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Friday, 21 November 2014

History in Focus: The Velvet Revolution

Vaclav Havel awaits to a non-communist Prague after 41 years of communist rule
On November 16th the Czech Republic and Slovakia celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, (the Gentle Revolution in Slovakia). After 41 years of communist oppression Czechoslovakia managed to transition from an authoritarian regime to a democracy. After 41 years Czechoslovakia had managed to shed the communist dominated system that had oppressed the people. The origins of the revolution started not in Czechoslovakia but in the USSR instead.

Gorbachev and his reforms- In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the USSR and started off a series of reforms: Glasnost, (Openness), and Perestroika, (Restructuring). Gorbachev started to stop the political repression of dissidents in the Soviet Union and his reforms quickly caught the attention of the Soviet Union's communist puppets in Europe; he was even nicknamed 'Gorby' in East Germany. One of these nations was Czechoslovakia who had been a virtual puppet of the Soviet Union since 1948 and later a Warsaw Pact member. In 1968 the Soviet Union even invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the growing liberalizing of the Czechoslovakian government in what was called the Prague Spring and the person who tried to liberalize the nation, Alexander Dubcek, was ousted from power. Thanks to Gorbachev's Glasnost a blacklist on people's families who had supported the Prague Spring gradually started to lift and even on dissident poet and playwright, Vaclav Havel, managed to get a petition signed from prison to increase living standards. East Germans living in Prague surrounded the West Berlin embassy to try and get entry into West Germany and they got their wish en masse on November 9th 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. The seeds of the Velvet Revolution had been sown and would quickly germinate.
A photo of the dissident poet Vaclav Havel
The Revolution starts- Prior to 1989 there had been numerous protests against the authoritarian regime, including the Candle Demonstration in 1988. The one which started the Revolution however happened on November 16th 1989 when students marched on the eve of International Students Day in Bratislava and marched to the Slovak Ministry of Education. The army had expected this but had chose not to act; this act had allowed the Velvet Revolution to occur. The next day dissident poet Vaclav Havel led a series of protests in union with the Socialist Union of Youth, (SSM), who opposed the communist censorship. The SSM marched from the grave of noted Czech poet Karel Hynek Macha to downtown Prague. They were dispersed after riot police beat them but one member of the secret police, Ludvik Zifcak, was so overcome by emotion that he collapsed and was taken away by police. However in recent years this has been put into question. The reason for this was that a story of a student called Martin Smid had been killed and a dissident called Petr Uhl gave it to Radio Free Europe who reported that police had killed a student. This later turned out to be a hoax and Zifcak said that it was because of his collapse that this story started, (there is a conspiracy theory about it as well that I won't go into here but I will recommend reading if you are interested in conspiracy theories). Regardless of the murder of Smid being fictitious it had further increased support for reform. Dubcek even came out of forced public silence and declares support for the protesters.
Some riot police clash with protests on 17th November
 The Revolution grows in popularity- The next day Radio Free Europe and strikes from the arts colleges and theaters, (all media was still ran by the regime), spread the news of the fictitious death of Martin Smid getting widespread support for the protesters. People even jingled their keys to show their support with it signifying 'Goodbye, it's time to go home' to communists. On the 19th more theater strikes happen and the civic initiative meet with Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec and tell him that he can only resign when there were mass protests like in East Germany. This comes eerily true as Vaclav Havel and other members of dissident groups like Chapter 77 establish the Civic Forum calling for reforms and the resignation of the people who organised the violence on the 17th. The government becomes so desperate that they even stage an interview with 'Martin Smid' to convince protesters that he is alive, (rather ironic), but none believe it. The protests then start to become popular.
The statue of Saint Adalbert of Prague in anti-communist banners
  The protests increase- The Prime Minister says that no force will be used against the protesters but a few hard-liners including the General Secratary Milos Jakes orders a Peoples Militias to dispers the protests but they only gain 4000 followers and it quickly disbands. On the 24th Jakes resigns and the day after protesters number 800,000 in Prague and 100,000 in Bratislava.

The last days of the Czechoslovakian Communists- The editorial staff of the Pravda, (the then government ran paper equivalent to the New York Times in the USA or Guardian in the UK), declare their allegiance to the protesters on the 26th. The government had no where else to go. Adamec holds his first talks with Havel on the same day. From the following day to the 29th the communist grip over the people falls with with 75% of the public wanting reform. This started with the Ministry of Culture allowing anti-communist and pro-democracy books to be released and the Communist Party loses its leading role as apart of the Constitution. On December 10th President Gustav Husak swears in the first non-communist government for 41 years and resigns. The first legitimate elections takes place and Havel is elected President. The Revolution had succeeded.
Havel during the Revolution
Aftermath and legacy- In 1993 in what was nicknamed the Velvet Divorce Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in a similarly peaceful fashion. The Velvet Revolution was significant with it showing that you don't need an armed militia or army support to overthrow a corrupt government. Like in Poland and East Germany the Czechoslovakian government was changed through peace with no long lasting bitter feuds such as the violent executed of Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania or the violence which broke out in the Balkans after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the ethnic turmoils in Ukraine and the Caucuses after the fall of the USSR. The Velvet Revolution showed that through peaceful protest even authoritarian regimes can fall.

Please leave any comments and thanks for reading. Also if you live in Slovakia or the Czech Republic please give your views on the Velvet Revolution.

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