53. Telegram From the Embassy in Czechoslovakia to the Department of State1

1063. Subject: Political changes rumored. Rumors of political changes are common stock in trade here and until now have proved [Page 181] false. Recently, however, they have become so open and persistent that I, together with some of my Western colleagues, in particular the Italian and British, believe they deserve notice.

Some of the rumors seem extreme and go so far as to predict Novotny’s replacement in the Presidency by the aging General Svoboda and assumption of party power by Party Secretary Kolder who has been visiting the UK. Presidium member Cernik’s name also continues to appear in the latter connection. Whether or not these reports derive from a background similar to that which produced the spurious Writers’ Manifesto published in the London Sunday Times,2 there may be good reasons for rumor circulation, if not for the inevitability of portending change.
The current year has not been a good one for the regime. While the classic Communist production indices have been favorable, the new economic reform is simply not yielding intended results and is likely to run into further political and technical difficulties which may come to a head in the party plenum scheduled for the first half of the month. The writers remain quiescent for the time being but unsatisfied, while a new source of trouble has loomed from local student quarters and their reaction to police brutality in putting down the October 31 demonstration where extremely serious consequences could have resulted from a loss of life.3 The investigation which it is announced Prime Minister Lenart will head could affect the position of the security forces.
Over and above all of this is the general recognition that the government and the party suffer from internal confusion and are not operating efficiently. It has been reported publicly that the party’s role is being re-examined and it is likely that more is taking place behind the scenes. The opportunities to speculate on possible combinations are infinite. As explained to me by a knowledgeable source, an obstacle to reform is that changes would be regarded as imputing blame and humiliation, especially for Novotny, which it is considered desirable to avoid. Even divesting Novotny of some of his functions and burdens could have that effect.
According to one of my Eastern European colleagues, questions of changes and reorganization were considered peripherally at the September plenum among some of those concerned. Action was deferred on the grounds that it would deviate from and go beyond the compromises and accommodations worked out at the May 1966 Party Congress. My informant thought that a larger consensus and more discussion would [Page 182] be required and that it was even questionable whether decisions would be reached at this month’s plenum.
On balance, it looks as though leadership changes are in fact under consideration. Given the party’s history of stability, however, and the difficulties of selecting a new team acceptable to contending factions, the present leadership may still have time to work out tolerable solutions to its admittedly grave problems.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL CZECH. Confidential; Limdis. Repeated to Vienna and Munich.
  2. Reference is to “Manifesto to the Western World,” published in the London Times, September 3.
  3. The police had assaulted students holding a non-political rally in Prague. The incident provoked mass demonstrations and a student strike against “socialist illegality.”