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Activists Say Protest Marks New Awareness

August 23, 1988

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia (AP) _ Activists have described the largest protest against the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion in nearly two decades as ″an important political moment″ evidencing a new attitude in Czechoslovakia.

Thousands of people marched through the capital Sunday night in the biggest protest since 1969 against the Aug. 20-21, 1968 invasion that crushed the experiment in democracy known as the ″Prague Spring.″

The official news agency CTK said 28 people were still in detention Monday after police arrested 77 people in Prague in what it termed ″disturbing actions″ that ″grew into hooliganism.″

Six of the seven unidentified foreigners detained were expelled, CTK said without further details.

Baton-wielding police with dogs on leashes charged a crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators Sunday after the protest had dwindled from an estimated 10,000 people, who marched through central Prague chanting ″Long Live Freedom,″ ″Russians Go Home″ and ″Dubcek, Dubcek, Dubcek.″

Alexander Dubcek pioneered the ″Prague Spring″ reforms and was ousted as Communist Party leader in 1969 and expelled from the party the next year.

Activists with the Charter 77 human rights group and the independent cultural association Jazz Section noted the youth of the demonstrators - between ages 18 and 35 - and said chanting Dubcek’s name appeared to be more a symbol than sympathy for his person.

″He’s a symbol of a time, of an atmosphere,″ said Vaclav Maly, a Charter 77 signatory and Roman Catholic priest who authorities have barred from preaching.

″It is important for people that they see we demonstrated, and practically nothing happened,″ Maly said. ″It is an important political moment.″

″Fantastic that 90 percent of it was young people who grew up in this system,″ Jazz Section leader Karel Srp commented. ″It is the first small flower that will grow up.″

Charter 77 activist Zdenek Urbanek said he felt ″the same good experience as in ’68, when suddenly I saw young people who didn’t know anything about democracy, freedom and free elections ... speak openly about what is needed for the country.″

Activists interviewed Monday stressed that the protest developed spontaneously and involved ordinary people rather than known dissidents.

Residents of Prague and frequent visitors have noticed an increasing interest in politics and a trend toward popular activism that departs marketly from the cynicism and fear prevalent since the 1968 invasion.

A Roman Catholic petition to Communist authorities demanding more religious freedom was signed by half a million believers earlier this year, and in March some 2,000 people demonstrated in Bratislava to air similar demands.

That was the last sizeable street protest in Czechoslovakia and police dispersed the crowd using water cannon, trucks and vans. The harsh police tactics, not unusual for Czechoslovakia, drew strong criticism from the West.

Activists speculated that concern for Czechoslovakia’s image in the West and possible influence from Moscow played a part in the initial decision not to break up Sunday’s protest at the start.

Maly and Urbanek said they detected a ″more clever″ approach on the part of authorities.

Srp, however, who followed the protest throughout, attributed the lack of police action to initial confusion, saying, ″nobody expected it and they had no direction.″

Reform in the Soviet Union has had an effect both on Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership and on its citizens, who follow Soviet press and television and see that much freer expression of opinion is allowed.

Czechoslovakia’s leaders see Mikhail S. Gorbachev adopting many of the same reforms pioneered by leaders of the ″Prague Spring.″

Most recently, Gorbachev has spoken of striving for ″Socialism with a human face″ - a slogan used in 1968 by Dubcek.

Milos Jakes, who replaced party leader Gustav Husak last December, has embraced cautious economic reform but has so far skirted any far-reaching political or cultural change.

However, there has been a slightly more relaxed approach to independent groups and dissidents, marking an important shift over the past two years.

Maly and Srp cautioned strongly, however, against expecting any rapid political change in Czechoslovakia, where authorities have ensured that living standards remain far higher than in other East bloc countries.

″I wouldn’t exaggerate it,″ Maly said. ″It is a start. The society starts to be more active.″

″Czechoslovakia is an unpredictable country,″ said Srp. ″Nobody knows what will happen here.″

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