PRAGUE/BERLIN/BUDAPEST – Alzbeta Ehrnhofer was a 13-year-old Slovak schoolgirl when the Soviet Army poured into Czechoslovakia to “restore order” after the 1968 Prague Spring promised some freedoms to the Warsaw Pact nation.
The unfolding crisis in Crimea blaring from the television in Ehrnofer’s Vienna apartment Monday transported her back almost 46 years ago, when army-green tanks rumbled past her house in the southern Slovak town of Filakovo, near the Hungarian border, and neighbors hid from Russian-led invaders.
“It’s just like it was here in 1968,” she said about the upheaval in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic undergoing its second revolution as an independent nation. “Nothing’s changed. Even the tanks look the same.”
As Ukrainians steel themselves against a full invasion by Russian troops into Crimea and political leaders across the globe engage in marathon diplomacy with President Vladimir Putin to quell soldiers and sailors already there, people in Central and Eastern Europe say their mistrust of Russia is as strong as it has ever been.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is the latest politician from the West to show face-to-face support for the new government in Kiev. President Barack Obama canceled a trip to the Russian city of Sochi for the Paralympic Games, while political leaders in Europe argued over economic sanctions against Russia.
On Monday, the tensions grew as acting Ukraine President Oleksandr Turchynov said Russia told Ukrainian warships in Crimea to surrender and gave the country until Tuesday to turn over weapons and capitulate.
Czechs and Slovaks, who split peacefully in 1993, “still remember the Russian invasion of 1968,” Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said in a phone interview Monday. “We all believed that Russia had joined the ranks of civilized countries, so this is a very rude awakening to see that even now, in the 21st century, a country with clearly defined borders can have its territory violated.”
Twenty-five years ago, countries stretching from Estonia on the Baltic Sea to Romania along the Black Sea began breaking from Russia-controlled communist regimes in favor of liberal democracies and market economies.
Since then, 11 former communist nations have become members of both the European Union and NATO.
“The situation evokes certain historical memories we’d hoped had been put to rest,” said Eugeniusz Smolar, a Warsaw-based foreign policy expert who once fled communist Poland. “It just happens that this historical memory, our own feeling of loneliness and abandonment by our allies, in 1939 for example, all too easily translates into our feelings about Ukraine at the moment.”
Janusz Czapinski, a professor of social psychology at Warsaw University who directs Poland’s biggest public opinion survey, said events in Crimea and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia aren’t necessarily parallel and warned about reading too much of the past into the current events.
“That was to some degree a family spat within the Warsaw Pact,” he said. “Today is completely different. Poles aren’t terrified by these events. Perhaps near the eastern border, but that’s because they fear an influx of refugees, not an invasion.”
Even so, with the added security of being part of the world’s biggest military and economic alliances, some citizens from Prague to Budapest and Warsaw still fear the ghosts of the past. For them, the drama playing out in Ukraine shows that they have lessons the West has yet to listen to.
Russia’s actions are “less of a wake-up call and far more a confirmation of what they’ve been warning about Putin for the past 10 years,” Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels, said in a phone interview. “Too many Western European countries, ranging from Germany to Luxembourg, chose to ignore and play down their fears. The Poles, the Balts and Czechs are now saying ‘I told you so.’ “
For most Europeans, those concerns faded in the generation since Russia pulled back from its former satellite region as it invested billions of dollars to re-establish itself as an economic power across Europe.
Russia offered Ukrainians $15 billion in aid in December as deadly protests that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych began.
It also has a $14 billion loan deal with Hungary to expand the country’s sole nuclear power plant and is bidding to do the same in the Czech Republic. OAO Lukoil runs filling stations across the region.
In Croatia, Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of Russia’s natural gas exporter, is interested in acquiring Zagreb-based INA Industrija Nafte d.d. from Mol Nyrt., the Budapest-based business newspaper Vilaggazdasag reported on Feb. 14. Russian tourists to Prague, the richest city in the EU’s formerly communist east, are the second-largest group behind Germans.
To be sure, some local political leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Czech President Milos Zeman have publicly supported Russia’s increased presence in the region. Zeman, in a Jan. 29 interview, said he foresees Russia joining the EU in 30 years.
On Monday, after Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky told the iDnes newspaper that it is “hard to imagine” Russia winning the bid to expand the Temelin nuclear plant, his prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, said Czechs cannot stop business with Russia. At the same time, the BBC reported a U.K. government document saying Britain should not support trade sanctions.
For Zeman, sending in Russian troops was a bridge too far. On Sunday, he said closer ties with the EU may be complicated as Russia explains the need to send troops to the neighboring country as a way to protect the interests of the pro-Russian population in Crimea, which was annexed to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
“Even though I understand the interests of Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority, which was annexed to Ukraine by Khrushchev, we have our experience with the 1968 Russian military invasion,” Zeman told CTK news agency. “I believe any military intervention creates a deep fissure that can’t be mended within a single generation.”
In Budapest, some Hungarians likened the events in Ukraine to the 1956 revolution that the Soviet Union quelled. Hundreds of residents flocked to the Russian Embassy, lighting candles and using them to form the word, “UKRAINE” on the street outside.
“We want this region to be peaceful,” said 78-year-old Sandor Dusnoki, who said he found himself in the “thick of it” during the revolution and decries Putin’s efforts to influence the region, especially by military means. “The last thing I want is any sort of conflict in the region.”
Among others, Ukraine shares borders with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, which joined the EU in 2004, and Romania, which entered in 2007.
Putin, who sought and won lawmakers’ approval to use military power in Ukraine, is already known to use force to gain influence in the “near abroad,” his term for former Soviet republics.
In 2008, Russia routed Georgia in a five-day war over the separatist region of South Ossetia, which has since declared its independence from Georgia. Moldova, on Ukraine’s southwest border, also has a pro-Russian secessionist region, Transnistria.
“All Putin cares about is realpolitik and spheres of influence to guarantee the rights of Russians and bolster his vision of Russia as a global power,” said Spyros Economides, a senior lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics, in a phone interview. “This isn’t just the ghost of the Soviet Union coming back, but rather that of Russia going back hundreds of years when it ruled or influenced the nations surrounding it. Russia’s conception of itself in the world hasn’t changed.”
During the past three months, Polish government officials have played shuttle diplomacy with increasingly sharp criticism of Putin.
“Events in Crimea are a completely unprovoked, duplicitous armed intervention against a sovereign state,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters Monday. “Neither Poland nor the world can tolerate this.”
Miroslawa, an 86-year-old Warsaw resident who lived through the destruction of her home city by Nazi Germany and its political and social domination by Russians, said she had believed Putin would lead a more tolerant Russia.
“But you see he’s continuing Soviet policy,” she said as she watched a nest of news trucks parked in front of the prime minister’s office. She asked not to divulge her last name. “The situation looks ugly.”
Slovak grandmother Ehrnhofer can’t help making comparisons with 1968.
The day the tanks came, she was at the local bakery trying to buy bread for her family. The store was already sold out and the baker ordered her to jump back on her bicycle and ride home. Still, her parents and some neighbors felt compassion for the soldiers, even as hate for the Soviet system grew, and shared with them what little bread and water they had.
“Last night, I was looking around my pantry to see whether I have enough food,” she said. “It’s a horrible feeling to be living through these flashbacks again.”
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