108. Intelligence Assessment Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

PA 79–10354

The Czechoslovak Leadership [classification not declassified]

Key Judgments

Gustav Husak has been strengthening his position and will probably remain the leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party for at least the next several years.

Current trends within the party leadership appear to favor those with a relatively moderate, pragmatic outlook over their more conservative, ideologically minded counterparts.

These developments suggest that there will be a gradually increasing movement toward economic innovation and a tendency to bargain harder in economic dealings with the Soviet Union to the extent allowed by Czechoslovak dependence on Soviet oil.

Strict internal political controls will continue, however, and Czechoslovak foreign policy will remain closely aligned with Moscow.

[less than 1 line not declassified]

A Stable, Cautious Leadership

The top ranks of the Czechoslovak leadership have changed little since the years immediately following the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, which ended Alexander Dubcek’s liberal experiment and left Gustav Husak with the task of reimposing strict Communist control. Husak has led the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSC) since April 1969 and has served as President of the Republic since May 1975. The federal, Czech, and Slovak Premiers and the First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party (KSS) have held office since January 1970 or earlier. All but one of the KSC Presidium’s 13 members and candidate members have served on that body since May 1971 or before. [classification not declassified]

The paucity of personnel changes has been matched by a dearth of innovation in policy. The political composition of the leadership ranges from cautious pragmatists through conservative ideologues. [Page 318] Hobbled by internal rivalries, devoid of popular support, reluctant to risk Soviet displeasure, and presided over by a moderate conservative with neither the political strength nor the inclination to undertake bold new ventures, the regime ranks among the most cautious in contemporary Eastern Europe. [classification not declassified]

To characterize individuals within the leadership is a risky undertaking. Information on internal debate is scarce and often suspect. Individual positions on specific issues may reflect regional interests, personal rivalries, or momentary considerations, rather than basic political outlook. As in other East European countries, terms like “moderate,” “conservative,” “pragmatist,” and “ideologue” can be applied only in a relative sense. [classification not declassified]

With these qualifications, it is useful to distinguish between two basic points of view within the party hierarchy. One is more conservative, prone to think in terms of ideology and protective of the status quo. Its dominant concern is to avoid a repetition of 1968, when relaxation of controls permitted the growth of forces that threatened the party’s monopoly of political power. Adherents of this view regard with suspicion any inclination toward leniency, either toward current dissidents or toward those who supported the 1968 liberalization. Presidium members subscribing to this outlook include Vasil Bilak, Antonin Kapek, Karel Hoffmann, Alois Indra, and Milos Jakes. [classification not declassified]

Other Presidium members are believed to hold more moderate, pragmatic views. They are more open to innovation, at least in the economic sphere, and would probably not oppose some political relaxation if the overall political climate in Prague and Moscow were to allow it. Adherents of this view include Josef Kempny, Lubomir Strougal, Jozef Lenart, and Peter Colotka. [classification not declassified]

General Secretary Gustav Husak probably finds this division both a strength and a weakness as it affects his leadership: a strength because it tends to prevent any potential rival from amassing preponderant support; a weakness because it impedes the formulation of policy. Husak has faced challengers from both camps during the past decade, but the number of potential rivals is greater among the conservatives. Husak, accordingly, has tended to side with the moderates, and it is they who have benefited from the strengthening of his position in recent years. [classification not declassified]

Intraparty Debate: Husak Dominant

Gustav Husak was not the Soviet Union’s first choice in August 1968 to lead Czechoslovakia back to orthodoxy. As deputy premier from April through August, he had fully supported the reformers’ Action Program, which Moscow deeply distrusted. Immediately after the invasion, however, Husak began cultivating the confidence of the [Page 319] Soviet leaders. His greatest service was to persuade the KSS to repudiate the clandestine KSC Congress of 22 August 1968, which had condemned the invasion, endorsed Dubcek, and otherwise defied Soviet wishes. Elected KSS First Secretary and a member of the KSC Presidium, Husak adopted positions designed to ingratiate himself further with Moscow. His longstanding espousal of federalization also assured him the support of his fellow Slovaks. By April 1969, the Soviet Union considered him sufficiently reliable to succeed Dubcek as KSC First Secretary. [classification not declassified]

