Because August 20-21 was the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the news media and a number of politicians (especially the U.S. Secretary of State) have been having a field day comparing the events of 1968 to those of 2008 in Georgia. These kinds of historical comparisons are almost always a problem and the Georgia is like Czechoslovakia comparison is a very good case in point.
Before we dismantle the whole thing, let’s take a look at the part of the comparison that does work. In 1968 Warsaw Pact troops, including a very large Soviet contingent, invaded a neighboring country wiht the intent of regime change. The West fulminated and castigated and then didn’t actually do anything else. In 2008 Russian troops invaded a neighboring country with the intent of regime change. The West has been fulminating and castigating, but is not likely to do much else.
Now let’s look at why the comparison does not work. First of all, the events in Georgia began when the Georgian army launched an assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia. In 1968 the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia began when leaders of a faction within the Czechoslovak Communist party requested the intervention (without any legal right to do so). Thus, one intervention was a response to a military assault, the other a response to a set of governmental policies–two very different things.
But why, you might ask, would the Soviets suddenly decide to crack down on the Dubček regime when all Prague was doing was liberalizing the local Communist government in the hopes of making it more successful?
The standard answer, and the one being bandied about in the press and at official press conferences, is that Moscow had had enough of Alexander Dubček and was hell-bent on regime change. Alas, the media and the politicians are a generation behind on the their scholarship. The “standard answer” version is one based entirely on guess work by a group of historians who had no access to Soviet or East European archives. Their assumption, based largely on bluster from Leonid Brehznev after the fact, was a reasonable guess. And it was wrong.
As Kieran Williams demonstrated in his 1998 book on the Prague Spring, it was the East European Communist leaders in places like East Berlin, Warsaw, and Budapest, who wanted to put an end to the liberalization going on in Prague. The Soviet leadership was certainly amenable to the requests for an intervention coming from Dubček’s local colleagues, but the impetus for aggressive action came not from Moscow, but from elsewhere. That Williams’ book is already ten years old gives you a sense for how tenacious older interpretations can be–especially when they fit so nicely with a particular mindset.
So, before we jump to conclusions about what is actually going on in Georgia–and my own view is that it’s bad–we should at least jump based on accurate information, not outworn and frankly incorrect comparisons with past events that were actually quite different.
Remember that when the Russians start comparing the situation in South Ossetia to Kosovo.