By Dr Andrew Foxall
50 years ago this week, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia. It was the second time within a dozen years that the Kremlin had invaded a foreign country, following its crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, and it removed any illusions the West may have had about the Soviet Union’s grip on the captive nations of eastern and central Europe.
On the night of 20-21 August 1968, around 250,000 troops from the Soviet Union as well as Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria flooded into Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek, Czechoslovakia’s reformist leader, and his colleagues were arrested and deported to Moscow – they were forced to sign documents retrospectively ‘inviting’ the invasion and thanking Moscow for providing “fraternal assistance” to an ally in need.
The Soviet Union invaded to crush the “Prague Spring” – a series of reforms, instituted by Dubcek, that attempted to build “socialism with a human face”. The invasion was driven by the Kremlin’s desire to reassert its domination over central and eastern Europe. The opening up of Czechoslovak society threatened to spread to other Communist states. Dubcek’s reforms had already created division within the Warsaw Pact.
Now, as then, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are key sites in the West’s standoff with the Kremlin.
Milos Zeman, the Czech president, is closer to Moscow than Brussels. Andrej Babis, the prime minister, is a billionaire businessman whose populist style and entanglements with the law have earned him the nickname “Babisconi,” after Italian billionaire turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. In last October’s elections, the far-right and Russia-friendly Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party gained 10.6 per cent of the national vote.
Robert Fico, the Slovakian prime minister, resigned earlier this year after the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, in February sparked public protests. Public opinion in Slovakia, meanwhile, is more favourable toward Russia than anywhere else in Central Europe. In July, the Night Wolves – a Russian nationalist biker gang close to Vladimir Putin – established a base in the west of the country.
As the West struggles with the rise of populism and retreat of the international liberal order, Russia is seeking to take advantage of both. It has found fertile soil in Central Europe. But it is not in the interests of either country to drift too far from the European mainstream – and it is not in the interests of either countries’ Western allies, either.
Dr Andrew Foxall is Director of Research at the Henry Jackson Society.