JOHN BIERMAN December 4 1989



JOHN BIERMAN December 4 1989



It happened in a split second of history. Only one week before, riot police had battered demonstrating students to show the force with which Czechoslovakian Communist party chief Milos Jakes intended to resist demands for political change. Then, on Friday night, the Jakes government collapsed, and Czechoslovakia was submerged by the vast revolutionary wave of reform sweeping across what was once Stalinist Eastern Europe. Jakes and the entire 11man presidium of the Czechoslovakian Communist party stepped down. In Prague’s Wenceslas Square, focus of the nationwide protest movement, the crowds went wild with joy, drenching the ancient cobbles in champagne as they celebrated the victory of people power. And just off the square, in a basement theatre where they were holding a news conference, the two most prominent figures of the bloodless revolution—dissident playwright Vaclev Havel and veteran reformer Alexan-

der Dubcek—embraced and drank a toast to a “free Czechoslovakia.” Meanwhile, a relatively unknown political figure, Karel Urbánek, 48, replaced Jakes.

Democracy had not yet arrived, but the spell of darkness that had hung over Czechoslovakia since a Soviet-led invasion in 1968 imposed a hard-line neo-Stalinist regime was broken. The resignation of 67-year-old Jakes and his colleagues, following the overthrow of the leadership in East Germany and Bulgaria, represented the collapse of the third hardline Communist regime in just over two weeks. It also enhanced the prospects for constructive agreement at a weekend summit conference between U.S. President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And it left Eastern Europe’s remaining old-style Communist regime—that of Romania’s Nicolae Ceau§escu—more isolated and anachronistic than ever before.

Renewal: For former Czechoslovakian party secretary Dubcek, 68, the events of last Friday were a stunning vindication. Officials had treated him as a nonperson since the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops crushed his reformist government, and had banished him to obscurity as a minor forestry official in Bratislava, his home city. Dub-

cek’s short-lived attempts to create what he called “socialism with a human face” had been known as the Prague Spring. Now, he is again a leading figure in what seems certain to be a renewal of that era’s reforms.

In his first public appearance in Prague since 1968, Dubcek addressed an appreciative crowd of 300,000 people from a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square, as the Communist leaders who had overthrown him with Soviet help were still meeting just three kilometres away to debate their own future. Said Dubcek, a pale, white-haired figure showing signs of frailty: “An old wise man said, ‘If there once was light, why should there be darkness again?’ Let us act in such a way as to bring the light back again.” The crowd responded with waves of chants of “Dubcek, Dubcek.” The former leader called on the police, the militia and the army not to suppress the democracy movement. “Do not act against the people,” he appealed. “Remember, you are from the people.” For his part, Havel, leader of the fledgling democracy movement Civic Forum, which was formed just five days earlier, said that his group

was ready to negotiate with the party leadership.

Four hours later, after the crowds in the square had largely dispersed and Dubcek and Havel, 53, were holding a news conference in the Magic Lantern theatre, a Civic Forum volunteer dashed in with the message that the entire Presidium, as well as the party secretariat, had resigned. After the initial euphoria, Havel expressed caution. He added, “I have no special illusions about the gentlemen who will replace those who resigned.” But he said that a door had been opened, and, if it does not close, “all of society will rush through. That means a democratic Czechoslovakia.” Said Dubcek, who appeared almost bewildered by the pace of events: “I really don’t know. Let’s allow developments to take their course. Maybe tomorrow we will be wiser.”

‘It’s over’: By Saturday, Dubcek appeared to have reached a conclusion. Joining Havel and other Civic Forum leaders in condemning the new leadership, Dubcek told a rally that attracted almost half a million Czechoslovaks to a Prague sports field that it was a “cosmetic change.” But on Friday evening, as reports of the resignations spread through the streets of the capital, the crowds flocked back to Wences-

las Square and the sparkling wine—a pink variety, known as Bohemian rosé—flowed. Cars careered through the area, horns blowing, while about 20,000 people hugged each other, waved flags, cheered and shouted “It’s over” and “We’ve done it!” Others lit candles at the base of the statue of St. Wenceslas, the Czechs’ patron saint, at the head of the square.