Although Husak had won a degree of Soviet confidence, he was not given free rein. Aware that reprisals against supporters of the late reforms would be highly unpopular, he reportedly favored greater leniency than Moscow was willing to allow. As “normalization” proceeded, Husak’s attempts at moderation were overruled, presumably with Soviet approval, by a coterie of conservatives, the most militant being Vasil Bilak and Antonin Kapek. The hardliners succeeded in securing the ouster of some 300,000 party members by the end of 1970 and have since managed—against Husak’s publicly stated preference—to block any meaningful rehabilitation. [classification not declassified]

Discord between Husak and the more conservative Presidium members has not been confined to the issue of purges and rehabilitation. In recent years, debate over economic policy has moved increasingly to the fore. At the 15th Party Congress in April 1976, both Husak and Premier Lubomir Strougal called for innovation in this area. Their proposals disturbed ideological hardliners, one of whom, Milos Jakes, responded with a warning that the need to maintain effective party control must be paramount over other considerations. [classification not declassified]

The prospect of economic innovation is repugnant to the conservatives for two reasons. It raises again the issues of the early 1960s, which paved the way for Dubcek’s liberalization, and it holds implications for cadre policy that the ideologues must regard as threatening: if the party is to preside over a major economic reorganization, then the criteria for evaluating members must be substantially revised. Instead of ideological orthodoxy and political reliability, which have prevailed since 1970 and have created the conservatives’ political base, members must be judged primarily for their managerial efficiency and technical expertise. As these criteria are progressively applied, the position of the conservatives will weaken, to the benefit of Husak and the moderate pragmatists within the leadership. [classification not declassified]

Calls for economic innovation and exhortations to improve the performance of party cadres were conspicuously juxtaposed in statements by party leaders during the months following the 15th Congress, when strenuous behind-the-scenes debate apparently took place. The [Page 320] issue came to a head at the KSC Central Committee plenum in December 1977, when Husak reportedly was again challenged by hardline opponents. Although information on the episode is sketchy, subsequent developments strongly suggest that the outcome represented a victory for Husak and the moderates. [classification not declassified]

The results of the plenum first became apparent in a series of personnel changes. Jakes, who had directed the purges of the early 1970s as chairman of the Central Control and Auditing Commission, was removed from that position and elected secretary of the KSC Central Committee and candidate member of the Presidium. Nominally, this represented an advancement. In real terms, however, Jakes’s fortunes probably suffered. He lost his key role in cadre affairs and was made responsible for agriculture, where he has no experience and which could prove a perilous assignment. Moreover, two men whose views are unlikely to coincide with his were elected to the Secretariat at the same time: Mikulas Beno, an economist with close ties to Husak, and Jindrich Polednik, a youth leader who has stressed the need for economic improvement in a way that appears consistent with moderate thinking. [classification not declassified]

Developments continued to favor the moderates through 1978. In March, the Central Committee removed from the Secretariat Cestmir Lovetinsky, a hardliner who had led the party’s cadre department since 1975. Lovetinsky’s cadre duties were assigned to Beno, and another loyal Husak supporter, economist Josef Haman, replaced him as a member of the Secretariat. Husak also used the March plenum to endorse an experiment in economic management devised by Finance Minister Leopold Ler. This controversial movement toward economic reform had apparently been approved over conservative opposition at the December plenum. [classification not declassified]

Another indication of Husak’s strength was a reaffirmation of support from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev during the latter’s visit to Prague in May 1978. Brezhnev’s increased esteem for Husak had already become apparent in May 1975, when Soviet Politburo member Andrey Kirilenko spoke of the “close and personal” relationship between the two. During the May 1978 visit, Brezhnev awarded Husak the Order of the October Revolution and referred to him as the “leading representative of Czechoslovak Communists.” Brezhnev then presented the Order of Lenin to Bilak, whom he described as “a loyal colleague of Comrade Husak.” The continuing role of the conservatives was thus acknowledged, but their subordinate position was made clear. [classification not declassified]

