50 Years After Prague Spring, Lessons on Freedom


As his country commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Soviet invasion that crushed an effort to ease the totalitarian grip of Communism known as the Prague Spring, the Czech Republic’s president is staying silent, Bloomberg reports:

Milos Zeman, an ardent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, refused to mark Tuesday’s anniversary of the 1968 invasion of then Czechoslovakia. His absence from the national stage underscores an intensifying struggle between political forces trying to uphold democratic values in the European Union against a group of populist leaders pursuing “illiberal democracy” and challenging a status a quo that was decades in the making.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis spoke at the event, which transformed into a protest against his government with hundreds of people booing the controversial populist billionaire and his power-sharing deal with the Communist Party, RFE/RL adds.

“For the country, it was a defining moment because after a huge rise in the hopes of the people and an outburst of creative energy, the country was crushed,” said Jiri Pehe, a former political adviser to Vaclav Havel, the first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia and now the director of New York University in Prague. “It really broke the backbone of the nation.”

The victory of populist oligarch Babiš in October 2017 general elections and the January 2018 reelection of pro-Russian president Zeman seemed to move the Czech Republic closer to illiberal regimes such as those of Hungary and Poland, notes Pehe (left). For several reasons, however, the Czech Republic may not follow the path of these two countries. Its system of constitutional checks and balance is stronger than those in Poland and Hungary, and Babiš is a pragmatist who does not want to create a deep divide between the Czech Republic and the rest of the European Union, he writes in Czech Democracy Under Pressure, for The Journal of Democracy.

Mr. Pehe was 13 at the time of the Prague Spring. He can still recall the shock of the moment — and not just the violence and chaos, The New York Times adds.

“I still remember people going to the tanks and going to the soldiers, and talking to the soldiers who did not even know where they were, they were saying: ‘This is a terrible mistake. What are you doing here? Why did you come?’ ” recalled Pehe, a member of the Research Council at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

“We were young kids,” he added. “And like all of my other schoolmates, we were raised with this idea that the system might have problems, but that it was a humane system. This was drummed into us. After 1968, this all ended. We realized this was all lies.”

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