Vasil Bilak, a former Communist leader in Czechoslovakia who in 1968 encouraged the Soviet Union to invade his country to halt efforts for change that he saw as a threat to socialism, died on Thursday in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital. He was 96.
Slovakia’s Communist Party announced the death, the Czech News Agency said.
As a chief ideologist of the Slovak Communist Party, Mr. Bilak, a former tailor, opposed a short-lived period of artistic freedom in the late 1960s known as the Prague Spring, which flourished under the Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek.
Mr. Dubcek promoted what he called “socialism with a human face,” relaxing obstacles to personal and press freedoms. But the period abruptly ended on Aug. 21, 1968, with the invasion of roughly 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops. In protest several months later, Jan Palach, a philosophy student, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in Prague.
Mr. Bilak was among a handful of unbending Communists who opposed the government’s changes. He was one of five party officials who, earlier that year, wrote a letter to the Soviet leader Leonid M. Brezhnev, tacitly encouraging Soviet forces to invade Czechoslovakia to crush the “counterrevolution.”
The letter said that “the very existence of socialism in our country is jeopardized.” Without specifically calling for an invasion, it asked Mr. Brezhnev to use “all the means at your disposal” to counter the threat.
Later, Mr. Bilak, the last surviving author of the letter, would try to distance himself from it, telling the Czechoslovak news agency in 1992 that the letter could have been a “possible forgery.”
Vaclav Havel, who led the Velvet Revolution that overthrew Communism in 1989, was given a copy of the letter in 1992 by the president of Russia, Boris N. Yeltsin.
After Mr. Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, Mr. Bilak was charged with high treason with regard to the 1968 invasion, but the case was dropped because of insufficient evidence.
“Of all the Communist hard-liners, Bilak was a household name, and as such he was deeply reviled among Czechs in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Jan Richter, a Czech journalist with Radio Prague. “He did everything to maintain the Soviet grip over Czechoslovakia.”
Mr. Bilak was secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and played an influential role in establishing the hard-line government that came after the invasion, a period known as “normalization,” when freedom of speech was viciously suppressed and dissidents were bullied by the secret police and in some cases jailed.
In the 1980s, Mr. Bilak opposed the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s openings toward the West.
Mr. Bilak, the ninth child of a farmer, was born on Aug. 11, 1917, in a mountain village of what is now eastern Slovakia. He apprenticed as a tailor but was deemed unfit to work on jackets, apparently because of clumsiness.
In an interview published in 1985 by Rude Pravo, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Mr. Bilak recalled that he had joined a left-wing trade union during World War II and had taken up arms against fascism. His fervid adherence to Communist ideology abetted a meteoric rise in the party.
In the interview with Rude Pravo, Mr. Bilak said he enjoyed reading memoirs and historical literature, and cited Tolstoy, Balzac and Hemingway as among his favorite writers.
He is survived by a son and a daughter.
Vasiľ Biľak was born in Krajná Bystrá (Hungarian: Bátorhegy), and was originally a tailor. In the years 1955–1968 and 1969–1971 he was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Slovakia (ÚV KSS); in 1962–1968 he was the secretary and from January until August 1968 General secretary of ÚV KSS; from April 1968 until December 1988 a member of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (ÚV KSČ). From November 1968 until December 1988 he was a secretary of ÚV KSČ with significant influence on the foreign policy and the ideology of the party. In 1960–1989 he was a member of National Assembly, later Federal Assembly.
In 1968 he belonged to the exponents of the hardline wing in the KSČ; he supported the Soviet invasion and participated on the so-called "normalisation process" after the political liberalization called the Prague Spring.
He was one of the politicians who signed the invitation letter for the armies of Warsaw Pact countries. In December 1989, he was suspended from the KSČ. The Slovak Justice Minister Jan Carnogursky said in 2001 he would not ask the Slovak President Rudolf Schuster to grant an amnesty to Biľak, the Czechoslovak Communist Party ideologist charged with treason in connection with the "invitation" sent to Warsaw Pact countries to extend "brotherly help" to Czechoslovakia in 1968. In 2011, the trial process with Biľak ended unsuccessfully, when the attorney stopped it for lack of witnesses.
He died, aged 96, in Bratislava.