The year 1968 remains one of the most turbulent years in modern history, marked by geopolitical shocks that include the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations, student protests around the world. and the first humans orbiting the moon. That year also saw the Soviet Union lead a group of fellow Warsaw Pact nations across the border into what was then Czechoslovakia to crush a popular anti-Communist revolt in Prague.
In the decades that followed, Communist rule in Eastern Europe continued. As I was growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, there was no mention in my textbooks of the 1968 Prague Spring. Speaking about it was also taboo. When pressed for answers, grownups were reluctantly explaining that small groups staged a violent pro-capitalist uprising and the Soviets rushed in to fulfil their international duty to help a brotherly Socialist state, and the majority of ‘the people’, preserve the peace. Kids were told this whenever they were asking about the Soviet regime intervening in post-war Eastern Europe.
I moved to Prague with little knowledge of the Prague Spring shortly after the Velvet Revolution began 30 years ago on November 17, 1989. The Prague Spring set the stage for the revolution’s success and the Berlin Wall, which had only just fallen, made it clear that the changes that were happening across Eastern Europe were irreversible.
Together, the momentous events of 1989 put the final nails into the coffin of the Soviet Empire.
The Velvet Revolution was the culmination of a long struggle in many corners of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. It was called ‘Velvet’ because the transition of power was considered non-violent, but it was peaceful only in relative terms. The day the uprising began, riot police brutally attacked a group of students in the centre of Prague. In the fall of 1956, a similar gathering of a few thousand students in Budapest resulted in millions of ordinary people trying to overthrow the hated Stalinist regime of Matyas Rakosi. In June of that same year, workers in Poznan, Poland had risen up against the Communist regime.
For many years, tens of thousands of ordinary people were killed and wounded by tanks, infantry, and security police as uprisings against Communism were brutally oppressed and in the repressions that followed.
The police violence in Prague in November 1989 was unprecedented and had not been seen since the days of the Prague Spring. But unlike in 1956 and 1968, the Soviet military did not intervene.
Sensing the momentum that was building, Civic Forum, a dissident movement led by famed play write Vaclav Havel, was established as an opposition group. Encouraged, the people of Czechoslovakia started to lose their fear. A series of demonstrations from November 17 to late December turned into a revolution.
On November 20, the number of protesters in Prague grew from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated 500,000. That show of force was followed on November 27 when the entire nation held a two-hour general strike. Disoriented, the Communist government announced that it would relinquish power and end the one-party state. A new government, the members of which included several individuals from the opposition who had served prison terms, was formed. These fateful events gave birth to the new democracy in the heart of the rapidly crumbling Communist bloc.
The new country that emerged was led by Havel. No one captured the moral high ground of this historical moment better than him. Havel was a poet who long opposed to Communist totalitarianism in his homeland as well as a dissident and co-founder of the movement known as Charter 77, for which he was imprisoned.
In 1989, Havel united diverse opposition groups into Civic Forum, which then nominated him to become president once the Communist government had fallen. On December 29, the Federal Assembly unanimously elected Havel and in 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first free elections in 44 years, resulting in a sweeping victory for Civic Forum and its Slovak counterpart, Public Against Violence.
On a personal level, Havel left a deep impression on me, both as a human and as a politician. I had the great fortune to meet him in the early 1990s in Prague. I encountered a small man, wearing a rumpled sweater and jeans – he was, after all, a playwright, not a politician. He was shy, yet resilient, overly polite, yet deceptively decisive, and a true nonconformist.
At right around that same time, and by pure chance, I also met one of his friends, Pavel Tigrid. He was a leading writer and journalist from the Czech émigré community who later led a ministry in the Czech Cabinet. He and his wife gave me a ride in their old car when I was hitchhiking in the summer of 1991 to Tabor, a town south of Prague.
Those days everything seemed possible and everything was simple. People were celebrating the victory of openness. It felt that everything was about to arrive and the truth had won forever. This new political class of writers and intellectuals seem genuinely committed to shaping their country into a model of 21st century economic, political. and cultural renewal.
They had successfully completed their primary objective—the overthrow of the hated Communist regime. Some of the views of that political group later became controversial domestically – they reluctantly criticised the consumerism of voters and the greed of corporations. They were determined to project moral authority and were not afraid of taking political risks for important principles.
They were a political class of their own.
However, intellectually Civic Forum was too diverse. For some, their spiritual heroes were John Lennon and the Rolling Stones. For others, it was Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman. As a governing party, Civic Platform was too ineffective. It’s not surprising that in 1990, the year after the Velvet Revolution, Civic Forum split into several political groups.
By 1992. Slovakia’s calls for greater autonomy effectively blocked the daily functioning of the government. People like Havel were unable to contain the trend toward breaking up Czechoslovakia, and in 1993 the Czechs and Slovaks went their separate ways. Many former dissidents left the government. After an unsuccessful campaign for election to the Czech Senate, Tigrid retired back to France where he died in 2003. Havel stayed in power until that year and fought many political battles. Vaclav Klaus, one of his greatest political adversaries, was later elected as his successor.
The Czech Republic is probably not exactly what the idealists like Havel and his dissident friends were hoping for. People are allowed to speak while the country continues to maintain a developed economy and a European social welfare system. The country is a member of NATO and fully participates in the European Single Market as a member of the EU. It also ranks high in World Bank Human Capital Index, ahead of countries such as the US and Denmark.
Today’s Czech Republic is, however, also plagued by widespread corruption.
For that reason, mass demonstrations have returned to the streets of Prague. This time people are protesting against Andrej Babis, a billionaire who has been the Czech prime minister since October 2017. He allegedly committed fraud using a €2 million European Union grant for one of his businesses. He is also accused of having collaborated with the Communist regime and maintains close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Milos Zeman is also a target of protests for having shown a blatant disregard for the Czech constitution. Among European leaders, Zeman is also known as one of most ardent supporters of Russia, which is again becoming more assertive in Eastern Europe. For now, the polls suggest that both Babis and Zeman remain popular and are unlikely to leave.
Modern protesters should not be discouraged though. From the days of the Prague Spring and right through to the Velvet Revolution, they should know that revolutions come from a country’s youth. Bringing about fundamental change is often a lengthy process. Over time responsible leaders do appear and so does the power of civil society to use nonviolent means to bring down any government, especially a corrupt one.