The Politics of Eastern Europe




Jonas Daniliauskas


T.P. McNeill

March 17, 1995

The Introduction.

The aim of this essay is to answer the question: How significant was

Alexander Dubcek in the development of reformist communism? This question

raises the other questions. Was Dubcek the inspirer of all the reforms which

took place in Czechoslovakia in 1967-1969? How much did he himself influence

all the reformist processes? How much he had achieved in implementing his


Dubcek became famous only in 1967. Before that he was almost unknown in the

international politics. He was known only in the Czechoslovak Communist Party

(CPCS), where he had almost no influence on the major decisions (until 1967,

of course). His promotion after the returning from the Moscow where he was

studying for three years in the advanced Party school attached to the Central

Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), was quite rapid.

In 1960 he was elected to the Secretariat of the CPCS; in 1962 to the

Presidium of the CPCS; in 1963 he became the First Secretary of the Slovak

Communist Party; finally, on January 5, 1968 he replaced Antonin Novotny as

the First Secretary of the CPCS. He was the youngest leader of ruling

Communist Party (after Fidel Castro), and the first Slovak in such a high

position. Though he stayed in this post relatively short - until April 17,

1969, when he was replaced by Gustav Husak, his name became known world-wide.

Why did the reforms begin?

The Czechoslovak crisis deepened in 1967, and showed itself in four spheres:[1]

1. Slovakia;

2. The economy;

3. The legal system;

4. Party and ideology.

Since the 1962 the Czechoslovak economy suddenly began to show signs of a

critical decline. That happened inevitably, because in the Stalin years the

expansion of heavy industry was pushed at the expense of development of all

other productive sectors of the economy. The result of this was growing

inefficiency of production, failure to modernise production technology, a

decline in the quality of exports, a loss of markets, and a drop in the

effectiveness of foreign trade.[2] In

August 1962 the Third-Five-Year Plan had to be abandoned before completion.

[3] In this situation the Slovaks began to act. Many of them realised that

specific Slovak interests might best be served by destalinization and even

liberalisation.[4] The problem also was

the rehabilitation of the victims of the purge trials of 1949-1954. Novotny

himself and other leading members of his regime had personally participated in

the preparation and conduct of the purge trials. So, the rehabilitation was

perceived as the direct threat to the security and the survival of the regime.

[5] All these factors only decreased the level of CPCSs legitimacy.

The Development of Reforms.

The startpoint of the reforms was the session of the Central Committee of the

CPCS on October 30-31, 1967. Dubcek raised an objection against Novotny and

produced statistics suggesting that Slovakia was being continuously cheated in

economic matters.[6] This speech inspired

discussion what was the unprecedented thing in the Central Committee.

The next session of the Central Committee started on December 19. Josef

Smrkovsky proposed the separation of the posts of President and First

Secretary: It is unsatisfactory that an excessive number of duties should be

piled upon one pair of shoulders.[7]

In both sessions the three issues were at stake. First, the implementation of

the economic reforms, secondly, freedom of expression and, finally, effective

autonomy for Slovakia.

Finally, at the Central Committee Plenum on January 5, 1968, Novotny was

replaced at the post of the First Secretary by Dubcek. Also four new

Presidium members were elected to strengthen Dubceks position - J.Spacek,

J.Boruvka, E.Rigo, and J.Piller.

So, the Prague Spring started at the top levels of the CPCS. But soon, as we

would see, the Party will loose its ability to control the developments. At the

same time, the hot political debate started in the press, on radio and

television. The main issues were the Communist Party, democracy, the autonomy

of Slovakia, the collapsing economy, and the problem of justice and legality.

[8] On February 14, the first public political discussion took place in


The next changes in the leadership were Novotnys resignation from the

Presidency on March 22 and General Ludvik Svobodas election on this post on

March 30, Oldrich Cierniks appointment on the post of Prime Minister and the

formation of the new cabinet on April 8, the election of the new Presidium of

the CPCS, and the election of Josef Smrkovsky on the post of the Chairman of

the National Assembly.

On April 9, the CPCS announced its Action Programme, officially known as

Czechoslovakias Road to Socialism, as a basis for reforming communism in the

country. In this document the CPCS promised: (1) new guarantees of freedom of

speech, press, assembly and religious observance; (2) electoral laws to provide

a broader choice of candidates, greater freedom for the four non-communist

parties within the National Front; (3) upgrading of the parliament and the

government with regard to the power of the CPCS apparatus; (4) broad economic

reforms to give enterprises greater independence, to achieve a convertible

currency, to revive a limited amount of private enterprise and to increase

trade with Western countries; (5) an independent judiciary; (6) federal status

for Slovakia on an independent basis and a new constitution to be drafted by

the end of 1969.[9] The Central Committee

also pledged a full and just rehabilitation of all persons who had been

unjustly persecuted during 1949 -1954.