Most signs indicate that Husak will remain the dominant figure within the Czechoslovak leadership for at least the next several years. At 66, his health is good. [4 lines not declassified; classification not declassified]

[Page 321]

Recent developments within the party continue to favor Husak and the pragmatists. The December 1978 plenum called for an exchange of party cards, the first since 1970, to take place this year. It stated that in evaluating members, “fulfillment of economic tasks” would be linked with the “assessment of political commitment.” This represents a clear departure from the preoccupation with ideology that prevailed throughout the preceding decade. With Husak supporter Mikulas Beno directing cadre affairs on the Secretariat and Jakes removed from the Central Control and Auditing Commission, the conservatives will be hard put to prevent the exchange from being used to weaken their position in the party. [classification not declassified]

Political developments outside the party also favor Husak. By maintaining a relatively high standard of living, he has kept the population tranquil since massive arrests ended student demonstrations in August 1969. The public has adopted a mood of cynical materialism, refusing to involve itself in a political situation it is powerless to change. A hard core of dissidents remains active, causing the government some embarrassment, but the dissenters have so far failed to evoke a significant popular response. The regime has kept the dissidents off balance by encouraging selective emigration while maintaining strict repression at home—an example of the latter being the pending trial of 10 human rights activists arrested in May 1979. [classification not declassified]

Husak’s success in limiting the effectiveness of the dissident movement has doubtless contributed to the strength of his position. He is unlikely to expose himself to conservative charges of laxity toward dissent or risk alienating his supporters in Moscow by adopting a more tolerant approach. In the near term the changes now under way could lead to tighter political controls as Husak and the moderates strive to keep the new policies in hand. [classification not declassified]

Two possible developments damaging to Husak would be a rise in popular discontent because of worsened economic conditions or a loss of Soviet support. Recent events have drawn increased attention to these possibilities. During a visit to Prague in May 1979, Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin criticized Czechoslovak “sluggishness” in planning and implementing cooperative projects. Premier Strougal countered with the complaint that the requirements Moscow was levying for the construction of nuclear power equipment represented a considerable burden to Czechoslovakia’s engineering industry and would reduce its capacity to manufacture products for hard currency sales in the West. Strougal made the same point publicly during the June summit meeting of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CEMA), where a cooperative agreement on the production of nuclear power equipment was signed. Implicit in his remarks was the warning [Page 322] that diversion of resources to nuclear engineering will eventually adversely affect the Czechoslovak consumer. [classification not declassified]

These events suggest that the leadership in Prague has adopted a more assertive tone in its economic dealings with Moscow. They also underscore the problems the leadership will face in attempting to maintain a standard of living high enough to preserve the passive mood of the population. Nonetheless, the recent developments appear to pose no immediate threat to Husak. Although it will be increasingly difficult for the regime to continue to meet the rising expectations of consumers—a point underscored by recent steep increases in the price of gasoline and certain other goods—living standards are unlikely to worsen so abruptly as to provoke a sharp change in popular attitudes, so long as other factors influencing public opinion remain constant. Moreover, any sign of increased popular discontent would strengthen Prague’s argument for economic concessions from Moscow. Husak could also take advantage of Czechoslovakia’s high credit rating to alleviate the situation through hard currency loans, a course he has so far avoided.2 [classification not declassified]

Moscow is unlikely to halt its support of Husak in the near future. Two days after Strougal’s outspoken address at the CEMA meeting, a Soviet delegation visiting Prague praised Husak as “the acknowledged and esteemed leader of the Czechoslovak Communists.” Even if Brezhnev were succeeded by a leadership ideologically more akin to the Czechoslovak hardliners, the new Soviet rulers would hardly wish to compound the uncertainties of their own transition by summarily ousting the leader of one of their most stable East European allies. The succession period in Moscow should tend to strengthen Husak’s tenure, at least in the near term. [classification not declassified]

