Czechs are marking the 40th anniversary of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which crushed the reform movement known as the Prague Spring. In the early hours of August 21st of 1968, Soviet tanks rolled across the border taking over all key institutions. Disbelieving Czechs took to the streets to defend their capital. Over 100 people were killed and more than 500 injured in the clash with foreign troops. The public revolt was suppressed and the invasion marked the beginning of a dark period of Czech history. Thousands of people fled the country, and thousands lost their jobs or faced persecution for speaking their minds, as communist hardliners regained their grip on power.
The Czech Republic’s national football team tied 2:2 with England in a friendly at Wembley Stadium on Thursday. It was the Czechs’ first match under new head coach Petr Rada and the team got off to a good start, twice holding the lead. The team’s first goal was scored by Milan Baroš in the first half, but England tied just before half-time. The Czechs then went ahead again in the 2nd half on a precise technical strike by Marek Jankulovski, but lost the lead for the second time in the final minute of the game, when Joe Cole scored on a scramble in front of Petr Čech’s net. The friendly was seen as an important test for both the Czech Republic and England ahead of World Cup qualification this autumn.
Archive materials which are now in the hands of the Czech Foreign Ministry indicate that the Czechoslovak leadership received two last-minute warnings of the planned invasion. One came from the Czechoslovak embassy in Hungary on the basis of an anonymous phone call made at 5 pm on August 20th. At 6pm it arrived at the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry in Prague and was deciphered but it did not reach the president in view of the fact that it was based on an anonymous phone call. A second last-minute warning arrived from Poland, at eight thirty. Historians say that in any case the warnings came too late to make any difference. Some believe that Moscow itself issued many thinly veiled warnings about the use of force which the Czechoslovak leadership disregarded or did not take seriously enough.
In a special ceremony, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek awarded medals of bravery to ten foreign dissidents who publicly protested against the invasion in their homeland. The protests took place in Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and other former Soviet satellites and the people who condemned the invasion paid a high price for their bravery. They were locked up in psychiatric clinics, persecuted by the secret service and were unable to find work for many years after. The Czech prime minister said that his country was deeply grateful for what they had done and noted that their bravery had been inspiring, for they had acted as free people although they lived in a totalitarian state.
Barbora Špotáková of the Czech Republic won the women's javelin gold medal at the Beijing Olympics on Thursday with a dramatic last throw of 71.42 metres. The world champion overtook Russian Maria Abakumova whose 70.78 metre throw proved only to be good enough for a silver medal. Germany's Christina Obergfoll took the bronze medal with her throw of 66.13 metres.
President Klaus said in an interview for the Russian daily Kommersant that
the Czech government’s plans to host a US radar base on Czech soil were
not directed against Russia. Mr. Klaus said that he did not think that in
the present day Russia posed a security threat to the Czech Republic and
emphasized that Prague and Moscow were not enemies. The Czech president
said that it was wrong to portray Moscow as a potential aggressor.
The statement came just a day after an opinion poll indicated that 41 percent of Czechs still believe the Czech Republic has reason to fear Russia. In a poll conducted in connection with the anniversary, two thirds of Czechs said they did not think Russia was a democratic country and forty percent of respondents said Moscow was to blame for the military conflict with Georgia.
Czech President Václav Klaus and Slovak President Ivan Gasparovič met in the Slovak capital Bratislava on Thursday to mark the 1968 anniversary. They told reporters that the Soviet-led invasion fully revealed the tragedy and irrationality of the communist era. Here in Prague, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek met with his Slovak counterpart Robert Fico. Mr. Topolánek said the 1968 invasion was a tragic event but also a valuable lesson which should motivate the country’s political leaders to make sure history did not repeat itself. The Czechoslovak federation broke up shortly after the fall of communism and the two counties are now going their separate ways, although they have retained close ties.
A commemorative ceremony was held outside the Czech Radio building on Thursday where a fierce battle for control of the radio took place forty years ago. Fifteen civilians lost their lives in the clash with Soviet troops, who eventually seized the building. Broadcasting continued from a number of secret locations for a few days longer, informing Czechs about what was happening and that the invasion had been condemned by the international community.
The Czech government on Wednesday strongly condemned Russia’s military
offensive in Georgia. Following a cabinet meeting devoted to the situation
in the Caucuses, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said that Georgia’s
independence and integrity must be respected and that Russia had violated
international law when it sent its troops over the border. At the request
of Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg the government agreed to set
aside 150 million crowns in aid to Georgia to help restore the country’s
damaged infrastructure in the wake of Russia’s military offensive. It
also wants to organize a donors’ conference in order to provide further
assistance. The government and NGOs have already sent medicines and
humanitarian aid to the region.
The armed conflict over South Ossetia has divided Czech politicians. While the Foreign Ministry issued a statement in support of Georgia and condemned Moscow’s use of force, President Klaus said that Georgia was primarily to blame for provoking the armed conflict.