But this programme promised less than the people actually wanted. The Action

Programme remained outside the mainstream of the powerful social process which

had been set in motion in January.[10]

The people expected more reforms, more freedom. But Dubcek and other reformats

tried to be more moderate, to find the way for the gradual reforms. The

Presidium of the CPCS prohibited the renovation of the Social Democratic Party

and the Ministry of Interior announced that the formation of political parties

would be considered illegal. But at the same time this Ministry sanctioned the

activity of the Club of Engaged Non-Party Members (KAN), and recognised the

legal statute of another big club - K-231.

Gradually the reformats found themselves in the position which will become

vital for them all. They found themselves between two different forces. One

force was the majority of the Czech and the Slovak nations who wanted more

radical changes. The other force was represented by the Stalinists, by

Moscow, and by the leadership of the other countries of the Warsaw Treaty

Organisation (WTO).

One of the major reforms was the law of June 26, which abolished prepublication

censorship. On the next day the famous manifesto, entitled 2,000 Words to

Workers, Farmers, Scientists, Artists and Everyone appeared in Literarni

listy. The manifesto gave assurances of complete support of Dubceks

regime, if necessary, even with arms.[11]

The leaders of the SU, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany viewed the

reforms taking place in Czechoslovakia as the threat for all the Communist

Bloc. The first clearly expressed concern was so-called Warsaw Letter. It was

sent on July 15, 1968, and addressed to the Central Committee of the CPCS. It

proved the clear evidence of the WTO leaders lack of confidence in the

leadership of the CPCS, and contained critical references to Czechoslovakias

foreign policy.[12]There was expressed

warning that the Czechoslovak reform policy was completely unacceptable.

[13]The Presidium of the CPCS Central Committee on July 18 rejected as

unfounded the accusations made in the Warsaw Letter and affirmed that the

countrys new policies were aimed at strengthening socialism.


The clear signs of crisis in relations between Prague and Moscow appeared. On

July 19 Moscow issued a summons to the CPCS Presidium, demanding that it meet

July 22 or 23 with the Soviet Politburo in Moscow, Kiev or Lvov to discuss

internal Czechoslovak developments. 9 full members of the CPSU Politburo and

the entire CPCS Presidium met on July 29 in the Slovak village

Cierna-nad-Tisou. Dubcek and the other reformats regarded the outcome of the

Cierna talks as a Czechoslovak victory. It had brought the annulment of the

Warsaw Letter; the departure of Soviet troops was guaranteed, and the countrys

sovereignty had been defended.[15]

The fact that the agreement was regarded as the victory shows that Dubcek and

the other reformers were really driven by naïveté and idealism and

hoped that they could create the socialism with the human face without the

interference from the Moscow side. They really underestimated their own

significance to the Soviets. Moscow regarded the reformats developments in the

Czechoslovakia as the real threat for the future of the all Communist Bloc. A

common view that the danger of a Czechoslovak desertion from the socialist camp

and a revision of foreign policy by the Dubcek leadership hastened the Soviet

decision to occupy the country militarily.


The Invasion.

On August 16 the CPSU Politburo stated that the CPCS was loosing its leading

role in the country.[17] This showed

that the Soviets patience reached the end.

When Moscows nerve breaks, Soviet tanks usually start rolling.

[18] Armed forces of the SU, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria

invaded Czechoslovakia in a swift military action during the night of August

20-21. Dubcek and other Czech and Slovak leaders were arrested in the name of

the revolutionary government of the workers and peasants.

[19] The main force of the initial invading units consisted of an estimated

200,000 troops. The number of invaders continued to increase during the

following week and ultimately reached an estimated 650,000.

[20]Most of the members of the CPCS Presidium were shocked by the invasion.

This proves again that they did not understand how serious the situation was

before the invasion. From the Moscows point of view the invasion was

inevitable, because the further development of the socialism with the human

face would lead only to deeper escalation of tensions between the

Czechoslovakia and the other WTO countries, and probably, to an escape of the

country from the Communist Bloc.

But the reformats did not give up. On August 21, the CPCS Central Committee

declared the statement that the invasion was taking place without the

knowledge of the Czechoslovak leaders, and that they regarded this act as

contrary not only to the fundamental principles of relations between Socialist

states but also as contrary to the principles of international law.

