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Czech Republic Marks 'Velvet Revolution' Anniversary Amid Political Turmoil


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Thousands of people took to the streets of the Czech capital Prague on Tuesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the mass demonstrations that led to the collapse of communist rule in what was Czechoslovakia. But, the anniversary of the "Velvet Revolution" has been overshadowed by concerns over political tensions in the Czech Republic.

Twenty years ago, thousands of students braved riot police in Prague, demanding an end to decades of communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia.

They were inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall a week earlier, which had divided East and West Germany for more than a quarter of a century.

Initially, Czech police used force against the demonstrators. But it became increasingly difficult to continue the crackdown as the protests grew to hundreds of thousands of people.

The demonstrations were dubbed the "Velvet Revolution" because those involved wanted to overthrow the regime peacefully.

Within weeks, the Communist Party leadership resigned, and dissident writer Vaclav Havel, who had spent years in prison, was named president on December 29, 1989.

Speaking at a commemorative gathering at the Czech Senate in Prague on Tuesday, Mr. Havel urged Czechs not to forget those involved in the country's surge to freedom.

The former Czech Republic president said the changes in 1989 were "undoubtedly aided by people who, for long years" tried to show the world "the real situation" in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Yet as president, Mr. Havel was unable to keep the country together. In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both countries are now members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.

Tuesday's anniversary of the Velvet Revolution has sparked a debate about the Czech Republic's brand of multiparty democracy and the perceived growing gap between rich and poor in the country.

The government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in March. Analysts say the country now has a weak caretaker government and that a new cabinet will be formed only after general elections scheduled for May.

Czech Ambassador at Large for Energy Security Vaclav Bartuska, who was a student activist during the Velvet Revolution, told Radio Prague that the country's political tensions overshadow the celebrations.

"It is funny to watch the situation today, 20 years later, when we basically have the same disregard toward our present politicians and see them as jerks, basically," said Vaclav Bartuska. "And at the same time, we don't care enough to change anything. That is rather sad, I would say."

Bartuska is not alone. A recent public opinion poll shows that eight out of ten adults in the Czech Republic say they are not satisfied with the current political situation.

Even the Communist Party still commands as much as 15 percent in voter support, although most people doubt that the Czech Republic will ever return to its autocratic past.

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