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The Prague Spring: 20 Years Later

Courtesy Reuters

The 20th anniversary of the 1968 Soviet military intervention that cut short the promising reforms of the "Prague Spring" will be commemorated in an environment unforeseen by political observers then or even just a few years ago. Moscow is no longer the most orthodox and belligerent guardian of the hard-line interpretation of communist doctrine. The Kremlin now portrays itself as one of the most daring innovators in the communist world. Instead of behaving as an aggressive power ready to pressure other countries into compliant behavior, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev now advertises its broad flexibility and "new thinking" in foreign policy.

Public opinion in many countries, especially in Western Europe, seems increasingly receptive to the Soviets’ sophisticated advances and ready to give Gorbachev the benefit of the doubt. Ironically, in traditionally heretic Prague, Gorbachev’s fresh ideas are still fiercely resisted, at least by the most orthodox faction of the party leadership.

Eastern Europe continues to be one of the most complicated factors in Moscow’s calculations. The region retains a potential for unexpected upheavals, which could take place not only in presently reformist Poland or Hungary but also in conservative Czechoslovakia or the communist quasi monarchy of Romania. In fact, there are many indications that the long-standing antireformist consensus in the Czechoslovak leadership is crumbling fast.

Reversing this trend seems next to impossible. A continued multiplication of domestic problems, occurring in the midst of rapidly changing international conditions, is exposing the inability of most East European leaders to govern in the old way, as well as the refusal of their societies to be governed as before. Lenin used to describe such conditions as "a revolutionary situation."

Faced with these pressures for change, many in Eastern Europe’s ruling circles are assuming a wait-and-see attitude, finding it safer to keep their options open for a future round of political infighting (or possible upheavals) than to chain themselves to the unpopular measures that would be necessary to cure present crises. Paralysis and

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