. He has delivered a collection of pithy, cogent responses at press conferences and soaring speeches to massive crowds of protesters.

Sociologist Vaclav Mali, the group's official spokesman, quickly established a good rapport with the huge press contingent.

The Civic Forum's public-relations sophistication is in complete contrast to that of the country's Communist leadership.

When asked why no member of the Communist hierarchy had tried to address the large crowds, one diplomat responded, "They have no one who knows how to read a speech in an atmosphere like this."

In the wave of outrage and protest against the Nov. 17 beatings of demonstrating students, the long-isolated intellectual dissidents found a larger, stronger partner in Czechoslovakia's young people.

Within a few days, 80,000 students were on strike.

"The (Nov. 17) demonstration lit the fuse, but what is happening now is a reaction to years of lies and deception," Havel said. "It was the crisis that brought everyone out."

Student groups also played a vital role in making contact with workers. Unlike their counterparts in Poland, Czechoslovak workers have been traditionally reluctant to take up political protest.

By Sunday, grass-roots Communist Party organizations in the capital had voted to join the strike and Communists were attending Civic Forum's daily rallies.

In a development that opponents could hardly have imagined only days before, elements of the government itself were pitching in.

The Ministry of Education announced it supported the strike, while the government post office and Czechoslovak television helped transmit Civic Forum rallies to the nation.

"We are no longer the opposition," said Civic Forum spokesman Michel Horacek. "They are the opposition."

One week after Civic Forum's birth, it had won a nearly clean sweep in achieving its demands.

Those directly connected with the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, including the party's leader, Milos Jakes, had resigned from the ruling Politburo.

A commission had been established to investigate the Nov. 17 police actions, and political prisoners were being freed.

And to the cheers of the estimated half a million Czechoslovaks at a mass rally, Havel was able to announce, "Dialogue with the government has begun."

Summed up sociologist Urban: "I thought such things only happened in dreams."

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