Gorbachev’s Prague Spring

April 20 1987

Gorbachev’s Prague Spring

April 20 1987

Gorbachev’s Prague Spring


The visit was heavy with irony and undertones of profound political disagreement. During a 45-minute walkabout, a smiling Mikhail Gorbachev warmly greeted crowds standing 10 deep and waving Soviet flags in Wenceslas Square where, almost 20 years earlier, Soviet tanks had crushed the last vestiges of the Prague Spring. In a sharp reversal of the events of 1968, when Moscow intervened to end Czechoslovakia’s experiment in what its proponents called “socialism with a human face,” the Soviet leader last week sought to impose reform on an aged, conservative Czech leadership. But his talks with 74-year-old Czech President Gustáv Husák—officially categorized as “frank”—indicated that he faceu a daunting task. “Misha is just a kid,” said a student in a Prague bar of the 56-year-old Gorbachev. “These guys have been at it for years. They are not going to turn around tomorrow and say, ‘Okay, we were wrong.’ ” Despite the warmth of his welcome by thousands of Czechs—“Mikhail, Mikhail, stay here in Prague,” the crowd shouted—many onlookers shared that skepticism. Said one woman:

“He will probably have great difficulty achieving what he wants in the Soviet Union, let alone here.” But Gorbachev seemed oblivious to those doubts. In a typically upbeat performance, he brushed aside misgivings about relations with his hosts.

“We are all friends, good friends, and we will consider how to further improve our relations,” he said on his arrival at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport. At an official banquet in the presiden-

tial residence, Hradcany Castle, Husák expressed full support for Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, while pointedly refraining from promising to enact similar measures in Czechoslovakia. But Gorbachev replied: “We are convinced that the positive changes in all spheres of life in the Soviet Union correspond with the interests of other socialist countries.”

Gorbachev also used his visit as a launchpad for still another arms control initiative in advance of this week’s meeting in Moscow between U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. In a televised address to a Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship meeting, he proposed prompt East-West talks on removing short-range nuclear missiles from Europe. In doing so, he made it clear that his aim was to secure an early agreement on reduction of Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF). West European governments have expressed alarm at the possibility that

an accord between the Soviet Union and United States would leave them vulnerable to shorterrange, tactical weapons.

But the response was guarded. The U.S. ambassador to West Germany,

Richard Burt, speculated that “the Soviets might be willing to trade away their shorter-range systems, relying on their conventional superiority to dominate a nucleardisarmed continent.”

That caution mirrored East-Bloc reservations about Gorbachev’s zeal as a domestic reformer, symbolized in the Soviet Union by the buzzwords glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructuring). Indeed, the Soviet leader has set Moscow’s six East European allies rowing in different directions at very different speeds. Only Polish leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski has welcomed unreservedly Gorbachev’s attempt to shake some of the dust out of the Soviet system. In other East-Bloc nations, long-entrenched Communist leaderships have reacted with a mixture of uneasiness, skepticism and fear.

On the street, ordinary citizens express reactions similar to those of Czechs mÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊ interviewed by Western reporters in Prague last week: hope and impatience for change, tinged with caution about what is widely referred to as the “Soviet Spring.” Most recall the 1964 ouster of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, whose attempted reforms called down on his head the bitter, and ultimately victorious, opposition of the Soviet bureaucracy. They also remember that reform movements in the East Bloc, initially tolerated by the Kremlin, led to ferment that brought direct Soviet intervention in Hungary, in 1956, and Czechoslovakia.

Indeed, one of the main factors in East European governments’ resistance to Gorbachev’s reforms is the fear that sudden change could stir up challenges to the Communist party’s paramount role in society, with calls for pluralism and free elections. Norman Davies of London University’s School of Slavonic Studies said last week that Gorbachev’s “idea of openness may break the logjam in East Europe, but it cannot put anything to-

gether.” The result could be a massive crisis.

As well, most East European leaders have strong personal reasons for resisting change. Four of the six— Czechoslovakia’s Husák, Hungary’s János Kádár, Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivgov and East Germany’s Erich Honeker—are over 70. As protégés or supporters of former Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev—the object of recent severe criticism in Moscow—they are prime candidates for replacement on grounds of both age and ideology.

Still, Moscow’s influence remains so strong that most of its allies have publicly rated perestroika a good idea—as long as it stays in the Soviet Union. A typical reaction was that of Matyas Szueroes, a secretary of the Hungarian Communist party’s central committee, who said in February: “Any kind of imitation would be a mistake. Every party is independent and sovereign, and works within the peculiar condi-

tions of its country.” Kurt Hager, a hard-line member of the East German politburo, put it more bluntly. In an interview with the West German magazine Der Stern last week, he commented: “If your neighbor wallpapered his house, would you feel obliged to redo yours as well?”

In Poland, where the authorities see glasnost as legitimizing their own reforms and standing them in good stead with the opposition, officials claim that most of Gorbachev’s ideas are already at work. Indeed, such is Jaruzelski’s current enthusiasm for economic reform that a government prospectus, due shortly, will likely propose changes that would not be out of place in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Among them: mixed enterprises, bankruptcies, banking competition and the sale of stocks and bonds.

Romanian President Nicolae Ceau§escu is the only East-Bloc leader

to have openly opposed the Soviet reforms. But because he is the head of East Europe’s poorest and harshest regime, his prime consideration clearly is to prevent any reforms of the Soviet system from undermining his power. In Bulgaria, long viewed as Moscow’s closest East-Bloc, ally, Todor Zhivkov has launched a series of cautious reforms along the Gorbachev line. But Zhivkov has ruled out any introduction of a more open society. Bulgaria, said politburo member Choudomir Aleksandrov last month, has “enough glasnost as it is.”

Still, probably the bitterest debate over Gorbachev’s reforms is that which currently pits Husák and his hardline ideological guardian, Vasil Bilak, against Czech Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal. After fiercely resisting Soviet pressure, Husák told the Czech Communist party central committee in March that management reforms in industry would provide “the biggest change in the country’s economic system since the war.” He also called for secret ballots for party posts and more freedom of information. But so far there has been little sign of action— and there have been no concessions on human rights. Members of Charter 77, the Czech underground human rights organization, are still

subject to harassment and frequent interrogation. Commenting last week on the possibility that Gorbachev’s visit might lead to a change, a member of the group said only that it would “wait and see.”

Perhaps symbolically, Gorbachev’s itinerary last week took him to the Slovak capital of Bratislava, where former Communist party leader Alexander Dubcek, architect of the Prague Spring, now lives in retirement from his last job, in the forestry service. Still, many Western analysts feel that all Eastern Europe’s cautious converts will obey Moscow’s wishes eventually—if only because the Soviet Union remains the ultimate arbiter of Communist orthodoxy. But they will take their time about doing so, fearful at each step that their domestic reforms may accelerate out of control and, above all, watching to see that Moscow itself is still toeing the Gorbachev line. □