‘Free’ Czechoslovakia?: Shadows Over The Transition


The unravelling of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in late 1989 led to the establishment of an interim government with a majority of non-communists in leadership positions, including the interim president, Vaclav Havel — who only months earlier had been a political prisoner. This government has supervised the preparations for national elections taking place today and tomorrow.

Thanks in large part to the character of the Czechoslovak interim government, the balloting there has shaped up as genuinely free and fair, with several democratic groups competing amongst themselves and with the surviving communist party. This prospect stands in sharp contrast to the election campaigns of Romania and Bulgaria, orchestrated by those country’s respective "reform" communist governments — and fraught with election irregularities and officially sanctioned, anti-democratic coercion.

Unfortunately, a closer look at developments in Czechoslovakia suggests that even there the communist forces have not abandoned the effort to retain political power beyond what they can earn at the ballot box. One democratic leader put it this way in March 1990: "The notion that the communist party has been defeated and has capitulated is really naive. The communists are getting more active and they are doing everything to repeat the 1948 takeover."

The Center for Security Policy’s analysis of the situation gives rise to a concern that, despite their expected setback in the national voting, the communists continue to pose a significant threat to the consolidation of democracy in Czechoslovakia.

The Origins and Unraveling of Communist Rule

The vigor of democratic political life in the Czechoslovakian transition period since January 1990 is reflected in the fact that there are no fewer than twenty-three parties competing in the coming elections. This democratic vitality stems, in part, from Czechoslovakia’s history.

A Democratic Tradition Usurped

After nearly 300 years as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the treaty ending World War I established Czechoslovakia as an independent country. It then maintained a functioning parliamentary democracy from 1918 until 1938 when the Munich agreement led to the beginning of Nazi annexation and occupation.

After World War II, political democracy and pluralism reemerged in Czechoslovakia, despite occupation by the Soviet army. Because the United Kingdom and France felt a special responsibility for freedom in Czechoslovakia — after all, their appeasement of Hitler at the expense of Czechoslovakia had failed and had set the stage for war — the Soviet Union and its Czechoslovak allies undertook during 1945-1948 to establish communist rule with even more than the usual stealth and deception. Importantly, this included a number of the techniques which some democratic leaders have alleged are now being used again to undermine the genuinely democratic movements and parties from within their own coalitions.

The communist regime in Czechoslovakia had been, along with those of East Germany and Bulgaria, among the most repressive Eastern bloc governments. Its coercive institutions, especially the secret police and intelligence services, worked very closely with those of the Soviet Union. Stalin had assured this Soviet control, he believed, by the purge of the initial Czechoslovak communist leadership — including the execution of many of the top leaders who had helped the communist party take power.

In 1968, somewhat later than in many other Eastern European countries, the Stalin-imposed leader, Antonin Novotny, was succeeded by a figure from the post-Stalin generation, Alexander Dubcek. While professing his intention to remain a loyal member of the Warsaw Pact (interestingly, the same pledge that current East European leaders continue to make), Dubcek and the reformist faction of the communist party he led instituted a wide range of reforms which became immortalized by the term "Prague Spring" and which were intended to build "communism with a human face."

On 20 August 1968, the Soviet Union, along with troops from East Germany, Hungary and Poland, crushed the reform effort. The West protested but took no action. President Lyndon Johnson noted in his memoirs simply his regret that the Soviet action forced him to postpone initiation of strategic arms control negotiations with Moscow.

The Soviets took Dubcek and the leaders of his government to Moscow in chains, purged the communist party and all major institutions (much as the Chinese communist regime has been doing since June 1989) and installed another Slovak, Gustav Husak, as the new ruler. The brutal 1948 and 1968 purges of the Czechoslovak communist party at the Soviets’ hands are a significant reason why many former and even current Czechoslovakian communists have opposed Moscow.

The Beginning of the End?

Perhaps the current unravelling of the dictatorship began with the establishment of the Charter 77 group to monitor Czechoslovakia’s implementation of the human rights promises made in the 1975 Helsinki agreements. Certainly in 1979 the rapid growth of Solidarity in Poland was watched closely, as was the Polish regime’s crushing of that movement in 1981 and its gradual rebirth and then participation in partially free elections in 1989.

