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Memories of Cold War haunt Eastern Europe

– Alzbeta Ehrnhofer was a 13-year-old Slovak schoolgirl when the Soviet Army poured into Czechoslovakia to “restore order” in 1968.

The unfolding crisis in Crimea took her back to the day almost 46 years ago when tanks rumbled past her house in the southern Slovak town of Fikalovo as neighbors hid from the Russian-led invaders.

“It’s just like it was here in 1968,” she said Monday about the upheaval in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic undergoing its second revolution as an independent nation. “Nothing’s changed. Even the tanks look the same.”

As Ukrainians steel themselves against a full invasion by Russian troops into Crimea and political leaders across the globe engage in marathon diplomacy with President Vladimir Putin to quell soldiers and sailors already there, people in Central and Eastern Europe say their mistrust of Russia is as strong as it has ever been.

Czechs and Slovaks, who split peacefully in 1993, “still remember the Russian invasion of 1968,” Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said in a phone interview Monday.

“We all believed that Russia had joined the ranks of civilized countries, so this is a very rude awakening to see that even now, in the 21st century, a country with clearly defined borders can have its territory violated.”

Twenty-five years ago, countries stretching from Estonia on the Baltic Sea to Romania along the Black Sea began breaking from Russia-controlled Communist regimes in favor of liberal democracies and market economies.

Since then, 11 former Communist nations now members of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Janusz Czapinski, a professor of social psychology at Warsaw University who directs Poland’s biggest public opinion survey, said events in Crimea and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia aren’t necessarily parallel and warned about reading too much of the past in the current events.

“That was to some degree a family spat within the Warsaw Pact,” he said. “Today is completely different. Poles aren’t terrified by these events. Perhaps near the eastern border, but that’s because they fear an influx of refugees, not an invasion.”

Even so, with the added security of being part of the world’s biggest military and economic alliances, some in cities from Prague to Budapest and Warsaw still fear the ghosts of the past. For them, the drama playing out in Ukraine shows that they have lessons the West has yet to listen to.

Russia’s actions are “less of a wake-up call and far more a confirmation of what they’ve been warning about Putin for the past 10 years,” Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, said Monday in a phone interview.

“Too many Western European countries, ranging from Germany to Luxembourg, chose to ignore and play down their fears. The Poles, the Balts and Czechs are now saying ‘I told you so.’ ”

For most Europeans, those concerns faded in the generations since Russia pulled back from its former satellite region as it invested billions of dollars to re-establish itself as an economic might across Europe.

Russia offered Ukrainians $15 billion in aid in December as deadly protests that led to the ouster of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych began.

To be sure, some local political leaders, such as Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban and Czech President Milos Zeman, have publicly supported Russia’s increased presence in the region.

Even for Zeman, sending in Russian troops was a bridge too wide. Sunday, he said closer ties with the EU may be complicated as Russia explains the need to send troops to the neighboring country as a way to protect the interests of the pro-Russian population in Crimea, which was annexed to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

“Even though I understand the interests of Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority, which was annexed to Ukraine by Khrushchev, we have our experience with the 1968 Russian military invasion,” Zeman told CTK news agency Sunday. “I believe any military intervention creates a deep fissure that can’t be mended within a single generation.”

In Budapest on Sunday, some Hungarians likened the events in Ukraine to the 1956 revolution that the Soviet Union quelled.

Hundreds of residents flocked to the Russian embassy, lighting candles and using them to form the word “Ukraine” on the street outside.

“We want this region to be peaceful,” said 78-year-old Sandor Dusnoki, who said he found himself in the “thick of it” during the revolution and decries Putin’s efforts to influence the region, especially by military means. “The last thing I want is any sort of conflict in the region.”