“Dedicated to the departed Vaclav Havel… a writer, a humanist, a dissident, a prisoner, a human rights activist, a diplomat and a human being who managed to stand tall against Russian aggression in all its forms… Fighting with his pen and non-violence.
A moral compass that helped newly-born Czechoslovakia to rebuild.”
How history repeats itself –
By Farouk Mogheth
Edited by Voices of Ukraine
“An old man who says he was born in Austria-Hungary, went to school in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary, worked most of his life in the Soviet Union and now lives in Ukraine. “Traveled a lot, then?” asks his interviewer. “No, I never moved from Uzhorod.”
This is not a riddle but a representation of history and geopolitics in Central and Eastern Europe. I am a Czech citizen (35) and the above could be something my grandmother would have said as she was born in Carpathian Ruthenia, in the small town of Svaljava, next to Uzghorod, in the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1917.
Being a Czech, and with Ukrainian (Carpathian) ancestry, it all brings the current conflict in Ukraine and the decision of today’s Russia – controlled by Vladimir Putin – very close to home. It accentuates the lack of trust, everything and anything Czechs know to be true when it comes to “Russia.” But again, who can blame us? It all comes from experience and being “stung” twice by the same viper.
The Czech republic, or Czechoslovakia, will be quoted many times when politicians try and explain Russia’s blatant disregard for any international law, and without sugar-coating any phrases: invading sovereign nations without a real pretext other than muscle flexing and a loud shout for attention. Since 1938, Czechoslovakia had all together three painful chapters of which two were caused by Moscow and one by Nazi Germany. I think I am forced to use the correct term Russia as technically the Soviet Union does not exist anymore, but I can attest to the fact that the spirit of the USSR and its aspirations are very much alive with Putin at the helm, and as dangerous as ever.
All “three” episodes show how eerily similar they are to Putin’s actions… Especially Nazi Germany and Hitler’s actions against Czechoslovakia. Two more are from the Soviet Union, in 1945 and 1968.
Today the Czech republic is flourishing, a democratic, modern and economically strong, developed nation. The main focus since the fall of the iron curtain and communism was to deepen its ties with the west as we never regarded ourselves to be any part of the Russian domain and there was always a lingering fear and utmost distrust of anything coming from Moscow – even today. The natural heading was to be part of NATO (The “Russian” Warsaw pact, comprised of its satellites, fell apart after 1989 and was the same pact that invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968), which was a very important thorn in the culmination and frustrations that deeply angered Russia.
We see today’s Russia and mainly Vladimir Putin as a wounded bear (A wounded bear is more dangerous), with several thorns in its paw and hurt pride overseeing a country that is facing so many difficulties, rife with deep corruption and faltering in the global race. Many share the romantic notions of the “old days” when Moscow was heard and respected and a power to be reckoned with. This was lost and is something that the bear wants back. “President” Putin is visibly fed up and cannot sit and accept other nations once regarded as “the third world” having a stronger voice and weight in international politics. Many politician’s like to entertain their spectators at home with populist activities, but Russia has always been a place where “statements” are considered weak and only action is perceived as acceptable. The sad thing is that instead of bringing Russia onto the world map as a strong country with a long history of innovation, culture and willingness to compete, it is derailed by the easier option of brute hooliganism, unacceptable force, nonsensical propaganda and muscle flexing. I can see Putin in his office with a smirk on his face as other world leaders jump up and down in panic with, “What is that guy doing next.” Well, any attention is good attention I guess!
Is the Russian threat real? Of course it is. Putin is trying to see how far he can go and his thirst for more is evident. Crimea is not, and will never be, of any importance to Russia other than symbolism and this is what we are fighting about today… The symbolism and theatrics of a hero and a piece of land that he returned home. This all offers a wonderful distraction for the Russians and seemingly allows many to look away from current economic problems, increased extremism, separatism and most of all, a continual drop in democracy and freedoms and incredible levels of corruption from the lowest levels up to the President himself along with his “close circle of -very rich- friends.” This would be aided by a very powerful, heavy-handed and intolerant Orthodox Church playing a vital role in “Putin’s” politics.
I have no illusions about politics and its attempts at creating balance or domination. Self-protection and self-gain and “fairness” are not always the required outcome. The world is connected economically and that is something to be considered as well. Any activities or counter activities all depend on “how much is gained or lost,” what and who is important and who is easily replaceable. Europe is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas (a grave mistake and shows the importance of energy and water self-sufficiency policies). In this conflict, Europe and the USA could be seen as weak in their attempts at countering the weight of Putin who is rampaging through Ukraine without any concerns.
