Jozef Lenart

Ambiguous Communist-era prime minister of Czechoslovakia
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The Independent Online

Jozef Lenart, politician: born Liptovska Porubka, Czechoslovakia 3 April 1923; Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia 1963-68; First Secretary, Slovak Communist Party (CPS) 1970-88; died Prague 11 February 2004.

Jozef Lenart was one of the most resilient figures in Czechoslovakia's Communist hierarchy, occupying one post or another in the leadership for no less than a quarter of a century. That achievement was all the more remarkable because his career at the top straddled a succession of regimes and several abrupt changes in policy.

Lenart served as prime minister during the 1960s when Stalinist rule was gradually giving way to some limited reforms, until the repressive apparatus imploded during the Prague Spring of 1968. He survived both that experiment in "socialism with a human face" and its crushing by the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year. He then emerged as Slovakia's Communist Party boss and stayed in that job during nearly two decades of stagnation until 1988 - a year before the Velvet Revolution put an end to the Communist era.

The secret of Lenart's success was his opportunism and ambiguity. Reformers in the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CPCz) assumed, at least in the early years, that he was sympathetic to their aims. Meanwhile, his loyalty to the hardline Kremlin leadership was never questioned. After the Prague Spring he was part of the federal CPCz leadership that carried out a ruthless purge of reformists. Yet, in his native Slovakia, he never applied the policy of repression with the same vigour.

Like Alexander Dubcek, who was to become the human face of socialism, and other Czechoslovak Communists, Lenart spent part of his childhood in the Soviet Union. As a young man he took part in the unsuccessful 1944 Slovak national uprising against his country's pro-Nazi regime.

After working as a technician at the famous Bata shoe factory in Zlin and then as a manager at one of the firm's plants in Slovakia, Lenart joined the CPCz apparatus. During the 1950s he worked his way up the ranks in Slovakia - a relatively underdeveloped region, which played second fiddle to the Czech lands in what was then a unitary state.

Lenart was only 40 when he was appointed prime minister in 1963. There was much hope at the time that as a technocrat and result-oriented "Bata man", he would breathe fresh air into the obsolete Stalinist administration presided over by the longstanding CPCz leader Antonin Novotny. Such hopes were not entirely disappointed. People were allowed to travel to the West once again. And plans were afoot to restructure the increasingly inefficient command economy along the lines of "market socialism".

The cautious reforms only whetted people's appetite for more radical change once Dubcek took over as CPCz leader and launched the Prague Spring at the beginning of 1968. Lenart's more hesitant and equivocal approach led to his dismissal as prime minister in April.

However, during the Dubcek era he remained at the heart of the CPCz leadership as secretary in charge of international relations. That became an increasingly crucial post as the Soviet leadership under Leonid Brezhnev began to express in more and more forthright terms its concerns over the extent and speed of Czechoslovakia's reforms. Moscow was particularly irritated by the abolition of censorship and the sanctioning of non-Communist organisations which, in its view, threatened the party's monopoly of power.

Lenart attended the various crisis meetings where Brezhnev berated Dubcek and the other CPCz reformers for their tolerant approach which, he claimed, was leading to anarchy. Lenart, whose attitude to reform was always more ambiguous, escaped personal criticism. The only time he is reported to have annoyed Brezhnev was at a meeting in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. Lenart handed a hedgehog he had found in the hotel grounds to the Soviet leader with the words: "Comrade Brezhnev, feel free to stroke it, our Slovak hedgehogs are not as spiky as yours in Russia." The gullible Brezhnev, who was taken in by this schoolboy prank, retorted: "Comrade Lenart, you are an idiot."

One historic meeting Lenart did not attend was the marathon session of the CPCz leadership on 20 August during which the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. With the signs already looking ominous, Lenart reported sick, perhaps to avoid having to take sides between the reformers and the pro-Moscow hardline minority. As a result, he was not among the assembled leaders who were arrested by Soviet troops and flown to Moscow.

Instead he went to the Soviet embassy in Prague, where pro-Moscow figures discussed the formation of an alternative government with the Soviet ambassador. The conspiracy failed because President Ludvik Svoboda refused to sanction a Soviet-backed palace coup to oust the legitimate, pro-reform administration.

Lenart joined the abducted CPCz leaders who were negotiating under duress in the Kremlin. A fluent Russian-speaker, he helped draft the communiqué that signalled Prague's readiness to back down over reforms in the face of Soviet pressure. Over the next few months his equivocal attitude helped him navigate the dangerous political waters of a country that was under Soviet military occupation but where, at least initially, the pro-reform leaders continued to enjoy overwhelming support both among the CPCz membership and the population at large.

It was not until 1969 that the hardliners, backed by Moscow, managed to replace Dubcek with Gustav Husak, who was to turn into one of Moscow's most reliable clients. A year later Lenart was appointed head of the Slovak Communist Party (CPS) - a post previously occupied by both Dubcek and Husak.

Over the years that followed Lenart pursued an ambiguous policy. In Prague, as a member of the ruling Presidium of the federal CPCz, he went along with the harsh policy of "normalisation" which resulted in hundreds of thousands losing their party cards, jobs or educational opportunities. By contrast, as leader of the CPS in Bratislava, Lenart simultaneously followed a less vindictive course. Part of the reason for that was that the Prague Spring had made a lesser impact in Slovakia than the Czech lands. Besides, it was easier for Slovaks to make their accommodation with the regime because one of the enduring legacies the 1968 reforms had bequeathed was the formation of a federal structure which, for the first time, gave Slovakia considerable autonomy.

After the collapse of Communist power in 1989 Lenart retired from politics. He was among several former CPCz officials from Slovakia who chose to remain in Prague and take Czech citizenship when the two republics went their own separate ways at the beginning of 1993.

But, just as Communist rule in the Czech lands had been harsher than in Slovakia, the demand for justice - or retribution - also proved more intense there. After several failed attempts, Lenart and the hardline Milos Jakes, the CPCz's last leader, were taken to court on charges of treason in 2002. Their indictment was based on their involvement in the plotting at the Soviet embassy in August 1968 to overthrow the pro-reform government.

The accused were acquitted because, in accordance with the laws in force at the time, treason would have entailed an attempt to subvert the entire Communist system - not just a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Nothing, of course, could have been further from Lenart's mind. Although he was never a hardline official or ideologue, he served under a succession of Communist leaders as the ultimate party apparatchik.

Gabriel Partos