Victims of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of the former Czechoslovakia may finally win compensation. The lower house of the Czech parliament has approved a bill, now awaiting Senate approval, which would provide compensation to relatives of those killed during the invasion, as well as to those killed, raped or injured by Soviet or Warsaw Pact troops who occupied the country until 1991.
Just before midnight on August 20, 1968, the first Soviet tank divisions rolled into Czechoslovakia. Their mission: to crush the brief reforms of the Prague Spring launched by Alexander Dubcek, and set the stage for hard-line communists to take his place.
The invasion brought an abrupt and violent end to Dubcek's famous attempt to introduce "Socialism with a human face": Moscow had feared the liberalization movement in Czechoslovakia would spread to other eastern bloc countries.
Dr Oldrich Tuma, director of the Institute for Contemporary History, notes that scores of people were killed and hundreds injured in the final days of August 1968.
"If you concentrate on the first week of the main conflict, before Dubcek and others signed the so-called 'Moscow Protocol' and returned home, then the number of victims is something like more than 70 people killed and several hundred wounded."
Under the bill now awaiting Senate approval, the families of those killed could receive up to 150,000 crowns in compensation, the equivalent to some 6500 US dollars, and those injured or raped by the occupation forces up to 30,000 crowns. In total, nearly one hundred families could be compensated at the highest level.
"If you extend the time until the end of '68, then there were 92 or 94 deaths —including victims of traffic accidents and so on. But there were cases where Soviet forces killed people also in September ['68 and later months]; there was a case in eastern Bohemia where a drunken Polish soldier killed two people and wounded several others. Under this new bill, [there would be compensation] also for victims of crimes committed by Soviet soldiers, rapes of women, and so on, cases that occurred much later, between '69 and '91. But the majority of the cases belong to the first week after the [August 21, 1968] invasion."
The centre-right Civic Democrats, who sponsored the bill, had pushed for awarding seven times as much money, but members of the ruling Social Democrats, including Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, argued that compensation was disproportionate to what was given to Czech victims of the Holocaust, for example.
Dr Tuma says that in his opinion, the monetary award can never "compensate" the victims; but it is important for the government to take action.
"I think it's more or less the level of compensation for people who were in concentration camps or were used as forced labour —but I wouldn't like that much to comment about the level of compensation because, in my opinion, you cannot repay in money for the loss of a father, or son, and so on. So it is [more a question of] symbolic value; and I would agree that the Czech state is, in a way, responsible for those victims, and it is both a political and moral duty to compensate it. The main perpetrator —responsible for those crimes and losses— was the Soviet Union. But as for the debate about how much money [to give in compensation]...this is really something that —I must say— I really don't know what would be fair."
The Soviet Union had actually signed a compensation agreement with the former Czechoslovakia, but, as Dr Tuma notes, it didn't address the immediate injuries and deaths that occurred around the invasion itself.
"Within this treaty about the temporary stay or location of Soviet troops on the territory of Czechoslovakia, there was something about the eventual compensation for damages made by the Soviet Army, but it was only for the time after this treaty was concluded —in October '68— and it didn't cover anything that happened between the 21st of August and October 1968."
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