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Lubomir Strougal, Moscow’s Cold War ally in Czechoslovakia, dies at 98

Lubomir Strougal, who led Czechoslovakia during the Cold War for 18 years and was prosecuted twice for abuse of power in later years, but was never convicted, died on February 6 at the age of 98.

A former Communist Party politician, Jiri Dolejs, confirmed the death in a statement to the media, but gave no further details.

For more than three decades, Mr. Strougal has been seen as an opportunistic political survivor in a country that has long been a cautionary tale about challenging the Soviet hold in the Eastern Bloc. According to a profile published in the Boston Globe in 1969, Mr. Strougal had “a chameleon’s ability to match his colors with those of the winning party.”

A year earlier, protests swelled in Prague and elsewhere in Czechoslovakia calling for more political rights and more economic autonomy from Moscow – a cry against the Kremlin that caught the world’s attention and was dubbed the Prague Spring.

Initially, Mr. Strougal, then a senior Communist Party official and former interior minister, supported the demonstrations and nominally supported the reformist leader, Alexander Dubcek. Mr. Strougal turned his back when it became clear that Moscow was not about to budge.

Tanks and troops from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush the Prague Spring. In April 1969, Dubcek was ousted, and Mr. Strougal and a cadre of other Moscow loyalists prevailed.

Mr Strougal became Prime Minister in January 1970 and began an 18-year term in office – the longest of any Czechoslovakian official – marked by a brutal crackdown on dissent. The prisoners included human rights activist Stanislav Devaty and playwright Vaclav Havel, who would later lead the country after the fall of Strougal.

As Prime Minister, Mr. Strougal was often the face of the country in international affairs and made overtures to increased trade with the West during the Cold War, even though the Czechoslovak regime remained a classic Soviet state.

Moscow defeated Strougal, forcing a de facto power-sharing alliance with others such as Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Gustav Husak.

Ironically, the image of the status quo built by Mr. Strougal fell apart because of perceived liberal leanings. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began the ill-fated era of “perestroika” or restructuring in the late 1980s, Mr. Strougal followed suit in efforts to reduce state control over the Czechoslovak economy.

That was too much, too fast for the Communist Party stalwarts, who feared that economic changes would also bring about political reforms. Mr. Strougal was ousted in 1988 in an internal power struggle with Communist Party leader Milos Jakes, who had replaced Husak.

“The current movement cannot be stopped and any solution can only be a political one,” Strougal said on state television.

It turned out to be true. Massive street protests in 1989, triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall, ended the complete control of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia and brought Havel, a leader of the Velvet Revolution, to power. (Havel would return as president of the Czech Republic after the country split in December 1992 to create Slovakia as well.)

“[Mr. Strougal] was the epitome of opportunism, careerism, unscrupulous realism, self-proclaimed ‘lesser evil’ and post-89 impunity wrote Kieran Williams, assistant professor of political science at Drake University in Iowa and author of “The Prague Spring and its Aftermath” (1997), among others.

In 2001, Mr Strougal was tried on allegations that he had used his influence as Home Secretary in 1965 to thwart investigations into the murder of three people by the secret police in the late 1940s. The indictment, prepared by special detectives investigating communist-era crimes, contained an alleged note written by Mr. Strougal: “Take no action, leave the matter alone.”

Judges dropped the case against Mr Strougal in 2002 for lack of evidence. As Mr Strougal left court, a journalist asked if he thought anyone should be held responsible for the murders. Mr. Strougal kept his lips tight. “I won’t talk about specific names,” he said.

In 2019, Mr Strougal and two other Czechoslovak leaders were charged with abuse of power for allegedly allowing border guards to shoot at people trying to flee the country into Austria or what was then West Germany. The court decided that Mr Strougal was not fit to stand trial, due in part to his age and symptoms related to dementia.

Lubomir Strougal was born on October 19, 1924 in Veseli nad Luznici in the Bohemia region of what is now the Czech Republic. During World War II, with Czechoslovakia under Nazi occupation, Mr. Strougal was assigned to compulsory work in the war effort.

After the war, he went to Prague to study law at Charles University and joined the Communist Party. He was appointed to the party’s central committee in the late 1950s and served as Minister of Agriculture from 1959 to 1961, then Minister of the Interior until 1965.

Strougal, who was forced to resign from office in 1988, resigned from his posts in the Communist Party and largely retired from public life, but occasionally performed at matches to support the Sparta Prague football club. In a 2009 memoir, he had a vague view of the legacy of more than four decades of communist rule. “I can’t change it,” he wrote. “I offer my sincere apologies to everyone.”

His first marriage to Vera Strougalova, in which they had a daughter, ended in divorce. He later married Miluse Strougalova. A full list of survivors was not immediately available.

After the prosecution of the border shooting against Mr Strougal was dropped, families of people killed trying to defect unsuccessfully appealed to Mr Strougal to at least ask public questions.

“During the time when Lubomir Strougal held top positions, that of interior minister and prime minister, a total of 60 people died along the Iron Curtain,” Ludek Navara, a historian of Cold War policy, told the Czech news agency. “This must be remembered, although his criminal charges were dropped due to his health condition. The top representatives of the regime knew what was happening along the Iron Curtain.”

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