Czechs lambast their leaders 50 years after Soviet invasion

Premier’s communist-era ‘agent’ past and president’s pro-Russian views stir anger

Milos Matousek (78), who served in the Czechoslovak army, attends a ceremony outside the studios of Czech Radio to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Milos Matousek (78), who served in the Czechoslovak army, attends a ceremony outside the studios of Czech Radio to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

Czechs have lambasted their current leaders on the 50th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when the Red Army crushed hopes for liberal reform that had flourished during the “Prague Spring” of 1968.

Prime minister Andrej Babis was heckled and booed in central Prague over his alleged role as a Soviet-era informer and his government’s reliance on Communist Party votes, while Kremlin-friendly Czech president Milos Zeman was widely criticised for refusing to speak about 1968 or attend commemoration events.

Some 200,000 Soviet-led troops, backed by tanks and warplanes, invaded Czechoslovakia in the early hours of August 21st, 1968, to end efforts by the country’s leader, Alexander Dubcek, to build “socialism with a human face”.

While Czechoslovaks celebrated a loosening of censorship, travel restrictions and political debate, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev saw a threat to Kremlin domination of eastern Europe and ordered the crackdown, which Moscow justified as a response to a supposed western-backed “counter-revolution” in Prague.

More than 100 people were killed, Dubcek and fellow reformers were ousted and a grim period of “normalisation” began, during which dissidents were repressed until the communist regime was finally toppled by peaceful protests in 1989.

For the first time since the Velvet Revolution, however, the Czech Communist Party once again has a say in how the country is run, after agreeing to back Mr Babis’s populist government with the votes it needs for a majority in parliament.

The tycoon-turned-politician also faces corruption allegations and lost a dispute with Slovakia’s National Memory Institute over its inclusion of his name on a list of former agents of the communist-era StB secret police. He denies collaborating.

A crowd of protesters booed, whistled and chanted “shame” at Mr Babis when he arrived for a commemoration ceremony on Tuesday at the headquarters of Radio Prague, which was at the epicentre of events five decades ago. “Freedom and democracy are above all about being able to admit that others have the right to different opinions and different preferences,” Radio Prague quoted Mr Babis as saying over the din.

People protest outside the studios of Czech Radio against Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, venting their anger over his service as an informant for the communist-era Czechoslovak secret police (StB) in the early 1980s. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
People protest outside the studios of Czech Radio against Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, venting their anger over his service as an informant for the communist-era Czechoslovak secret police (StB) in the early 1980s. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The anti-immigration billionaire is backed by the likeminded Mr Zeman, who is one of the Kremlin’s greatest advocates in the EU and calls for an end to sanctions on Russia while paying frequent visits to meet its president, Vladimir Putin.

Mr Zeman’s reluctance to criticise Moscow is widely seen as the main factor in his decision not to make a speech or attend any of the many 1968 memorial events taking place across the Czech Republic.

The president’s aides and allies insist he has previously made clear his abhorrence for the invasion, including during the normalisation period. But many of his compatriots are still troubled by his silence on such a major anniversary.

In the absence of public comments from Mr Zeman, Czech television planned to show a speech by Slovak president Andrej Kiska.

“Our most important duty is to protect freedom and [the] ability to determine our own future without a fear that choices we make will be crushed by a brute force,” said Mr Kiska on Tuesday.