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Czech Republic: The Velvet Revolution -- External Factors

  • Jolyon Naegele



Czechoslovakia's "Velvet" or "gentle" revolution which erupted ten years ago this week was the result of three related factors -- the legacy of 1968, geopolitics, and the dissipation of fear. In the second of four reports, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back at external factors that led to the eruption of the Velvet revolution on November 17, 1989.

Prague, 16 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Eight months after Alexander Dubcek took office as Communist Party first secretary and launched the "Prague Spring" reforms, the five armies of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact occupied Czechoslovakia.

The East referred to the invasion as a "military intervention" or "socialist internationalism" or "fraternal assistance". But in the West, the Soviet justification for the invasion was labeled "the Brezhnev doctrine" after an article in the Soviet daily Pravda declared Warsaw Pact members had the right to take military action to protect endangered communist rule in a fellow bloc member.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia strangled reform not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout the Soviet bloc for years to come.

The post-1968 ferment in Czechoslovakia's socialist neighbors started with the brutally suppressed Gdansk riots in Poland in 1970 that toppled communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka.

Unrest resumed in Poland in the summer of 1976 with worker's protests in Radom against price rises. The communists once again responded with force.

The Vatican's election of a Pole, Karol Wojtyla, as pope in 1978 did much to encourage and inspire Poles as well as devout members of neighboring nations, including the Slovaks.

The pontiff had clear goals when he set out on his historic visit to Poland the following year.

"I hope my journey will bear fruit -- in the internal unity of my countrymen and in the further purposeful development of relations between church and state in our dearest fatherland."

The papal visit inspired the birth of the Solidarity free trade union movement in the summer of 1980. All these events also encouraged Czechoslovakia's modest, largely intellectual opposition.

But while Poles rarely took the communist system in which they lived completely seriously, Czechs and Slovaks did. The legacy of 1968 and the Munich pact of 1939, and the awareness that they were a small nation, hardly gave them cause for self-confidence.

On December 13, 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland rather than risk a Soviet invasion.

"Citizens of the Polish People's Republic, I am turning to you as a soldier and as head of the Polish government. I am turning to you in a matter of supreme concern. Our fatherland is at the edge of a precipice."

The declaration of martial law came as a relief to Czechoslovakia's communist rulers and a disappointment to those who hoped that the flames of Solidarity would spread south. Any chance of change in Czechoslovakia depended on developments in Moscow.

"The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, the Council of Ministers of the USSR with deep sorrow informs the party and the whole of Soviet society that on November 10, 1982 at 8:30 in the morning the general secretary of the CC CPSU, chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev suddenly passed away." The announcement by Radio Moscow of the death of Soviet communist party leader Leonid Brezhnev came amid economic, political, and social stagnation throughout the Soviet bloc.

The brief rule of Brezhnev's two ailing successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, ensured that even the word "reform" continued to be defined by the Czechoslovak communist party as a "temporary, tactical step backwards -- favored by right-wing revisionists."

The appointment in 1985 of the young, dynamic Mikhail Gorbachev and the gradual introduction of his policies of perestroika and glasnost yet again raised hopes across Czechoslovakia that change might finally be on the horizon.

At least as importantly for the Soviet satellites was Gorbachev's oft-repeated warning to his fellow communist party chiefs at closed door Warsaw Pact summits that the Soviet Union would no longer run their affairs. Few of the aging leaders took Gorbachev's words seriously. And some, particularly Czechoslovakia's leadership, assumed Gorbachev and his policies were a temporary aberration from the true Marxist-Leninist line.

Gorbachev's visit to Czechoslovakia in April 1987 only reinforced this view as he failed to urge reform or reevaluation of 1968. Perestroika and glasnost remained merely empty phrases in Czechoslovakia. Prague authorities began curtailing the distribution of the Soviet press in a bid to prevent the dissemination of openly critical articles. Gorbachev's speeches were censored in the Czechoslovak Communist Party daily Rude pravo.

The round table talks in Poland in early 1989 between Solidarity and the communist authorities and the Hungarian parliament's move to reevaluate its own 1956 revolution and transform itself into a parliamentary democracy contributed to a sense of change in Czechoslovakia. Elements of a civil society began to develop in response to the jailing of dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and others and the continued persecution of independent human rights and environmental activists and clerics.

The mass demonstrations in East Germany and the exodus of East Germans through Czechoslovakia to the West in September and October 1989 served as an example for Czechoslovaks. They saw how massive, peaceful civil disobedience could force a Soviet bloc satellite to rein in its forces.

But Czechs were also witness to clashes between their own police and East German asylum seekers trying to reach the West German Embassy in Prague. East German police had ceased beating demonstrators by mid October.

On October 28, the 71st anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, the streets of central Prague once again echoed with chanting and whistling as police battled peaceful Czech protesters.

The chants of "Havel-Dubcek", "Freedom", "Free political prisoners!", "We want democracy!", and "Free elections!" expressed the views of millions of citizens who dared not risk their livelihoods by joining the protests. The crowd numbered some 20,000 -- hardly enough to persuade a government to resign. In marked contrast to neighboring East Germany, the Prague police resorted to clubs, water cannon and armored personnel carriers to disperse the gathering.

On November 9, East German authorities opened the Berlin Wall. On November 17, a record 50,000 Czechoslovaks turned out for a student demonstration in Prague which, though officially sanctioned, turned violent as police surrounded and beat demonstrators. Secret police disinformation that a student had been killed backfired -- in the following days the number of protesters soared into the hundreds of thousands. Opposition activists and intellectuals founded the Civic Forum two days after what came to be known as the "massacre."

The secret police, riot police, interior ministry troops, and the army all waited in vain for orders to act. But the orders never came. As with the Berlin Wall, Moscow monitored the situation in Prague closely but refrained from any interference. Within a week, Jakes and the rest of Czechoslovak Politburo resigned. But equally incompetent bureaucrats were appointed as replacements.

Some 700,000 people demonstrated on November 25 and 26 to show their outrage and demand an end to communist rule. The crowd whistled and booed Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who soon resigned.

On December 3, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact issued separate statements condemning their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

And on December 10, after he swore in a new government of opposition activists and moderate communists under Communist Prime Minister Marian Calfa, Husak finally stepped down as president.

By the end of the month Dubcek was speaker of the federal parliament and the most articulate and outspoken critic of the communist regime, Vaclav Havel, was president of Czechoslovakia.

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