[21]Although there was no organised resistance to the overwhelming

occupation forces, Czechoslovak citizens, spearheaded by students, resorted to

a wide variety of means to hamper the invaders, and several general strikes

took place.[22]

On August 23, President Svoboda flew to Moscow. His journey represented an

effort to find a way out of a situation: he was, in effect, trying to help the

Soviets find a solution for the Czechoslovak crisis based on mutual political

compromise.[23]On August 26 the Moscow

agreement was concluded. The major outcomes were: (1) Dubcek was to carry on as

the First Secretary; (2) the invasion forces were to be gradually withdrawn;

(3) censorship was to be reintroduced; (4) the CPCS was to strengthen its

leading position in the state.[24]One

may assume that certain personnel changes were also assumed in Moscow, since

resignations followed in due course. These changes included the removal of Dr.

Kriegel from the CPCS Presidium and the chairmanship of the National Front; of

Ota Sik as Deputy Premier; Josef Pavel as Minister of Interior; Jiri Hajek as

Foreign Minister; Zdenek Heizar as Director of Czechoslovak Radio; Jiri Pelikan

as Director of Czehoslovak Television.[25]

The invasion led to the formulation of so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, first

formulated in a Pravda commentary on September 26, which amounts to

denying in principle the sovereignty of any socialist country accessible to

the SU. It asserts the region-wide right to intervention.


For both rulers and ruled, the invasion of Czechoslovakia proved once again that

the Soviets would use force to prevent developments they defined as contrary to

their vital interests. The line they drew in 1968 to define their vital

interests was the Leninist hegemony of the local Communist Party.


But the Soviets did not achieved what they wanted at once. What happened was

that the invasion failed to achieve its primary purpose, which clearly was to

produce a counterregime a la Kadar.


The Situation After the Invasion.

The Dubcek leadership made great efforts after the invasion to satisfy the

Soviets while trying not to compromise itself in the eyes of the population.


Probably the major reform after the invasion was the creation of the Slovak

Socialist Republic. On October 28, the National Assembly approved a

constitutional bill transforming the hitherto unitary state into a federation

of two national republics. On January 1, 1969, the Slovak Socialist Republic

came into being.

Another crisis emerged in January 1969. On January 7, the new measures were

taken designed to keep the press and the other media more strictly under

control. In some cases, pre-publication censorship was reintroduced.


The event which finally decided the fate of Dubcek is known as the ice-hockey

game affair. On March 28, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team won over the SU

team in World Ice Hockey Championship Competition. The same evening anti-Soviet

demonstrations occurred throughout Czechoslovakia. Aeroflot office was

destroyed in Prague. On April 11 Gustav Husak declared that it was high time

to take radical steps to introduce order.


Finally, on April 17 at the plenary session of the Central Committee Dubcek

was replaced by Gustav Husak (before that - the First Secretary of the Slovak

Communist Party).

At the same session the CPCS Presidium with its twenty-one members and the

Executive Committee with its eight members were replaced by an eleven members

Presidium of which Dubcek (but no longer Smrkovsky) was still member. A few

days later he was elected Chairman of the Federal Assembly with Smrkovsky

as his deputy.

On January 28, 1970, the Central Committee plenum accepted the resignation

of Dubcek from the Central Committee. And finally, on June 25, 1970 at the

session of the Central Committee he was expelled from the CPCS. This was the

end of his political career. But only until the end of the Communism regime

in 1989. At the end of December 1989 he was elected Chairman of the Czech


Conclusion: Was the Reformist Communism Ever Possible?

The primary goal of Dubceks reforms was the creation of the socialism with a

human face. Broadly speaking, the Czechoslovak reformers sought an adjustment

of the standard Soviet model of socialism to the realities of what they

considered an advanced industrialised socialist country enjoying a tradition of

democracy and humanitarianism.[32]The

stated opinions of the reformers could be summed as follows: (1) the CPCS

should no longer maintain a monopoly of power and decision making; (2) it

should rather prove its goals through equal competition by permitting a clash

of ideas and interests; (3) the abandonment of this monopoly would in effect

mean a sharing of power and permit criticism, opposition, and even control on

the CPCSs own exercise of power.[33]Of

course, Dubcek was against the creation of the opposition parties, but he was

for the pluralism inside the National Front. The essence of his reform

conception was not the possibility of pluralism in the accepted sense but,

rather, the obligation upon the CPCS to prove that its program was the only

valid one for socialism.[34]

It was very naive to consider that Moscow will remain indifferent to such

developments. Gradually the Soviets understood that the reformers are not

controlling the reforms, and this led to the invasion. The Soviet interests

were threatened almost exclusively by developments inside the

Czechoslovakia. In other words, precisely by that human face which Dubcek

wanted to give Czechoslovak socialism.[35]

