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40th Anniversary of 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia Remembered


Forty years ago, on the night of August 20-21, 1968, 2,000 tanks and 200,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia. Failed negotiations in Bratislava over a program of political liberalization known as “Prague Spring” served as the precipitating event.

The 1968 invasion was successful in stopping the partial democratization reforms begun by Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek. That August night, Eastern bloc armies from five Warsaw Pact countries – the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, and East Germany – joined the invasion.

A Czech Perspective

The invasion was followed by a wave of emigrations, about 300,000 in total, typically of highly qualified people. Among those who came to the United States was Jiri Fisher, formerly a broadcaster in VOA’s Czech Service, who was 19 years old at the time. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Fisher says he was returning home after an island vacation in Yugoslavia. He was incredulous when a German family on the ship told him that there was “einen Krieg” [a war] in Czechoslovakia. Together they tuned into Radio Prague on a little transition radio, Fisher says, and they heard that Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Soviet Army and Warsaw Pact and that “people were getting killed.” To this day, he says, it gives him “chills” to remember that night.

Jiri Fisher says he and his friends ended up in the northern port city of Rijeka on the Adriatic coast. Yugoslavia’s President Tito went on TV, Fisher recalls, telling his people that “we have to take care of all Czechs and Slovaks who are trapped in our country” because the Soviet Army had shut down the borders. He says he and his friends then went on to Zagreb, where thousands of people were gathered in front of the consulate, and where people from Zagreb were “fighting for us – for whom they would take home.” Later he made his way to Vienna, and then to his hometown of Brno in the region of Moravia, and ultimately to the United States. Like many of his countryman, Fisher says, his life had been changed forever.

A Russian Perspective

Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief of RIA Novosti Russian News and Information Service, says younger people in Russia today know little about the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, although older people tend to view it as a “big mistake.” In fact, he adds, he can hardly name any mainstream politician who would argue that it was the “right thing to do” in 1968. Zevelev says he thinks there were several considerations that led to the Soviet authorities’ decision to invade Czechoslovakia. First was their fear of the alternative model of democratic socialism, what at the time was called “socialism with a human face,” Zevelev says. Geopolitical calculation also played a role. That is, the Soviet leadership was “very much afraid of Czechoslovakia’s eventually leaving the Warsaw Pact” and perhaps even seeking NATO membership. Another fear, Zevelev says, was that other socialist countries would “try to emulate the Czechoslovakian experiment.”

A Georgian Perspective

For David Nikuradze, Washington correspondent for Rustavi 2, Georgia’s leading independent broadcasting company, the events of the past two weeks in his country seem eerily similar to those of August 1968. Nikuradze says Georgians were “really disappointed” when they saw the Czech government’s statement “blaming Georgia for what happened in South Ossetia." Unfortunately, he says, only Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia stood together to “support Georgia’s territorial integrity.” He adds that, if Europe does not stop Russia today, “Russian tanks can appear in any East European city tomorrow.”

Jiri Fisher says he also sees parallels between the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Fisher says he “understands what Georgians are going through.” He suggests that they feel as Czechs and Slovaks did 40 years ago, unable to comprehend why no help came from the West.

Dissenting Voices

However, many analysts see the situation differently. They say that President Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to push his troops into the capital of the semi-autonomous, pro-Russian enclave of South Ossetia gave Russia an easy excuse to use its iron fist. They argue that, although it is tempting to believe historical events repeat themselves in other times and other places, each one needs to be examined on its own merits.

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