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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 September 2005, 00:45 GMT 01:45 UK
'Spring' turns to winter in Prague
By Robert Elphick
BBC News, Prague

This From Our Own Correspondent was first broadcast on 3 September, 1968.

Coming to power in January 1968, Czechoslovak President Alexander Dubcek introduced liberalising reforms, granting the press and the public freedom of speech. Viewing this as a threat, Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, arresting Dubcek and other politicians. Robert Elphick considers the future for both the government and its people.

Protesters defying Warsaw Pact troops

The most poignant scene in Prague these days is played out daily round the big equestrian monument of the Saint King of Bohemia, or Good King Wenceslas.

Since the beginning of the invasion it has been the focus for protests, hung with black flags and the Czechoslovak national tricolour.

But now it has been scrubbed clean of all the posters and slogans telling the Russians to go home, and it has become something like a national shrine.

A shrine, moreover, which is not kept up by the government, but by the efforts of the ordinary people.

Fresh flowers appear daily at the foot of the statue, and the national flag and the black flag of mourning get carried in informal relays by young people, old people, long-haired beatniks in jeans, and spruce young soldiers.

It is now a fortnight, though, since the armadas of tanks poured across the country to strangle Czechoslovakia's attempt to mix communism with democracy
They have been keeping it up for days now, sorrowing for the people who were killed in the early days of the invasion, and also for Czechoslovakia's lost independence.

By contrast, the most macabre of my experiences has been, perhaps, to watch a full-scale Soviet concert party entertaining the troops with concertinas, balalaika music and those exuberant Russian dances.

It was something like a celebration at a wake.

'Secret clauses'

Alexander Dubcek
Alexander Dubcek returned from exile in 1989
It is now a fortnight, though, since the armadas of tanks poured across the country to strangle Czechoslovakia's attempt to mix communism with democracy, and it is quite clear that the Russians grossly miscalculated the temper of the people here in believing that they had only to act decisively to destroy Mr Dubcek's position.

They obviously placed high hopes on the veteran president, General Svoboda, as possibly providing a respectable head of a puppet regime.

No more thoughts of holidays abroad or contacts with Western Europe, of freedom or democracy at home, or even better pay, except by leave of the masters of the Kremlin
But the old president was having none of that, and it is reliably reported he threatened not only to resign, but to commit suicide, unless Mr Dubcek and the other leaders were freed and restored to their positions.

Not that this, a gain though it is against the possibility of widespread bloodshed, is making much difference to the general Soviet tactics of putting Czechoslovakia back into a rigid straitjacket.

No more dreams of independence within the communist movement.

No more thoughts of holidays abroad or contacts with Western Europe, of freedom or democracy at home, or even better pay, except by leave of the masters of the Kremlin.

What has been published of the dictated Moscow settlement is already onerous enough, and nobody believes that there are not any secret clauses.

Suppression

Nothing can conceal the fact that their agents are taking over, as rapidly as possible, all the key posts in public life
It is clear, for instance, that there is no fixed date for withdrawal.

It is believed they have also insisted on stopping all tourism, and closing the frontier with Western Germany altogether.

They have also warned the cabinet that any signs of unrest will be taken as proof of the government's incapacity to rule, and that any attempts to resist the invading forces will be ruthlessly suppressed.

Although the Russians are now withdrawing troops from some of the more conspicuous places in Prague and elsewhere, nothing can conceal the fact that their agents are taking over, as rapidly as possible, all the key posts in public life.

The calculation is evidently that, having failed to push Mr Dubcek and his colleagues out of office, they will make them do their work for them, in the expectation that as they take the unpopular measures they are told to do, they will lose all credibility with the public.

The Russians have already forced the government to bring the censors back.

They have also forced changes in the Ministry of the Interior, literally over the dead body of one of the deputy ministers, who was reported to have committed suicide rather than hand his files over to the KGB.

The best that Mr Dubcek and his colleagues can do now is perhaps to mitigate the consequences of Russian domination, and wait for better times.

Initially, at least, they will be helped by the massive feeling of national solidarity that the arrival of the foreign troops has engendered, and also by the natural patience of a people to whom foreign invasion is only too familiar.

SEE ALSO:
Timeline: Czechoslovakia
17 Mar 03 |  Country profiles


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