Czechoslovak Communist PM Lubomir Strougal Dies at 98

Strougal was a senior member of the Communist Party (KSC) for more than 30 years and the prime minister for 19 years. Photo credit: Freepik.

Prague, Feb 7 (CTK) – Czechoslovak communist-era Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal has died at the age of 98, a source close to his family told CTK yesterday. Strougal was PM of communist Czechoslovakia from 1970 to 1988, and also served previously as interior and agriculture minister. 

Strougal was a senior member of the Communist Party (KSC) for more than 30 years and the prime minister for 19 years, becoming a symbol of the hardline communist regime that ruled through the era known as “normalisation” (1968-1989), which followed the August 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, and coincided almost exactly with his term in office.

After the fall of the communist regime in December 1989, Strougal, who was not considered to be among the core hardliners of the regime, withdrew from politics and retired. He did not join the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), which became the KSC’s successor in the early 1990s.

In recent years, he faced criminal prosecution over his role, as interior minister and later PM, in the killing and wounding of people by guards along the Czechoslovak border during the totalitarian regime. However, his prosecution was halted some time ago, as court experts said he was suffering from senile dementia and no longer capable of understanding the meaning of the criminal proceedings. Last year, a group of those wounded and families of those killed while attempting to cross the Iron Curtain filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court against the decision to halt the proceedings.

In December 2001, Strougal was charged in relation to his failure, as interior minister in 1965, to correctly deliver documents to a prosecutor, which led to the wrongful acquittal of a group of police officers suspected of murdering opponents of the regime in the late 1940s. The court acquitted Strougal of the charges in July 2002.

Born in Veseli nad Luznici, south Bohemia, Strougal joined the upper echelons of the Communist Party after majoring in law in 1948. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was the minister of agriculture. He then served as interior minister until 1965, and became deputy PM in 1968.

He initially disagreed with the 21 August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, and also declined a seat in the proposed pro-Moscow government of workers and farmers. However, he later reversed this position, and in January 1970 he became the prime minister of the Czechoslovak federation.

In the late 1980s, Strougal sided with the communist wing promoting reforms, but they lost the internal battle in the party. In December 1987, the ailing Gustav Husak was replaced as KSC general secretary by Milos Jakes. Strougal handed in his resignation in October 1988.

After the November 1989 anti-communist revolution, during which Strougal opposed the regime’s tough crackdown on its opponents and proposed that the Communists negotiate with Civic Forum (OF), the broad movement of anti-communist forces, he gave up his mandate as an MP and left public life. In his 80s he issued several books of memoirs and contemplations.

According to historian Libor Svoboda, Strougal was a typical communist party official and technocrat who successfully manoeuvred amid the communist system. Because he did not engage in ideological affairs much, he managed to avoid political purges after the start of “normalisation” in August 1968, Svoboda said. 

“He was widely viewed as an ally of Husak [president and long-time leader of KSC], as the two always appeared together,” Svoboda said, adding that Strougal ranked among the closest group of those in power but never became its head.

Instead, he was considered by many to be a pragmatic and competent politician. He liked being seen at sports events, and was known as an ardent fan of Sparta Prague.

After the fall of communism, the police launched a criminal investigation of Strougal for his failure, in his capacity as interior minister from 1961 to 1965, to prevent the use of high-voltage wiring at the western border, and being consequently responsible for the death of 43 people. Nevertheless, he was not charged, as the case got statute-barred in 2006 and the investigation ended. The electric current in the fences along the border was switched off in 1965, while Strougal was still interior minister.

“At the time when Lubomir Strougal held top posts, those of interior minister and prime minister, a total of 60 people died along the Iron Curtain,” said Ludek Navara, a historian specialising in the developments along the Iron Curtain. “This must be remembered although his criminal prosecution was scrapped due to his health condition. The regime’s top representatives knew what was happening along the Iron Curtain, they received the relevant reports.”

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