On the other hand, divisions within the Czechoslovak leadership are likely to sharpen further if, as seems probable, the moderates are behind the new firmness toward Moscow. To forestall conservative criticism and minimize tensions with the Soviet leadership, Prague’s moderates are likely to continue espousing Soviet positions on noneconomic matters. This tendency could retard the improvement of relations with the West. [classification not declassified]

Contenders for the Succession

Husak’s eventual successor will almost surely come from the current leadership. Factors influencing the selection will include to various [Page 323] degrees nationality, performance in office, popular acceptability, Soviet preferences, and political trends at the time of succession. [classification not declassified]

Leading conservative contenders include Bilak, Kapek, Indra, and perhaps Jakes. Bilak, 62, ranks second in the KSC hierarchy and is believed to have the support of hardliners within the Soviet leadership, particularly in ideological circles. Nonetheless, most observers give him little chance of succeeding Husak because of his nationality. Born in Ruthenia, he would be considered a Slovak, and it is virtually a political necessity that the next KSC leader be a Czech. Moreover, Bilak is unpopular with Czechoslovaks of all nationalities because he supported the 1968 invasion and has pursued a consistently hard line on rehabilitation. [classification not declassified]

After Bilak, the most prominent conservative is Antonin Kapek. As first secretary of the Prague KSC committee, Kapek heads the party’s most powerful regional organization. Like Bilak, he enjoys strong backing from Soviet conservatives, and he maintains close contacts with the Moscow municipal party organization. An ultraconservative, Kapek flaunted his pro-Soviet sympathies immediately after the invasion and has been associated with the most hardline elements of the KSC. His selection as Husak’s successor would be unpalatable not only to the population at large, but to much of the present Czechoslovak leadership. [classification not declassified]

Alois Indra, 58, chairman of the Federal Assembly, was Moscow’s choice to head a “revolutionary government” in August 1968, but the scheme failed in the face of Dubcek’s massive popular support. Indra suffered another setback in December 1971, when he “resigned” from the KSC Secretariat to assume his present, largely ceremonial position. Indra is politically astute and could count on Soviet support, but his long absence from full-time party activity and his unpopularity stemming from 1968 are considerable obstacles to his becoming head of the party. [classification not declassified]

Jakes, 56, has been considered a potential rival to Husak since the early 1970s, when he directed the purges as chairman of the Central Control and Auditing Commission. His appointment as a party secretary and candidate member of the Presidium in December 1977 appeared to be a major step in a rapidly advancing career. As noted above, however, Jakes’s loss of responsibility for cadre affairs may represent a considerable setback, and he will find it difficult to achieve distinction overseeing Czechoslovak agriculture. His best chance for the succession would probably be as a compromise candidate in the event of a deadlock among more senior conservative contenders. [classification not declassified]

If the trends described above continue, Husak’s successor is more likely to be a moderate than a conservative. The foremost candidates [Page 324] on this end of the spectrum are Josef Kempny and Lubomir Strougal. [classification not declassified]

Several factors give Kempny, 59, an edge over other contenders. He enjoys the confidence and support of Husak, who has secured his appointment to a succession of key party positions. Aside from Husak, Kempny and Bilak are the only full Presidium members who are also party secretaries. Kempny bears no stigma from 1968; as mayor of Ostrava, he managed to win Soviet confidence without antagonizing his own countrymen. He also boasts a wide range of experience. A construction engineer by training, he assumed responsibility for ideological affairs in 1969 as a KSC secretary and chairman of the party’s ideological commission. He was intensively involved in cadre work as chairman of the Bureau for Party Work in the Czech Lands in 1970–71. Since then, he has been chairman of the Central Committee’s economic commission, and oversight of the economy has also been his primary responsibility on the Presidium. Kempny’s Presidium responsibilities may have increased after the December 1977 plenum. While losing some of his more specialized economic duties, which are now performed within the Secretariat, he retained general oversight of the economy and reportedly received in addition the key areas of defense and security. [classification not declassified]

