Lubomir Strougal, who led Czechoslovakia for 18 years during the Cold War and in later years faced prosecution twice on charges related to abuse of power but was never convicted, died Feb. 6 at 98.
A former Communist Party politician, Jiri Dolejs, confirmed the death in a statement to media but provided no further details.
For more than three decades, Mr. Strougal was seen as an opportunistic political survivor in a country that long stood as a cautionary tale over challenging the Soviet grip in the East Bloc. Mr. Strougal, according to a profile published in the Boston Globe in 1969, had “a chameleon’s ability to match his colors to those of the winning side.”
A year earlier, protests swelled in Prague and elsewhere in Czechoslovakia calling for greater political rights and more economic autonomy from Moscow — a cry against the Kremlin that captured the world’s attention and was dubbed the Prague Spring.
At first, Mr. Strougal, then a high-ranking Communist Party official and former interior minister, supported the demonstrations and nominally stood with the reform-minded leader, Alexander Dubcek. Mr. Strougal flipped sides when it became clear that Moscow was not going to give any ground.
Tanks and troops from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush the Prague Spring. By April 1969, Dubcek was ousted, and Mr. Strougal and a cadre of other Moscow loyalists were on the ascendancy.
Mr. Strougal became prime minister in January 1970, beginning an 18-year hold on the post — the longest by any Czechoslovak official — that was marked by relentless crackdowns on dissent. Among those jailed were human rights campaigner Stanislav Devaty and playwright Vaclav Havel, who would later lead the country after Mr. Strougal’s downfall.
As prime minister, Mr. Strougal was often the country’s public face in international affairs and made overtures for greater Cold War-era trade with the West even as Czechoslovakia’s regime remained a classic Soviet client state.
Moscow kept Mr. Strougal on a short leash and forced a de facto power-sharing alliance with others, such as Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Gustav Husak.
Ironically, the status-quo-style image built by Mr. Strougal came apart because of perceived liberal leanings. As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began the fateful era of “perestroika,” or restructuring, in the late 1980s, Mr. Strougal followed suit with efforts to lessen state controls on the Czechoslovak economy.
That was too much, too fast for Communist Party stalwarts, who worried economic changes would also trigger political reforms. Mr. Strougal was ousted in 1988 in an internal power struggle with Communist Party head Milos Jakes, who had replaced Husak.
“Today’s movement cannot be stopped, and any solution can only be a political one,” Mr. Strougal said on state television.
It proved true. Massive street protests in 1989, set in motion by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, ended full Communist Party control in Czechoslovakia and brought to power Havel, a leader of the Velvet Revolution. (Havel would return as president of the Czech Republic after the country split in December 1992 to also create Slovakia.)
“[Mr. Strougal] was the embodiment of opportunism, careerism, unprincipled realism, self-appointed ‘lesser evil’ and post-89 impunity,” wrote Kieran Williams, an assistant professor of political science at Drake University in Iowa and author of books including “The Prague Spring and its Aftermath” (1997).
In 2001, Mr. Strougal was put on trial based on allegations that he used his influence as interior minister in 1965 to thwart investigations into the killings of three people by the secret police in the late 1940s. The indictment, issued by special investigators looking into communist-era crimes, included an alleged note written by Mr. Strougal: “Take no action, leave the matter alone.”
Judges dropped the case against Mr. Strougal in 2002, citing lack of evidence. As Mr. Strougal left court, a journalist asked if he believed someone should be held accountable for the slayings. Mr. Strougal was tight-lipped. “I won’t talk about specific names,” he said.
In 2019, Mr. Strougal and two other Czechoslovak leaders were charged with abuse of power over allegedly allowing border guards to fire on people trying to flee the country to Austria or then-West Germany. The court decided Mr. Strougal was not fit to stand trial for reasons including his age and symptoms related to dementia.
Lubomir Strougal was born Oct. 19, 1924, in Veseli nad Luznici in the Bohemia region in what is now the Czech Republic. During World War II, with Czechoslovakia under Nazi occupation, Mr. Strougal was assigned to mandatory work in the war effort.
After the war, he went to Prague to study law at Charles University and became a Communist Party member. He was named to the party’s central committee in the late 1950s and served as agriculture minister between 1959 and 1961, and then interior minister until 1965.
Once forced from office in 1988, Mr. Strougal stepped down from his Communist Party posts and mostly left public life, but he sometimes made appearances at matches to support the Sparta Prague soccer club. In a 2009 memoir, he took a dim view of the legacy of more than four decades of communist rule. “I can’t change anything about it,” he wrote. “I sincerely apologize to everyone.”
His first marriage to Vera Strougalova, in which they had a daughter, ended in divorce. He later married Miluse Strougalova. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
After the border-shooting prosecution was dropped against Mr. Strougal, families of people killed trying to defect appealed in vain for Mr. Strougal to at least face public questions.
“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,” Ludek Navara, a historian of Cold War-era policies, told the Czech News Agency. “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.”