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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Alexander Dubcek : The Former Czech Leader Surveys Another 'Prague Spring'

August 09, 1992|Garrett White | Garrett White, who lives in Paris, is the former managing editor of L.A. Style and a former senior editor of Buzz

PRAGUE, CZECHOSLOVAKIA — In the long, brutal nightmare of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, few names symbolized both the hope and humiliation more poignantly than that of Alexander Dubcek. Elected Czechoslovak leader in January, 1968, Dubcek presided over the flowering known as "Prague Spring." His regime initiated the market reforms and relaxation of press censorship that ultimately incurred the wrath of the Soviet leadership, provoking the Warsaw Pact invasion of August, 1968, and the resulting 20 years of darkness.

In the green hills of Bratislava, on a winding street that looks out over the city and the Danube, is Dubcek's home, where he has lived alone since the death of his wife, Anna, last year. On the way, the road passes a large villa. It is the home of Vasil Bilak, last surviving signatory of the infamous letter that invited the Soviets to quell the revolution--and beckoned tanks into Czechoslovakia.

Until Mikhail S. Gorbachev's 1987 visit to Czechoslovakia and the relaxation of security, neighbors had grown accustomed to the police camped on Dubcek's doorstep. Such harassment had cut him off from friends in the years of "normalization." He had been removed from power in September, 1969. But, instead of standing trial for counterrevolutionary activities, he was sent as ambassador to Turkey--partly in the hope that he would emigrate, confirming his label as a "right-wing opportunist." He did not. In June, 1970, he was recalled and, two days later, was expelled from the party. Dubcek was given a job in the Slovakian Forestry Commission, where he worked until retirement.

Miraculously, Dubcek survived two decades of vicious party propaganda with his stature intact--though controversy still surrounds him. He repeatedly has had to justify his actions in 1968--particularly post-invasion concessions that brought accusations of weakness and political naivete. On the eve of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, however, it was clear that his name retained its magic. He stood with Vaclav Havel above Wenceslas Square, hearing his name again shouted by a crowd of thousands, and watched on television by the nation.

During the revolution, Dubcek was linked with Public Against Violence, a Slovakian counterpart of Civic Forum. He was courted, unsuccessfully, by Vladimir Meciar, the controversial nationalist leader whose movement for a democratic Slovakia led the coalition that won 45% in the June elections. Dubcek instead joined the Social Democratic Party, which won just enough to participate in the Slovak National Council.

At 71, Dubcek has the bearing of a polished statesman. His smile is seen on posters displaying a bouquet of roses--the Social Democratic symbol--with the slogan "I'm with you, stay with me." It is this face, as others have remarked, that came to symbolize the phenomenon of '68--Socialism with a Human Face.

Question: You said in the past, "Politics opens the way to economic reform." Yet the Velvet Revolution was clearly a revolt against ideologies. What is the role of ideology in economic reform?

Answer: Well, those are two different things. First, I would still say that politics opens the door for economics and economic reforms. . . . . Politics is everything. Politics includes housing problems, the issue of whether or not we can travel--politics is everything you touch in the place you live. Politics is always here in one form or another. The point is only: What should it be like? Our idea is that politics should be for people, that it should encourage democratic development and social welfare, culture and all that is related to man's life. This is my understanding of politics.

Before, we were striving for change in politics and installed a new type of politics. Now, everyone can participate in politics--be it Christian Democrats, Liberals, the left and the right--and work toward what we see in West European democratic life.

Because of our location in the center of Europe, our politics and economics will most likely develop along the lines of modern West European democracies. The fact that I am now speaking with you proves that politics has opened the door. . . . A new spirit is here.

Q: Now, on the coming separation of the Czech and Slovak republics--in June, the Slovakian National Council declared sovereignty. You have supported the historic need for self-determination among Slovaks, yet you were opposed to the split?

A: . . . . Yes, I am an advocate of the idea that, in this critical moment of constitutional crisis in Czechoslovakia, the constitutional position and powers of the nations of Czechoslovakia can be tackled so as not to break the Czechoslovak links and maintain the Czechoslovak state in a new form adequate to the present times.

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