In August 1989, 3,000 protesters marked the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet invasion; hundreds were arrested by the efficient secret police. After Honecker was removed in East Germany, 10,000 citizens staged a pro-democracy demonstration in the Czechoslovakian capital until club-wielding riot police brought it to a violent end.

On 19 November 1989, a number of leading dissidents founded Civic Forum and, on the following day, led a demonstration of 200,000 in Prague calling for free elections and the resignation of the hard-line communist leaders. Thereafter, events moved quickly: On 24 November 1989, the hard-line communist leaders resigned; on 27 November, millions of workers staged a two-hour strike in support of democracy; on 28 November, the regime ended the formal "leading role" for the communist party.

After continuing demonstrations against the newly-installed "reform" communist leaders, a new government with a non-communist majority in the cabinet was formed on 10 December 1989. Dubcek was elected chairman of the Federal Assembly (the national parliament) on 28 December, and Vaclav Havel became interim president on 29 December 1989.

The Second "Prague Spring"

There is much good news to be gleaned from this second "Prague Spring" — both about the internal and the stated international policies of the non-communist-led government — including:

  • The opportunity for democratic political parties to organize, receive legal sanction, and campaign for the coming elections with an apparently reasonable degree of freedom;

  • An atmosphere of openness and the establishment of a number of printed newspapers and periodicals reflecting different political viewpoints — these two factors contributed significantly to the expectation that the elections of June 8-9 would be free and fair;

  • The removal of fortifications on the border with neutral Austria and the opening of opportunities for travel into and out of Czechoslovakia;

  • The announced intention to stop all foreign arms sales (except for existing contracts), to halt the overseas shipment of Semtex (plastique explosive)(1) and similar activities once taken in support of Soviet objectives;

  • The agreement with Moscow that all Soviet troops would be withdrawn by 30 June 1991, with a small number of Soviet troops leaving on 28 February;

  • The announced intention to cease all intelligence cooperation with Moscow affecting third countries;

  • Havel’s calls for internal reconciliation (particularly noteworthy and commendable has been his opposition to domestic retribution and revenge on the grounds that, as he puts it, "We are not like them [the communists]") and for international reconciliation with Germany. (Havel took a considerable political risk at home with his stance on Germany but correctly observed that "To condemn them only because they are Germans, to be afraid of them because of that, is the same as to be anti-Semitic.")


Shadows Over the Transition

Despite these positive developments, several factors give rise to important concerns about the future viability of the present, promising Czechoslovak democracy. These concerns are especially real given the history of communist subversion of democracy in Czechoslovakia.

It is noteworthy that it was only in late May 1990 that the non-communist government in Prague pronounced itself satisfied that the personal office of President Havel had been cleared of listening devices ("bugs") placed by unknown persons.(2) This remarkable fact illustrates three shadows over the future of the transition — irrespective of the outcome of the election:

  • The hard-core elements of the communist party still exist and are functioning, though very discreetly;

  • Despite the appointment in early 1990 of a non-communist as Minister of the Interior charged with getting control of and dismantling the Czechoslovak secret police, it still exists even though precise judgments about its status and power are difficult to render; and

  • The preponderance of the pre-fall 1989 Soviet military presence and the entire diplomatic and, presumably, KGB representation in Czechoslovakia remain in place.


Hard-line Communist Party Elements

Reportedly, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCS) has lost a third of its members and reformist elements have split off to found two new communist parties (Democratic Forum, and Independent Left). It is noteworthy, however, that a hard-line element remains active not only in contesting the election but, according to some democratic leaders, in infiltrating democratic parties (such as the Civic Forum) and in trying to stir up Slovak separatism and popular fears about the consequences of economic transition to a more market-oriented economy.

What is more, four non-communist parties were for forty-years coerced into affiliation in a deceptive "coalition" regime dominated by the communists. Although each of these parties has now changed its leadership, it must be assumed that at least some elements of those parties remain susceptible to communist influence, if not outright control.

Consequently, the fact that the two main currents of the democratic movement are in coalition with one or more of these former communist-coalition partners(3) gives rise to the real possibility of behind-the-scenes manipulation and penetration of the non-communist forces by their ideological nemeses.

