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Velvet Revolution Inspires and Disappoints


The 20th anniversary of the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe continue to serve as inspiration for a peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy, but some are disappointed by persistent economic hurdles.

Last week Czechs and Slovaks celebrated the 20th anniversary of the beginning of their Velvet Revolution, which many analysts still view as the quintessential non-violent mass demonstrations that in 1989 brought an end to communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe. But not all people in the region regard their political and economic aspirations as fulfilled.

Czechoslovakia’s Neighbors

The political transformations in Poland and Hungary and the collapse of the East German government encouraged Czechs and Slovaks to take to the streets to win their freedom. A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, students marched peacefully through the streets of Prague demanding a political restructuring by their own government. Leading the movement was the dissident writer and playwright Vaclav Havel, who six weeks later would be named president of a democratic Czechoslovakia.

“I think it was a magic moment,” said Czech journalist Jiri Fisher, “and the theatre played a huge role because the theatre went on strike, and stages in Prague, Ostrava, and Brno became a kind of political forum.” Actors did not play their scheduled productions, Fisher recalled, but instead called on the leaders of the Communist Party to step down.

Role of the Media 20 Years Ago

“One of the most popular actors in Prague, Jiri Bartoshka, was reporting live on the Voice of America’s Czechoslovak Service,” Fisher recalled. “Vaclav Havel and his friends were having those wonderful debates,” he said. In Ostrava and Brno, other well-known actors contributed to the live reportage.

Fisher credits international radio for keeping his countrymen informed about the events in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. He remembered one of his Slovak colleagues at VOA telephoning a woman in a department store on the very square in Bratislava where demonstrations were ongoing. He asked the woman to hold her telephone receiver outside the window so other people across her country could share the experience. “It was a dear colleague, Erik Strazan, who did this wonderful, perfect trick,” Fisher said.

Today’s Mixed Reactions

“But less wonderful,” Fisher said, “is the general cynicism among Czechs over their current political leaders.” In fact, a recent poll showed that about 20 percent of Czech people do not remember the Velvet Revolution as a positive or necessary development. Even from the ranks of the politically astute, questions remain. For example, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party Milos Jakes has said he doesn’t understand why the revolution took place. “He claims that the economy was excellent, and everybody in the country was happy,” Fisher said. “And he blames Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in Russia, which opened the door to all this stuff.”

Without doubt, the last 20 years have altered the way people in the former Soviet Union recall Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center recalls that, initially, many people in Russia were enthusiastic about the events of November 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. Parallel developments were taking place at home.

“But, unlike countries in Central and Eastern Europe, where the liberation from communism was also liberation from an alien and evil force, in Russia the vision of those events is much more ambiguous,” Lipman said. Today, Russians associate the fall of communism with the loss of the Soviet sphere of influence, extensive territory, and former super-power status.

Nostalgia among Germans

From his post in Germany, Matthias Rueb, now the Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, remembers the Prague Revolution as “even more beautiful than the one in East Germany.” “It was more symbol-laden,” he said – “more riveting than the coming down of the Berlin Wall.”

Rueb recalls the images that symbolized the Velvet Revolution. They included the jingling of keys by the crowds in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to suggest the opening of the door to freedom. He remembers protestors placing flowers on the helmets and shields of policemen. “It was a revolution that was sparked by students and artists, and that gave the chain of events of 1989 a special flavor that’s unforgettable,” Rueb said.

Twenty years later, Rueb says admiration for the Czech and Slovak revolutionaries still persists in Germany. “Today,” he said, “people in Germany regard the Czech Republic as good a neighbor as either Austria or France.”

Today both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are also members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union.

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