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The trauma of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia is echoed in the Ukraine war

Published 08.08.2023

On August 20, 1968, citizens of former Czechoslovakia went to sleep expecting to wake up to nothing less than an ordinary day. Unbeknownst to them, Warsaw Pact troops were gathering at their borders and about to invade. After the overnight operation was over, peoples of Czechoslovakia awoke to see tanks and foreign soldiers in the streets of their cities.

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The infamous invasion was a response to a series of political and economic reforms that were happening in late 1960s Czechoslovakia. Slovak politician Alexander Dubček, a reform-minded leader, spearheaded a process of liberalisation; the idea was to create "socialism with a human face".

The reforms became known as the Prague Spring and sought greater political openness by increasing personal freedoms, the decentralisation of power, and the introduction of elements of political pluralism.

While these actions were met with widespread support among Slovaks and Czechs, they raised serious concerns in Moscow, as they challenged the Soviet bloc's unity and could set a precedent for other satellite states.

The invasion left a deep scar on society. Many felt betrayed by the communist bloc nations and lost their faith in the possibility of peaceful reform within the system. There was a sense of disillusionment and a growing resentment towards the Soviet Union.

The subsequent two-decade long occupation marked a significant setback for Dubček and the reformist movement. They were stripped of power and replaced by hardline leaders loyal to Moscow. What followed was a period known as "normalisation"; the new repressive regime quickly moved in to consolidate power, curtail political freedoms, suppress dissent, enact even stricter censorship, revoke reforms and laws stemming from them, and expand the country's ties with other like-minded nations.

All the while officials portrayed the invasion as "friendly help" to restore order.

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Although 55 years apart, the event mirrors current events in Ukraine, facing an unprovoked and illegal invasion by Russia.

In both cases, the powers that be seek to protect its interests and maintain its influence over what they deem belonged to them. Just like Czechoslovakia in the past, Ukraine recently experienced reforms and political transitions, as well as underwent a pro-European shift supported by many, and sought closer ties with Western institutions.

However, Russia saw this development as threatening, and justified its current actions as protecting the Russian-speaking population and its national interests. In the case of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union claimed that it was protecting socialism.

There is one stark difference. The 1968 invasion was a swift one. Without the open support of the democratic West, Czechoslovakia had no chance of countering the dominance of the Warsaw pact tanks. With this in mind, Russia thought history would repeat itself in its favour. But the regime miscalculated; the West, including Slovakia, stood behind Ukraine and provided vast support. Still, Russia’s actions have led to a terrible and unnecessary war that is causing unimaginable suffering.
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Photos: TASR, Ventura/Shutterstock.com