The Secret Police

Five months after Richard Sacher, the non-communist Minister of the Interior, was assigned the task of bringing the Czechoslovak secret police under democratic control, some progress had been made — but much is left to be done. In fact, there continues to be a number of reasons to believe that the secret police have maintained significant independence of the Havel government and close ties with the communist party and the Soviet KGB:

  • In March 1990, a senior Czechoslovak official said that "the KGB has special sources" for financing the operations of the Czechoslovakian secret police and therefore, "By utilizing these resources the foreign branch could continue to function for five to 10 more years…."(4)

  • When two Civic Forum leaders criticized the slow pace of dismantling the secret police in April 1990, they were quickly attacked in the form of embarrassing leaks from their secret police files. Interestingly, one of these persons had the same charges made against him that the pro-Soviet faction in the communist party had used in the post-Dubcek crackdown, suggesting that close coordination between the communists and the secret police continues in the present much as it did in the past.

  • After Havel had appointed a Civic Forum leader as Deputy Minister of Interior to help speed up the dismantling of the secret police, a senior Czechoslovak official admitted much less progress than expected had been made toward this end and that "Resolving this is much more tricky than we can reveal….There is an obvious situation, and then there are the wheels within wheels."(5)


The Soviet Presence

Although some 30,000 of the 74,000 Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia are reported to have left by June 1990 and the remainder are scheduled to be removed from Czechoslovakian soil by June 1991 pursuant to a bilateral agreement between Moscow and Prague signed earlier this year, key headquarters and logistical elements remain in place and available to support a much larger military force in the future. Moreover, the willingness of the Soviets to fulfill their obligations to withdraw their military personnel entirely from Czechoslovakia may diminish in the course of Moscow’s present campaign against a reunified Germany being aligned with the West.

Moreover, the Soviet KGB and embassy presence reportedly continues as before in Czechoslovakia. This provides a crucial infrastructure with which the Kremlin can monitor and probably influence Czechoslovak affairs. When combined with the Soviets’ considerable economic leverage (especially in the area of energy supplies), the USSR’s continuing role on the ground in Czechoslovakia may permit opportunities for functional control in certain areas that are not evident at first sight.

Implications for U.S. Policy

While the Center welcomes the apparently fair and free Czechoslovak elections of 8-9 June 1990, it believes that the United States and other democracies must remember that Czechoslovakia is still in a fragile — and perhaps perilous — process of institutionalizing democracy.

In order to support the Czechoslovakian people’s clear and long-deferred aspiration for democratic self-rule and free-market economic opportunity, there are a number of actions which the United States and its allies should take:

  • Encourage an immediate and sizable effort to provide both the elected government and all the democratic political parties practical assistance in building and strengthening their institutions and to make them more resilient against communist manipulation and penetration;

  • Promote links between the Czechoslovakian democratic parties and their corresponding Free World international associations and political parties;

  • Provide immediate –and meaningful — diplomatic support for the likely request of the new government to accelerate the June 1991 date for completing Soviet troop withdrawals;

  • Produce regular and public reports of continuing Soviet efforts to coerce or control any Czechoslovakian institutions;

  • Report publicly at least every three months on progress being made in the dismantling of the Soviet and indigenous coercive apparatus (including all elements of the secret police) within Czechoslovakia, and on the actual withdrawal of Soviet troops and the reduction and/or restructuring of the Czechoslovakian military;

  • Disseminate publicly regular reports of any continuing hostile international actions by Czechoslovakian entities to include espionage, support for aggressive foreign regimes and technology theft and/or illegal transfers (an effort the Center believes can be mounted without compromising sensitive intelligence sources and methods); and

  • During the vulnerable period of Czechoslovak energy supply diversification, hedge against the Soviets’ use of economic leverage — i.e., politically or economically inspired shortfalls in energy supplies a la the Lithuanian embargo — through the creation of an alliance-wide Contingency Energy Fund designed to benefit all the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

1. Havel revealed on 22 March 1990 that "The past regime exported 1,000 tons [of Semtex] to Libya on political orders which came from above." Several ounces of this deadly plastique were judged responsible for the explosion that destroyed Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland.

2. New York Times, 31 May 1990.

3. Civic Forum has the Czechoslovakian Socialist Party in its coalition. And the Christian Democratic coalition includes three former communist satellite parties: the Slovak Party of Freedom; the Democratic Party (formerly the Party of Renewal) — both Slovak-based; and, the People’s Party — which provided the non-communist Interior Minister charged with dismantling the secret police.

4. Lally Weymouth, "Reds Beneath the Velvet," Washington Post, 18 March 1990

5. New York Times, 31 May 1990.

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