Jaruzelski in fresh apology for Polish role in 1968 invasion

Wojciech Jaruzelski, photo: CTK

Poland's former Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski has apologised for the role his country played in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. General Jaruzelski served as Defence Minister in August 1968, when 26,000 Polish troops joined the huge invasion force which crossed Czechoslovakia's borders.

Wojciech Jaruzelski,  photo: CTK
A military band played outside the headquarters of Czech Radio on Sunday, as people across the Czech Republic gathered to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the invasion. The commemoration is an annual and by now unremarkable event. But this year, General Jaruzelski, Poland's last Communist president, appeared live on Czech Television to apologise for his country's role in the 1968 invasion. His words were simultaneously translated by an interpreter.

"I'm well aware of just how wrong a decision it was. I'm sorry about it, it still pains me. I know the Czech people expect this of me, so I say to you - I'm sorry, and I want to repeat it once again. I'm capable of saying it once again, and stressing it, underlining it."

General Jaruzelski, who was defence minister in 1968, said by putting his signature to the invasion he was implementing a political decision. He said he soon came to realise the invasion was a "stupid, political act."

Dozens were killed and hundreds injured when five armies of the Warsaw Pact occupied Czechoslovakia. The occupation brought to an abrupt end the political and economic reforms of Communist leader Alexander Dubcek, a period of relative enlightenment known as the Prague Spring.

It's not the first time General Jaruzelski has apologised for Poland's role in the invasion. The Polish leader said he was sorry in 1990, when the newly elected Czechoslovak president Vaclav Havel visited Warsaw.

But for some the general is still a controversial figure. In May this year President Klaus criticised Russia for awarding Jaruzelski a medal for his role in the Second World War, saying for Czechs the general remained a symbol of the 1968 invasion and for Poles the man who suppressed the pro-democracy movement.

General Jaruzelski's apology has naturally received plenty of publicity here in the Czech Republic. But how was it received in Poland and how do Poles themselves feel about their part in the Warsaw led invasion of Czechoslovakia, 37 years on? To find out we called Polish commentator Robert Strybel:

"Well, I suppose it depends on the generation because 1968 - that's a long time ago. To young people today that's ancient history. It is like World War II or World War I. So I would say that this wouldn't turn them on especially. But for the adult part of the population obviously it was an important event and it was one that I would say the majority of people opposed - especially from a distance now, with the collapse of communism. The older people might attach some importance to this, while others would not, the younger ones would not."

So you feel that older people would approve of the apology?

"That's difficult to say. Jaruzelski is a highly controversial person. He imposed martial law to destroy the Solidarity movement, ten thousand people were arrested and kept in detention camps and so on and so on. So he is a very controversial figure and many people would say that as he approaches his final days he wants to improve his image for history's sake, to get into the textbooks in some positive context. To this day he maintains that he saved Poland from a Soviet invasion by doing what he did - by imposing martial law. Of course, not everybody buys that, but that's his version of things. This would be another step in that direction - of polishing up his image, his historical image, as he prepares to fade away."

And how has the anniversary been covered in the Polish press?

"Well, there are mentions of it and Jaruzelski's statement was brought to the fore, obviously. If it wasn't for that it would have been a very low key thing, unless of course something in the Czech Republic were to occur on that day. But it is not a round anniversary so it wouldn't normally have been recorded very widely -if he hadn't said what he did."