`Prague spring' and perestroika

TWENTY years after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, my country remains deep in the decayed Brezhnevian times. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union is changing, refusing as disastrous the whole spectrum of Brezhnev policies. So far, however, nobody in Moscow has revised the judgment that the violent suppression of the ``Prague spring'' was necessary to crush dangerous ``counterrevolutionary'' forces.

Given the hundreds of problems challenging Mr. Gorbachev's leadership, this cautious approach to reopening the Czechoslovak file is understandable. It is not wise. Sooner or later, he must add the 1968 invasion to the list of previous misdeeds that not only damaged Czechoslovak interests but also led to the stagnation and demoralization of Soviet society.

Last year in Prague, Gorbachev said that Czechoslovakia belongs among the world's 10 most developed countries. The statement was more outdated than mistaken. Czechoslovakia was among the territories with the best standard of living in the world for about a century - a leader in industry, agriculture, education, and political democracy.

If the 1968 invasion had not cut the reforms short, it still would have been possible to catch the world train. Czechoslovakia's per capita GNP then was higher than that of Austria, Italy, or Japan. It was only after Leonid Brezhnev put in power irresponsible leaders that Czechoslovakia's economy and society declined. Today, we have gained the status of New Underdeveloped Country, a country that has lost its previous position in economic and technological rankings and has even been left behind by formerly undeveloped zones.

Despite the differences between the USSR and Czechoslovakia in size, time, and tradition, current Soviet development strives to solve the same problem we faced in 1968: how to reform an outdated political system inherited from Stalinist times. Our problem today is that the invasion destroyed the Gorbachev generation of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. After 1968, the word ``reform'' was banned. Thousands of the most qualified people lost their jobs and any possibility to ``interfere into the internal affairs of their own country.''

After World War II, some people dreamed of Czechoslovakia as a bridge between East and West. Now, when the concept of the postwar division is being questioned, the importance of bridge-building is growing. Europe needs Czechoslovakia as a zone of contact, confidence, and security, both internal and external. Our position on the boundaries of the two blocs guarantees that a relaxation of cold war tensions can only be made more difficult if this country remains a relic of Brezhnevism.

Unfortunately, Czech authorities are not following the spirit of the time. In June, police broke up an independent peace seminar. Czech participants were jailed and guests from 17 countries expelled. Similar independent seminars had taken place before in Warsaw, Budapest, and Moscow.

It would be of no use to call upon the USSR to send in its tanks again and restore the crushed reforms. The citizens of this country must take responsibility for the state of affairs and push for change.

Still, the USSR could help. Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' on foreign policy is not credible unless it includes a renunciation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Soviets must admit that what we tried to do two decades ago was perestroika. Mr. Gorbachev, if you want the world to believe you are serious about reform, take this necessary step.

Jiri Dienstbier, one of the founders of the Charter 77 Human Rights movement, is a former foreign correspondent for Radio Prague. He now works as a stoker.

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