There was one thing which Dubcek considered to be not important, but in fact,

this led to the end of the reforms. He underestimated the impact of his own

reforms upon Moscow. The Soviet reaction to the reforms was quite logical and

inevitable. The Communist power elite would never have accepted conditions

which would make the free play of political forces possible. It would never

given up the power.[36]

So, was Dubcek significant in developing the reformist communism? In the

short term - yes, but in the long term the practical meaning of his reforms

was nil. All the things he reformed were returned back. The only positive

impact (in the long term) of the reforms was the psychological impact of the

attempt to improve the improvable thing. Communism can not be reformed. The

only way to change it is to overthrow it completely. There is no way in the

middle. The reformist communism is simply an utopia.


1. Ames, K., Reform and Reaction, in Problems of Communism, 1968, Vol.

17, No. 6, pp.38-49

2. Devlin, K., The New Crisis in European Communism, in Problems of

Communism, 1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp.57-68

3. Golan, G., The Road to Reform, in Problems of Communism, 1971, Vol.

20, No. 3, pp.11-21

4. Golan, G., Innovations in the Model of the Socialism: Political Reforms in

Czechoslovakia, 1968, in Shapiro, J.P. and Potichnyj, P.J. (eds.), Change

and Adaptation in Soviet and East European Politics (New York, Washington,

London: Praeger Publishers, 1976), pp.77-94

5. Lowenthal, R., The Sparrow in the Cage, in Problems of Communism,

1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp.2-28

6. Mastny, V., (ed.), Czechoslovakia: Crisis in World Communism (New

York: Facts on File, Inc., 1972)

7. Provaznik, J., The Politics of Retrenchment, in Problems of Communism,

1969, Vol. 18, No. 4-5, pp.2-16

8. Sik, O., The Economic Impact of Stalinism, in Problems of Communism,

1971, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp.1-10

9. Simons, Th.W., Eastern Europe in the Postwar World, (2nd. ed.,

London: Macmillan, 1993)

10. Svitak, I., The Czechoslovak Experiment: 1968-1969 (New York and

London: Columbia University Press, 1971)

11. Tigrid, P., Why Dubcek Fell (London: Macdonald, 1971)

12. White, St., Batt, J. and Lewis, P.J. (eds.), Developments in East

European Politics (London: Macmillan, 1993)

[1]Tigrid, P., Why Dubcek Fell (London: Macdonald, 1971), p.17

[2]Sik, O., The Economic Impact of

Stalinism, in Problems of Communism, 1971, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.5

[3]Golan, G., The Road to Reform, in

Problems of Communism, 1971, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.12

[4]Ibid., p.13

[5]Ibid., p.11

[6]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.19

[7]Ibid., p.30

[8]Ibid., p.43

[9]Mastny, V., (ed.), Czechoslovakia:

Crisis in World Communism (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1972), p.21

[10]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.48

[11]Ames, K., Reform and Reaction, in

Problems of Communism, 1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, p.48

[12]Tigrid, P. op.cit., p.57

[13]Mastny, V., op.cit., p.37

[14]Ibid., p.40

[15]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.89

[16]Ibid., p.53

[17]Ibid., p.69

[18]Ibid., p.53

[19]Svitak, I., The Czechoslovak

Experiment 1968-1969 (New York and London: Columbia University Press,

1971), p.109

[20]Mastny, V., op.cit., p.69

[21]Ibid., p.71

[22]Ibid., p.76

[23]Provaznik, J., The Politics of

Retrenchment, in Problems of Communism, 1969, Vol. 18, No. 4-5, p.3

[24]Svitak, I., op.cit., p.109

[25]Provaznik, J., op.cit., p.4

[26]Lowenthal, R., The Sparrow in the

Cage, in Problems of Communism, 1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, p.24

[27]Simons, Th.W., Eastern Europe in

the Postwar World (2nd. ed., London: Macmillan, 1993), p.124

[28]Devlin, K., The New Crisis in

European Communism, in Problems of Communism, 1968, Vol.17, No. 6,


[29]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.138

[30]Ibid., p.153

[31]Ibid., p.164

[32]Golan, G., Inovations in the Model

of Socialism: Political Reforms in Czechoslovakia, 1968, in Shapiro, J.P. and

Potichnyj, P.J. (eds.), Change and Adaptation in Soviet and East European

Politics (New York, Washington, London: Praeger Publishers, 1976), p.78

[33]Ibid., p.81

[34]Ibid., p.87

[35]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.66

[36]Ibid., p.98