Against these assets, certain liabilities must be counted. If the political tide were to turn, Kempny’s close association with Husak could work to his disadvantage. Moreover, his longstanding responsibility for economic policy renders him vulnerable because of continuing problems in that sphere. Kempny reportedly was attacked along with Husak at the December 1977 plenum, and rumors of his imminent departure circulated in late 1978. There has been no subsequent evidence, however, that he is in trouble. [classification not declassified]

The other leading moderate contender for the succession, Lubomir Strougal, suffered a reverse similar to Indra’s when he was appointed Premier in January 1970; the appointment cost him his position as KSC secretary and chairman of the Bureau for Party Work in the Czech Lands—a role to which Kempny succeeded. Strougal is still young (55), however, and politically adroit; like Indra, he has managed to retain considerable influence while having little day-to-day involvement in party affairs. As a contender to succeed Husak, he has two principal liabilities. Having been Premier for nearly a decade, he must, like Kempny, bear a large share of the blame for the poor state of the economy. He may also be less acceptable to Moscow than other candidates. As acting premier in August 1968, Strougal condemned the occupation, an act of defiance he later recanted. As noted above, he was host during Kosygin’s visit to Prague in May when disagreements arose over economic issues, and he stated Czechoslovakia’s grievances [Page 325] publicly at the CEMA summit in June. Although this role will increase Strougal’s popularity with the Czechoslovak public and enhance his stature among moderates within the leadership, Moscow may try to ensure that Husak’s successor represents a viewpoint more amenable to Soviet wishes. [classification not declassified]

The possibility of a dark horse cannot be excluded. Sentiment must be strong in both Prague and Moscow for removing the shadow of 1968 from Czechoslovak political life. It is also highly desirable that the next party leader be competent in economics, an area where the current leaders have proved deficient. These considerations suggest the possibility of a younger contender with a technical background. One such candidate is party secretary Josef Haman, 46, who was elected to his present post in March 1978. A graduate of the Leningrad Institute for Finance and Economics, Haman was active in the party’s youth movement before occupying a series of administrative posts. He served in the Central Committee’s economic department and economic commission in 1971–73, then joined Husak’s staff in the office of the KSC General Secretary. He became head of the office of the President in 1976. A recent indication of Haman’s standing was his selection in May 1979 to deliver the keynote speech at the annual ceremony commemorating Czechoslovakia’s liberation; in recent years this honor has been reserved for younger members of the leadership whose stars are on the rise. Haman, like Kempny, could eventually find Husak’s patronage a liability, but in the event of a factional struggle over the leadership, his relative newness to the political scene would be a powerful asset. [classification not declassified]

Policy Implications

If these trends continue, Gustav Husak will probably remain the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party for at least the next several years. Developments within the party will tend to lessen the influence of the conservative ideologues, while increasing that of the moderate pragmatists. When Husak relinquishes some or all of his functions, his successor will probably come from the latter group. [classification not declassified]

These developments within the leadership will have a gradual but significant effect on policy. Strict political controls will continue. Economic experimentation will proceed, probably at an accelerating pace. Czechoslovakia will continue to cultivate Western markets for its exports and will bargain harder in its economic dealings with Moscow. Overall foreign policy, however, will remain closely aligned with that of the Soviet Union. The pace of improvement in relations with the West will remain limited and, for the near term at least, may even slow down. [classification not declassified]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Support Services (DI), Job 80T01330A, Production Case Files OPA (1979–1980), Box 2, Folder 10, The Czechoslovak Leadership: An Intelligence Assessment. Confidential. The report was prepared in the USSR-Eastern Europe Division, Office of Political Analysis, and coordinated within OPA and with the Offices of Scientific Intelligence, Economic Research, and Central Reference and the National Intelligence Officer for Soviet and East European Affairs.
  2. Czechoslovakia has the lowest ratio of debt service to merchandise exports to non-Communist countries of any of the East European countries. In 1978, Czechoslovakia’s debt service ratio was an estimated 20 percent, compared with 77 percent for Poland, roughly 40 percent for East Germany, and about 30 percent for Hungary. [Footnote is in the original.]