I am still hopeful and think that not all is lost… Russia is also connected to the world and cannot exist in a void, and money talks louder than artillery these days. Putin has to realize that he will feel the pinch of his actions. Sanctions and their “isolation” would be much more audible. It is surprising that the Czech republic still has a communist party but their supporters are aging citizens who think that it was better before 1989. Showing how active Russia is at meddling was evident during elections several years back in my own country. It has been proven that -seemingly democratic- Russia was financing and bribing officials and politicians to change the direction of their policies towards Moscow. Russia penetrates other countries through business and uses it as a base for its more clandestine activities and espionage. This was the main reason why the Czech government declined the sale of Czech Airlines (considered an important asset) to Russian owned Aeroflot in 2008 for “national security reasons.” Another quick decision in the past weeks was the elimination of Russia as a candidate to help construct another Nuclear power plant in the Czech republic. Russia’s commerce never comes without strings attached. I am only all too delighted that they were not successful in bribing and corrupting their way into a decision favoring them in the final decision. Generalizations are terrible but this is how they do business with products that are below par in terms of technology, construction, services and guarantees.
The most nervous countries in Europe are the very ones that lived under communist rule for more than 40 years… Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and others, and the loudest of these are the Poles… They all know that their freedom is not always guaranteed…
I am not claiming that Crimea should not be Russian. I know the history of that troubled piece of land, but on the other hand it is silly to believe any propaganda declared by Putin, of: “We must protect Russian-speaking citizens.” What was the EXACT wording of Hitler’s when he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938? oh… “We need to protect the rights of German Speaking citizens.” It is an insult to assume in the least that Ukraine was in any way less than democratic and treating all of its citizens as equals. My outcry is in the manner that Russia is best at – and that of brute force. Look at any youtube video and you will see soldiers violently attacking international journalists or observers. A true threat and scare tactics. If the people of Crimea wanted to have their own country or return to Russia, then fair is fair..all voices must be heard. But it had to be done through Kyiv and not Moscow! Russia again excelled in corrupting, bribing and censoring any molecule of fair play.
NOW is the MOMENT, and time, when democratic countries should look beyond any “economic loss” and pinch Moscow back, and declare that no one is above international law. Putin got Crimea back and is happy to have his “cowboy” look with his domestic audience, and the ability to add several inches to his manhood, but he lost any shred of trust with the rest of the civilized world, and mainly Ukraine, that is so important in his sphere of interest… It’s just way too close to home.
One of my most respected politicians is Karel Schwarzenberg, the former Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs. A 76-year-old aristocrat belonging to the oldest noble families in Europe, he was a close friend of the departed Vaclav Havel, the political dissident and first president of Czechoslovakia. Havel was a down to earth gentleman, a beloved politician and remains extremely popular with today’s younger generation. He was known and respected by heads of state and world leaders. For many, he is a culmination of knowledge and true diplomacy – After all, his family took part in creating European history, and he was privileged to see history being made from his childhood on, virtually in his living room. He is one of the few politicians who were ALWAYS, and openly, critical of Russia and Putin himself. He refused to turn a blind eye to fairness and human rights and consider “lost business” as a deterrent to his remarks. During his office, relations between the Czech Republic and Russia moved at a snail’s pace. Many decried Schwarzenberg’s attitude, especially the Communist party of the Czech republic that tries to – very clumsily I might add- alter actual facts and history and present themselves as an open and progressive party which has no ties to the party pre-1989. They went so far as to question any wrongdoing by communists. A party that denied basic freedoms to its citizens, jailed, killed/assassinated, hanged and eliminated any opposition voices. This is a very serious issue today since the younger generation, many born in democratic and free Czechoslovakia, haven’t experienced the evils of communism and lack of basic rights under it.
Putin’s actions today simply are a very strong reminder of Karel Schwarzenberg’s words and everything he said all these past 20 years. He trusted his instincts and simply looked into very recent historical events knowing that history always repeats itself when we allow ourselves to forget. He saw Russia’s reality and was a diplomat and a politician who was not afraid to voice what he saw. He always said that freedom and democracy are very fragile and must be something we constantly fight for.
I never thought in my wildest dreams that there would be a conflict similar to this one… a VERY surreal remnant of the cold war that I dare say returned on a smaller scale (Russia won’t be successful thanks to China trembling and not agreeing to the current Ukraine situation for fear of its own regions asking to secede to other countries due to cultural, language or religious ties).
If we do forget these words, then who knows. Putin might want to visit other countries including the Czech republic. Noting that the “Russians” last visit lasted over 40 years!
1938 Hitler and Nazi Germany
On October 1st of 1938, the Nazi German army crossed the borders and entered the territory of the sovereign and democratic republic of Czechoslovakia. The troops began to occupy the region known as the “Sudetenland” which was comprised of German speaking Czechoslovaks. This group of German speaking citizens was the main and “official” excuse, and later on the precursor for overtaking the entire territories of Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia. The Germans broke Czechoslovakia into several parts. The Sudetenland was instantly incorporated as part of Germany and the third Reich, they established the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” (land area of Today’s Czech Republic without the western and north western Sudetenland) and separated it from Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.
