Writers, Slovaks, scandal cast spell of 1968 Prague Spring

Fifty years ago, writers -- including Milan Kundera -- and a bizarre scandal helped spark a fleeting but heady spell of openness in communist Czechoslovakia before Soviet tanks rolled in to crush it.

The 1968 Prague Spring that brought "Socialism with a human face" to Czechoslovakia was personified by the smiling Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak who had become Communist Party (KSC) chief on January 5 the same year.

But according to sociologist Jirina Siklova who participated in the events, the short-lived breath of freedom in the Soviet bloc had deeper roots stretching back to the Czechoslovak writers' congress the year before.

She believes that dissident writers like Kundera -- whose 1967 satirical novel "The Joke" focused on totalitarianism -- and Vaclav Havel, who decades later became Czech president, paved the way to greater openness by demanding the ruling Communist Party guarantee freedom of expression.

"The KSC started to split and it was clear something would happen," Siklova, who was a Communist Party member at that time, told AFP.

"I thought that if we became more liberal, the Soviet Union would leave us alone because we're so small. The expectations were immense," she added.

- Human touch -

Petr Pithart, also a communist at that time and later speaker of the Czech Senate (1996-1998 and 2000-2004), recalls that a clash between Czech and Slovak communists also snowballed, giving rise to change.

"The Slovaks wanted to live with the Czechs as equals, and they understood a direct attack was the only option," said Pithart.

Slovak communists, who felt marginalised by the far-away Czech-dominated central government based in Prague, lobbied for a greater say in decision-making.

Their demands were met when Dubcek replaced hardline President Antonin Novotny -- a Czech unpopular among Slovaks and Prague intellectuals -- as KSC boss.

Dubcek's charming smile and human touch set him apart from his dour-faced party peers.

"He went out to meet the people, he went to a public swimming pool and joined ordinary people to watch football or ice hockey," Oldrich Tuma, a historian at the Czech Academy of Sciences' Institute of Contemporary History, told AFP.

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