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Czech Republic: Velvet Revolution -- The Road To Freedom

  • Jolyon Naegele

Czechoslovakia's "velvet" or "gentle" revolution that erupted ten years ago was the result of three related factors -- the legacy of 1968, geopolitics and the dissipation of fear. In the last of four-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele traces events from the demonstration of November 17, 1989, to Vaclav Havel's inauguration as president.

Prague, 16 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A demonstration in Prague on November 17, 1989 ignited the peaceful revolution that swept Prague in the next ten days. It was International Students Day, and Prague's communist authorities had granted a student request to hold a rally. But the authorities insisted that protesters stay out of the center of Prague.

As some 15,000 people began marching from the medical school, an undercover secret police officer (Ludvik Zifcak) steered them into the center of the city. Within an hour, the crowd swelled to 50,000. That evening, riot police encircled some 10,000 of the demonstrators on Narodni Avenue, which leads to Wenceslas Square, and began closing in, physically beating hundreds of them.

The event that galvanized the crowd is still not fully explained. The undercover agent posed as dead and was seen being taken away in an ambulance. Other undercover police agents, posing as the "dead" student's friends, informed dissident Petr Uhl that a student had been killed. Uhl believed the story and informed news agencies, which spread the word further.

Outraged, students and actors announced a week-long strike at universities and theaters. On Sunday, November 19, Uhl told a visiting reporter he suspected that he was the victim of a secret police disinformation plot, as he had learned that no one had died from the beatings. Minutes later, police detained Uhl for disseminating false reports that a student had been killed.

That evening, another huge demonstration drew 150,000 people. Meanwhile, in a Prague theater (Cinoherni klub), a group of intellectuals, students, and actors held the founding meeting of a new opposition group, the Civic Forum.

Overnight, the first snow of the season bathed Prague in a fine white veil. In the morning, scores of reporters poured into the riverside apartment of dissident playwright Vaclav Havel for a news conference. Havel announced the new Civic Forum's demands as cameramen and photographers jostled and clambered over furniture for a better view.

Just up the river at the Manes art gallery, hundreds of art students began painting posters and banners for what were to become nightly mass demonstrations. The demonstrations grew night by night, filling one of Europe's largest squares to capacity. State television began broadcasting the demos live.

On Thursday, November 23, Havel spoke to a crowd of more than 300,000.

"We want to live in a free, cooperative and prosperous Czechoslovakia, we want to return to Europe and we shall never give up our ideals regardless of whatever happens in the coming days," he said, to mass cheers dissolving into chants of "freedom!"

That same night in Bratislava, the leader of the 1968 reforms, Alexander Dubcek, emerged from obscurity after 19 years of public banishment and spoke to an immense, cheering crowd of demonstrators. He joined Havel in Prague the next day and addressed a joyful crowd there.

Across the river, the Central Committee met all day (Nov. 24). That evening, state television announced personnel changes.

"At 19:00 at the extraordinary session of the central committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, comrade Milos Jakes took the floor and announced that he personally and all the other members of the Politburo and secretariat had agreed to give up their functions so that a new leadership of the party could be appointed."

The news reached Dubcek and Havel at a post-demonstration news conference at a Prague theater. They hugged and toasted the revolution with champagne, while outside on Wenceslas Square, total strangers began dancing and singing for joy. Some were overcome. One old man broke down in tears.

"The greatest experience of my life..."

That weekend up to 700,000 protesters filled a Prague park, demanding an end to Communist rule. Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec met (at Obecni Dum) with Vaclav Havel and other leaders of the revolution in a series of roundtable talks regulating the disintegration of communist power.

The Civic Forum denounced the reformed cabinet and demanded a truly representative government. Havel said at his nightly news conference that Husak should be replaced as president by "an honorable, wise, and good" person who is not a communist. Two days later, Husak announced his resignation.

"A new government of national understanding can be named tomorrow. I hope that works out. As soon as the new government is appointed, I will step down from the function of the president of the CSSR in accordance with the wishes of the political parties in the National Front to ease further development."

The following day, December 10, was International Human Rights Day, and the Civic Forum organized another mass demonstration on Wenceslas Square. Vaclav Havel delivered the most memorable slogan of the revolution.

"We will not allow anyone in any way to sully this beautiful face of our peaceful revolution. Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred," he said to cheers and chants of "long live Havel."

The following morning, posters of Havel with his slogan about truth and love were plastered all over Prague. Overnight, the playwright had become the leading candidate for president, without even declaring an intention to run.

A deal was reached for the still-communist Federal Assembly to elect Dubcek speaker of parliament on December 28. The following day, December 29, 1989, in a ceremony at Prague Castle, Dubcek announced that parliament had unanimously elected Havel president.

"In view of the accord by both houses of parliament, I state that Mr. Vaclav Havel has been elected president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic."

There was hardly a dry eye in the house as Dubcek and Havel walked down the red carpet past the applauding guests -- dissidents, diplomats, and even communists.

A short while later, the guests filed across the castle courtyard and into St. Vitus cathedral for a mass celebrated by the Czech Roman Catholic primate, Frantisek Tomasek. In a strong voice quivering with the emotion of the moment, the 90-year-old cardinal thanked God for what he termed "the great hope which has opened before us in the last days of this year."

"May God accept our grateful praise and bless our acts so that we live in this present age in reason, justice, and devotion."

Then, in an act as off-beat as the entire velvet revolution, the Czech Philharmonic erupted in the wild American Indian drumbeat of Antonin Dvorak's rarely heard "Te Deum."