Prague History – The Velvet Revolution
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During the second half of the 1980s, the general situation in Czechoslovakia became more easygoing, especially after the introduction of Perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union. But the Czechoslovak leadership, still headed by Gustav Husak who had assumed power after the Soviet Invasion of 1968, was wary of movements intended to “reform communism from within” and continued to toe a hard line in Czechoslovakia, much to the chagrin of Mikhail Gorbachev.
By 1988 there were organised demonstrations demanding change – and just about one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism in Czechoslovakia became a casualty as well.
The six-week period between November 17th and December 29th 1989, also known as the “Velvet Revolution” brought about the bloodless overthrow of the Czechoslovak communist regime. Almost immediately, rumours (which have never been proved) began to circulate that the impetus for the Velvet Revolution had come from a KGB provocateur sent by Gorbacev, who wanted reform rather than hardline communists in power. The theory goes that the popular demonstrations went farther than Gorbachev and the KGB had intended. In part because of this, the Czechs do not like the term “Velvet Revolution,” preferring to call what happened “the November Events” (Listopadove udalosti) or – sometimes – just “November” (Listopad). But we digress. It all started on November 17th 1989 – fifty years to the day that Czech students had held a demonstration to protest the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On this anniversary, students in the capital city of Prague were again protesting an oppressive regime. The protest began as a legal rally to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal, but turned instead into a demonstration demanding democratic reforms. Riot police stopped the students (who were making their way from the Czech National Cemetery at Vysehrad to Wenceslas Square) in Narodni trida. After a stand-off in which the students offered flowers to the riot police and showed no resistance, the police began beating the young demonstrators with night sticks. In all, at least 167 people were injured. One student was reportedly beaten to death, and – although this was later proved false – this rumour served to crystalise support for the students and their demands among the general public. In a severe blow to the communists’ morale, a number of workers’ unions immediately joined the students’ cause.
During the Velvet Revolution from Saturday November 18th, until the general strike of November 27th, mass demonstrations took place in Prague, Bratislava, and elsewhere – and public discussions instead of performances were held in Czechoslovakia’ theatres. During one of these discussions, at the Cinoherni Klub theatre on Sunday, November 19, the Civic Forum (OF) was established as the official “spokesgroup” for “the segment of the Czechoslovak public which is ever more critical of the policy of the present Czechoslovak leadership.” The Civic Forum, led by the then-dissident Vaclav Havel, demanded the resignation of the Communist government, the release of prisoners of conscience, and investigations into the November 17th police action. A similar initiative – the Public Against Violence (VPN) – was born in Slovakia on November 20th 1989. Both of them were joined en masse by Czechoslovak citizens – from university students and staff to workers in factories and employees of other institutions. It took about 2 weeks for the nation’s media to begin broadcasting reports of what was really going on in Prague, and in the interim students travelled to cities and villages in the countryside to rally support outside the capital for the Velvet Revolution.
The leaders of the Communist regime were totally unprepared to deal with the popular unrest, even though communist regimes throughout the region had been wobbling and toppling around them for some time. As the mass demonstrations continued – and more and more Czechoslovaks supported the general strikes that were called – an extraordinary session of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee was called. The Presidium of the Communist Party resigned, and a relatively unknown Party member, Karel Urbanek, was elected as the new Communist Party leader. The public rejected these cosmetic changes, which were intended to give the impression that the Communist Party was being reformed from within as it had been in 1968. The people’s dissatisfaction increased. Massive Velvet Revolution demonstrations of almost 750,000 people at Letna Park in Prague on November 25 and 26, and the general strike on the 27th were devastating for the communist regime. Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was forced to hold talks with the Civic Forum, which was led by still-dissident Vaclav Havel. The Civic Forum presented a list of political demands at their second meeting with Adamec, who agreed to form a new coalition government, and to delete three articles – guaranteeing a leading role in political life for the Czechoslovak Communist Party and for the National Front, and mandating Marxist-Leninist education – from the Constitution. These amendments were unanimously approved by the communist parliament the next day, on November 29, 1989.
Well, the old saying that ‘if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile’ held true, and the communist capitulation led to increased demands on the part of the demonstrators. A new government was formed by Marian Calfa; it included just nine members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (several of whom actively cooperated with the Civic Forum); two members of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party; two members of the Czechoslovak People’s Party; and seven ministers with no party affiliation – all of latter were Civic Forum or Public Against Violence activists. This new government was named by Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak on December 10. The same evening, he went on television to announce his resignation, and the Civic Forum cancelled a general strike which had been scheduled for the next day.
On December 28th at the 19th joint session of the two houses of the Federal Assembly, Alexander Dubcek – who had led the ill-fated Prague Spring movement in the 1960’s – was elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly. One day later, the parliament elected the Civic Forum’s leader, Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia. This return to Democracy marked the end of the Velvet Revolution.
Despite their many shortcomings – not the least of which were political inexperience and serious time pressures – the new government and parliament were able to fill in many of the most gaping gaps in the Czechoslovak legal framework – concentrating in particular on the areas of human rights and freedoms, private ownership, and business law. They were also able to lay the framework for the first free elections to be held in Czechoslovakia in more than 40 years. The results of the 1990 local and parliamentary elections in Czechoslovakia, which were likened at the time to a referendum which posed the question “Communism, yes or no?” showed a sweeping victory for the soon to be extinct Civic Forum (OF) in the Czech Republic, and for the Public Against Violence (VPN) in Slovakia. In other words, “Communism, no thanks.”
The turnout for the local elections was more than 73 percent, and for Parliamentary elections more than 96 percent of the population went to the polls! Czech Petr Pithart of the Civic Forum was elected as Czech Premier, Slovaks Vladimir Meciar and Marian Calfa, both of the Public Against
Violence (VPN), were elected Slovak and Federal Premier, respectively. Vaclav Havel was re-elected as the Czechoslovak President on July 5, 1990.
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