Anniversary of 1968 invasion spotlights present-day concerns about domestic, foreign policy

The upcoming 50th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia has sparked controversy on the Czech political scene. Right-wing parties see the anniversary as an opportunity to protest against what they see as President Zeman’s pro-Russian orientation and the fact that the Communist Party is regaining an influence on national politics, while the Communist Party, which faces renewed hostility on the anniversary, is trying to play down Russia’s responsibility for the invasion.

Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, photo: archive of Czech RadioSoviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, photo: archive of Czech Radio As Czechs prepare to mark one of the darkest chapters of the country’s history, politicians are engaged in a war of words that has little to do with the past. Right-of- centre parties see the anniversary predominantly as a warning against allowing the Communist Party to regain political influence, which they have achieved by supporting the Babiš-led government of ANO and the Social Democrats, and what they see as President Zeman’s pro-Russian orientation.

The news that President Zeman would not be making any kind of speech to mark 50 years since the Soviet-led invasion, has elicited sharp criticism from many sides. The head of the right wing TOP 09 party Jiří Pospíšil sent the president an open letter urging him to do his duty as head of state by marking an anniversary that had a hugely detrimental impact on the country’s history – hundreds of dead, hundreds of thousands of migrants who fled the country after the invasion and hundreds of thousands of others who lost their jobs because they refused to sign petitions approving the invasion.

Miloš Zeman, photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech RadioMiloš Zeman, photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio Who other than the president should make a speech on this dark anniversary – the head of the Pirates Party Ivan Bartoš echoed. Civic Democrat leader Petr Fiala tweeted that the president’s decision to remain silent was “strange” and reflected ill on him alone. Social Democrat Jan Chvojka noted that the invasion was a milestone of such importance that it merited a few words from all political leaders.

The president’s spokesman Jiří Ovčáček reacted on Twitter by saying that President Zeman had had the courage to speak out against the invasion when many were silent and had been thrown out of work as a result. The president still sees the invasion as criminal, but he spoke out when it mattered and he sees no reason to address the occupation 50 years after, Ovčáček said.

Meanwhile, Communist Party leader Vojtěch Filip added fuel to the fire by saying in a recent interview for the Guardian that history was being falsified based on the position against Russia. He argued that then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was from Ukraine and the major force of the invading armies were Ukrainian.

Vojtěch Filip, photo: Luboš Vedral / Czech RadioVojtěch Filip, photo: Luboš Vedral / Czech Radio Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who after failing to put together a majority coalition, opted to lean on Communist Party support, has repeatedly argued that the Communist Party’s position was legitimized by voters themselves. He stopped short of defending the party leader when asked to comment on the interview for the Guardian.

“The invasion was a terrible tragedy for the whole nation. It was organized by the Soviet Union and it must be condemned” Babiš said. He said that he and the heads of the lower and upper chambers of Parliament would be speaking at the wreath-laying ceremony outside Czech Radio on August 21st to pay homage to the victims of this tragedy.