Abrupt: The 150-member Communist party Central Committee went into emergency session on Friday morning—apparently divided between diehards and those who favored concessions. At the same time, a warning issued

the night before by the military cast a chill of apprehension over the prodemocracy movement. State-run television had interrupted normal service to allow a heavily bemedalled general to deliver a statement drawn up by the country’s most senior officers. “We reject anarchy,” he read from the statement. “We are ready to defend the achievements of socialism.”

There were other indications that at least some members of the hierarchy were contemplating a crackdown as well. They included a statement on Thursday in the official party newspaper, Rudé právo, that the Communists would “rigorously enforce” the constitution, which guarantees its monopoly of power. Rude prävo also reported on Thursday that units of the blue-uniformed, paramilitary People’s Militia had been summoned from around the country to the capital to “restore public peace.” But, after arriving, officers hurriedly sent them back to their regional posts.

Meanwhile, militia and police forces occupied key installations at the state-run television studios in Prague to ensure that coverage of the demonstrations did not exceed the limits set by the government. Exactly where those limits lay was not clear, but it was obvious that

was not clear, was coverage was being altered. In one sequence, shown on Thursday night, demonstrators in Prague appeared to be cheering a progovernment speaker, but an abrupt change in the sound quality indicated that someone else’s words had been dubbed into the picture. Also on Thursday, when Dubcek addressed a rally in Bratislava, he appeared on television for only three seconds and was not identified.

Turmoil: Friday evening’s rally in Wenceslas Square, along with similar rallies in towns and cities across the country, was the eighth in an unbroken sequence of daily demonstrations that finally led to the Central Committee meeting. As on previous evenings, the vast crowd displayed the characteristic dignity and discipline of the Czechoslovak people, revealing a determination to prevent the kind of turmoil that could provide an excuse for police intervention. Still, until reports spread of the Presidium’s resignation, there was an unmistakable undercurrent of anger. That was evident from slogans like “Death to the par-

ty,” “Jakes in the garbage” and

“We’ve had enough.”

Jakes is widely reviled as the man who, as head of the Communist party’s watchdog Control and Auditing Committee, purged several hundred thousand alleged “counterrevolutionaries” from the party after the Soviets crushed Dubcek’s reform regime in 1968. And the Czechoslovaks’ long-repressed anger against him and his allies seemed in some cases dangerously close to the flash point. “I’d like to see Jakes hanging from a lamppost,” growled a carpenter from Pilsen who gave his name as Petr L. He said he had spent two years in jail for

publicly supporting the human rights group Charter 77. “Democracy and fair play and things like that can wait a little longer,” he said. “We want to pay back the Communists for ravaging our society.”

Brutality: Much of the anger resulted from an incident in which the police allegedly beat a student named Martin Smid to death during the first of the mass demonstrations on Nov. 17. Although scores of people were struck by police batons that evening, the authorities denied that anyone was killed and they presented a young man of the same name, alive and well, on television. A prominent dissident, Petr Uhl, was later detained for allegedly spreading false reports of Smid’s death. And at a meeting with leaders of Civic Forum on Wednesday,

Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec promised an investigation into police behavior.

But whatever Smid’s true fate was, the undoubted brutality of the police was the catalyst that seemed to change public demands for reform into something more fundamental: the dismissal of Jakes and the rest of the old guard, followed by free elections to bring about an end to Communist rule altogether.

After Nov. 17, the police kept a low profile. And, with increasing boldness, speaker after speaker at mammoth rallies in Prague, Bratislava, Brno and other Czechoslovakian cities accused Jakes of responsibility for the faltering economy, widespread environmental pollution, corruption, favoritism, and—of course—repression. Said Prague demonstrator Eva Ste-

phanova: “The Communists are a mafia. You must have Communist friends in high places and lots of money to get a good job.”

By midweek, hundreds of university theatres and lecture halls were closed by students’ sit-in strikes, at which fast-unfolding events were eagerly and heatedly discussed. Professors who had previously kept silent about key

events in Czechoslovakia’s recent history opened up to students’ questions. They talked about the nation’s 20 years of democracy between the end of the First World War and the Nazi invasion in 1939; about the Communist takeover in 1948, which turned Czechoslovakia into a Soviet satellite; and about the purported suicide that year—which many believe was murder—of the democratic leader, Jan Masaryk. And above all, they talked about Dubcek and the crushing of his Prague Spring.

