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Demonstrators in Prague, 11/17/89

Marta Kubisova sings "Prayer for Marta," 11/25/89

Dubcek announces Havel as next president of Czechoslovakia, 11/29/89

Havel accepts the presidency, 11/29/89

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by Jolyon Naegele

Eight months after Alexander Dubcek took office as Communist Party first secretary and launched the "Prague Spring" reforms, the five armies of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact occupied Czechoslovakia. That move strangled reform not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout the Soviet bloc for years to come.

The post-1968 ferment in Czechoslovakia's socialist neighbors started with the brutally suppressed Gdansk riots in Poland in 1970 that toppled communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. Unrest resumed in Poland in summer 1976 with worker's protests in Radom against price rises. The Communists once again responded with force.

The Vatican's election of a Pole, Karol Wojtyla, as pope in 1978 did much to encourage Poles as well as devout members of neighboring nations, including the Slovaks. The papal visit to Poland the following year inspired the birth of the Solidarity free trade union movement in summer 1980. All these events also encouraged Czechoslovakia's modest, largely intellectual opposition.

But while Poles rarely took the communist system in which they lived completely seriously, Czechs and Slovaks did. The legacy of 1968 and the Munich pact of 1939 as well as the awareness that they were a small country hardly gave them cause for self-confidence.

On 13 December 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland rather than risk a Soviet invasion. That came as a relief to Czechoslovakia's communist rulers and a disappointment to those who hoped that the flames of Solidarity would spread south..

The Radio Moscow announcement of the death of Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev came amid economic, political, and social stagnation throughout the Soviet bloc. The brief rule of Brezhnev's two ailing successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, ensured that even the word "reform" continued to be defined by the Czechoslovak communist party as a "temporary, tactical step backward-- favored by right-wing revisionists."

The 1985 election of the dynamic Mikhail Gorbachev and the gradual introduction of his policies of perestroika and glasnost yet again raised hopes across Czechoslovakia that change might finally be on the horizon.

At least as important for the Soviet satellites was Gorbachev's oft-repeated warning to his fellow Communist party chiefs at closed door Warsaw Pact summits that the Soviet Union would no longer run their affairs. Few of the aging leaders took Gorbachev's words seriously. And some, particularly Czechoslovakia's leadership, assumed Gorbachev and his policies were a temporary deviation from the true Marxist-Leninist line.

Gorbachev's visit to Czechoslovakia in April 1987 only reinforced this view as he failed to urge reform or a re- evaluation of 1968. Perestroika and glasnost remained merely empty phrases in Czechoslovakia. Prague authorities began curtailing the distribution of the Soviet press in a bid to prevent the dissemination of openly critical articles. Gorbachev's speeches were censored in the Czechoslovak Communist Party daily "Rude pravo."

The round-table talks in Poland in early 1989 between Solidarity and the communist authorities and the Hungarian parliament's move to re-evaluate its 1956 revolution and transform itself into a parliamentary democracy contributed to a sense of change in Czechoslovakia. Elements of a civil society began to develop in response to the jailing of dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and others.

The mass demonstrations in East Germany and the exodus of East Germans through Czechoslovakia to the West in September and October 1989 served as an example for Czechoslovaks. They saw how massive, peaceful civil disobedience could force a Soviet bloc satellite to rein in its forces.

But Czechs were also witness to clashes between their own police and East German asylum seekers trying to reach the West German Embassy in Prague. East German police had ceased beating demonstrators by mid October.

On 28 October, the 71st anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, the streets of central Prague once again echoed with chanting and whistling as police battled peaceful protesters.

The crowd numbered some 20,000--hardly enough to persuade a government to resign. In marked contrast to neighboring East Germany, the Prague police resorted to clubs, water cannon and armored personnel carriers to disperse the gathering.

On 9 November, East German authorities opened the Berlin Wall. Eight days later, on 17 November, a record 50,000 Czechoslovaks turned out for a student demonstration in Prague which, though officially sanctioned, turned violent as police surrounded and beat demonstrators. Secret police disinformation that a student had been killed backfired: in the following days, the number of protesters soared into the hundreds of thousands. Opposition activists and intellectuals founded the Civic Forum two days after what came to be known as the "massacre."

The secret police, riot police, Interior Ministry troops and the army all waited in vain for orders to act. But the orders never came. As with the Berlin Wall, Moscow monitored the situation in Prague closely but refrained from any interference. Within a week, Jakes and the rest of Czechoslovak Politburo resigned. But equally incompetent bureaucrats were appointed as replacements.

Some 700,000 people demonstrated on 25-26 November to express their outrage and demand an end to communist rule. The crowd whistled and booed Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who soon resigned.

On 3 December, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact issued separate statements condemning their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. And on 10 December, after he swore in a new government of opposition activists and moderate Communists under Communist Prime Minister Marian Calfa, Husak finally stepped down as president.

By the end of the month, Dubcek was speaker of the federal parliament, and the most articulate and outspoken critic of the communist regime, Vaclav Havel, was president of Czechoslovakia.

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