The main and only justification for this act by Hitler was “the protection of German Speaking citizens in Europe.” The Democratic republic of Czechoslovakia and its president had no choice as no western country would stand against Germany and it was thought that by this action, the remainder of Europe would be safe. Hitler threatened the absolute destruction of Prague if there was any opposition.
Immediately after the occupation of the Sudetenland Germans banned all political parties except Henlein Sudetendeutschen Partei. Many Czechs and all Jews were forced out from the Sudetenland with all their assets seized or taken to concentration camps. It was – de facto – the first ethnic cleansing in this area in the 20th century. Even Hitler ‘s ambitions for lebensraum (extension of a “living space” for Germans) could not be satisfied. It was a foregone conclusion that the Nazi army occupied the whole territory of Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia, which it did on the 15th March, 1939.
1945 The USSR and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia
Exactly 68 years ago, on June 29th 1945 , the then Czechoslovak territory of Carpathian Ruthenia was occupied by the Soviet Union. Moscow justified it as the will of the majority of the inhabitants who lived in the Soviet state and expressed through makeshift elections that were organised only by the communists.
The Czechoslovak government did not (could not) protest at the time.
During the First Czechoslovak Republic, Ruthenia was the least developed and most ethnically varied territory. The area had mostly Russians, Hungarians, Germans, Jews and immigrants from the Czech territories and Slovakia.
The area was shortly occupied by Hungary. The Soviets were very vocal and showed great interest in the region. Shortly after the liberation, elections were held with only Communist candidates selected. Then a quick vote was held and it was officially connected to the Soviet Union. On the June 29th of 1945, the Czechoslovaks voluntarily agreed to secede the region to Moscow.
The whole act was finalised and signed at the Czernin Palace in Prague and confirmed by the instrument of ratification for the Treaty of “Transcarpathian Ukraine,” signed by the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry and ambassador to the Soviet Union in Prague. Carpathian Ruthenia became the Transcarpathian region of the Ukraine. Who did not want to live there, could voluntarily leave. There were no protests against “the Soviet – liberators” as the political mechanisms of the Russians existed in an atmosphere that never allowed any freedom. Political representation is reconciled to the loss of territory.
1968 Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring
The time of extreme political oppression of the 50s was slowly coming to an end in Czechoslovakia. With shifting and changing international and domestic politics and context, the second half of the 60s was marked by a gradual release of the country’s tight grip. People were starting to openly express their views on the state of society in which they lived.
And it certainly was something that was unacceptable by Russia as Czechoslovakia was considered a socialist country and a satellite of Moscow!
The people started to talk and discuss previously taboo issues. From basic things like supply shortages and the quality of every day life, bruised relations between the Czech and the Slovaks. Even some entities in the Communist Party started to strengthen efforts to dismiss the main Communist Party Secretary, who was mainly responsible for the running of the state under the supervision of the Soviet Union.
Everything culminated on January 1968 with a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who dismissed the Secretary… He basically got fired, which was absolutely unheard of. This process started and went down in history as the “Prague Spring” and sadly ended on August of the same year by the blatant occupation of the country by the Warsaw pact, a military pact that Czechoslovakia was a member of and which was supposed to guarantee protection. Moscow simply decided that these changes in Czechoslovakia were simply unacceptable and such freedoms to chose your own political representatives and speaking openly is dangerous.
The Czechoslovaks still accepted being a socialist country and a satellite country of Moscow, but wanted to create “Socialism with a human face” as they called it. A more timid and kind approach in communism.
Prague started the gradual exchange of officials at all levels and restored freedom of speech. A new party and state leadership engaged in democratic changes in society, which consisted of handing over decision-making powers to the democratically elected social structures. Pressure towards further changes gradually grew stronger and the question became: what would happen when all this change reached the edge of willingness of the Communist Party and Moscow.
Sadly the answer to these questions came very fast and remarkably strong…
In a decision that could only be called an aggression and a betrayal, Moscow ordered the Warsaw pact troops to invade Czechoslovakia. Czechs and Slovaks woke up with tanks at their doorsteps. The invasion was cowardly, coming in the night of the August 20th, 1968 and the morning of the 21st, citizens woke to a different reality.
The Soviet leadership was underestimated during the early weeks and months of the Prague spring. The invasion of 1968 was expanded into neighboring socialist states as well to kill any hope or thought of political reforms.
There was a long-term occupation of the Republic. All leaders of the Prague Spring were forced to give up their posts and never allowed to any position of leadership. The 70s was plagued by what is called normalization in society with very tight controls, censorship, banned travel. Moscow was the decider in all political and economical matters. After the Prague Spring, many escaped to the west leaving all their families, homes… Writers and freethinkers and other people who wanted freedom – Many were shot, killed and jailed trying to jump over the borders!