With students, professionals, artists and intellectuals leading the way, the dissidents cam-

paigned to convince industrial workers to join the mass movement and participate in a nationwide two-hour general strike set for Nov. 27. But many workers seemed reluctant to take part, initially at least. Czechoslovakia is one of Eastern Europe’s most highly industrialized and economically successful nations, and large parts of its comparatively well-paid labor force

may have a greater concern for living standards than democracy. As a 56-year-old worker in Prague, who declined to give his name, said last week, “Our life is not so bad. I’ve travelled to Italy and France. Most people wouldn’t choose another life.” But, he added, “they do want to live more openly.” Havel, who confirmed on Saturday that the strike would go ahead despite the change in government, said that leaders of more than 500 factories had promised to join it.

Truth: Meanwhile, Ur-

bánek offered to talk with the dissidents. The new leader said on television that the party had become “isolated

from the people and the truth.” That echoed a statement that the party Central Committee issued after the old Politburo’s ouster: “We have failed to justly assess the processes taking place in Poland, Hungary and especially in the German Democratic Republic, and their influence on our society.”

But Dubcek’s emergence from the shadows stirred speculation that he might eventually lead the nation again. A snap opinion poll of more than 900 people, conducted by Prague journalism students at midweek, found him to be the favorite choice—among the minority

who voiced a preference—to lead a reform government. He was named by 18 per cent of those polled, while the politically inexperienced Havel was the choice of 10 per cent. Seventy per cent answered “Don’t know.”

Still, some leaders of the stridently anticommunist Civic Forum appeared to have reservations about Dubcek, who has never renounced communism. In contrast, Havel said, “I stopped using the word ‘socialist’ 15 years ago.”

And, certainly, the reforms that Dubcek introduced 21 years ago seem pallid by comparison with current demands. But, on the streets of Prague, there were many who appeared to support Dubcek. “We are going to need him after we throw out the Communists,” said washerwoman Helena Manlikova, 67, as she wiped tears from her eyes.

Patriotic: Meanwhile, in Romania last week, a regimented calm reigned as its Communist leadership held a five-day party congress and unanimously re-elected Nicolae Ceauçescu,

71, to another five-year term as party leader and head of state. In a five-hour speech, the ironfisted Ceau§escu made it clear that the reform movement sweeping the rest of the Communist world would not affect Romania as long as he remained in charge.

Indeed, he said, he was planning more, not less, government and party control of everyday life. “The party cannot give up its revolutionary responsibility,” he told the 3,000 delegates. “The party is the vital centre of our nation, the patriotic revolutionary consciousness of the entire people.” The delegates responded with rhythmic handclapping and chants of “Romania, communism. Ceau§escu, heroism.”

Ceau§escu, who has ruled Romania since 1965, is currently pursuing an industrialization program in which thousands of small villages are being destroyed to make way for factories. The living standards of his 23 million people are among the lowest in what until the recent

turmoil has been called the Soviet Bloc. Still, Ceau§escu, with his wife, Elena, is the centre of a personality cult unequalled, even in the Communist world, since the days of Josef Stalin.

While Romanians cheered their leader and rebellious Czechoslovaks daily enlarged their demands for democracy, Bush and Gorbachev prepared for the weekend’s shipboard meet-

ings in the Mediterranean. Although they have no formal agenda, the dramatic changes in Eastern and Central Europe will clearly be a prime topic. Gorbachev, speaking to reporters at an agreement-signing ceremony with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (page 36), urged even more rapid change. “We have to make up for lost time,” he said. And although he made no specific mention of Czechoslovakia, the remark seemed aimed at the leadership in Prague.

For his part, Bush appealed to Gorbachev in a televised address to “work with me to bring down the last barriers to a new world of freedom.” He called recent events in Eastern Europe “a joyful end to one of history’s saddest chapters,” adding that, when they meet, he will ask for Gorbachev’s assurance that the reforms can continue. In return, he will pledge that the United States would not take advantage of the situation. Bush also told his North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies that there would be “no surprises” in the field of arms control.

Dissidents: As Western analysts focused on such long-range concerns, á the Czechoslovak dissidents, who had 5. brought down one of the Communist I world’s most obdurate regimes in just £ over a week, surveyed their achieve° ment with justifiable pride. Said local journalist Michael Horacek as the impromptu victory celebration in the Magic Lantern theatre subsided: “Nobody gave this to us as a Christmas present. Finally, we can respect ourselves.”