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Czech Republic: Velvet Revolution -- The Dissipation Of Fear

Czechoslovakia's "velvet" or "gentle" revolution that 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 third of a four-part report, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back at the fear that pervaded Czech and Slovak society in the final years of Communist rule.

Prague, 16 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Communist Czechoslovakia's 15 million inhabitants lived in fear of being caught up in the cogs of state and ideological control.

For most of the two decades that followed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, fear was considerably deeper and more widespread in Czechoslovakia than it was in neighboring Poland or Hungary. The secret police, the StB, was neither as ubiquitous as the East German Stasi nor as all powerful as the Soviet KGB. But it did have the power to ruin lives.

Fear forced most Czechoslovak citizens to lead a double life: a private life of home and weekend cottage, of trusted friends and personal interests -- and a public life: job and daily contacts with people who might possibly be working for the secret police.

Czech society was especially sour. The few who still dared to challenge the system landed in jail or exile, and most Czechs felt the dissidents got what they deserved for sticking their necks out. Barely 1,000 Czechs dared sign the Charter 77, a human rights petition of 1977. The regime coerced far, far more into condemning the document without ever having read it.

Accepting this neo-Stalinist system could get a citizen a relatively normal, comfortable life. To get ahead, however, required joining the Communist Party that had so brutally suppressed the Prague Spring. The result was political apathy and a distinct absence of national pride or patriotism among most Czechs.

In Slovakia, where normalization purges were less harsh, the aftermath of 1968 brought some benefits. Industry developed as arms production was shifted to Slovakia to place it farther away from the West. And federalization brought Slovakia a greater portion of the budget.

By the mid-1980s, thousands of Slovaks had become active in the environmental protection movement. In 1987, they published "Bratislava Aloud," a damning statement of the communist state's disregard for public health.

One of the organizers of the report was Jan Budaj, a leader of the November 1989 revolution.

"In 1987 we published 'Bratislava Aloud,' which in a certain sense filled the same task as Charter 77 had a decade earlier in Prague. It spoke truthfully about the current world and became a platform for the signatures of people who no longer wanted to live in lies but wanted not only to speak the truth but insist on it."

Slovak society, in contrast to Czech society, continued to simmer, fueled by people like Budaj, as well as banned lawyer Jan Carnogursky, Catholic activist Frantisek Miklosko, and underground Bishop Jozef Korec, all of whom challenged public apathy through samizdat and interviews on Western radio stations rebroadcast back to Czechoslovakia.

Bratislava was the scene of a major showdown on Good Friday -- March 25, 1988 -- when students and believers tried to gather for a prayer vigil on Bratislava's Hviezdoslav Square. Slovak Communist leaders set up a command center in the Hotel Carlton overlooking the gathering and ordered the police to use force to disperse the protesters.

Someone recorded 90 minutes of police radio communications during the clash and distributed copies to Western reporters in subsequent weeks.

"Beta 10, Beta 10, this is Gamma 2, force them out, intervene, over... I repeat immediately use the water cannon, Gamma 2 over..."

Rebroadcasting by Western radios of excerpts of the frantic police orders exposed the harshness of the regime.

Five months later, on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion, some 10,000 Czechoslovaks in Prague joined a spontaneous march through the city, chanting for freedom.

"Strength in unity! Strength in unity"

It took hours for enough police to be brought in to block the bridges across the Vltava River leading to the castle. As the sun set across the river, secret police instigated a wild melee of beatings in front of the Slavia Cafe and the National Theater.

That demonstration and its violent suppression did much to dissipate the overwhelming sense of lethargy, socio-political impotence and fear that was paralyzing Czech society.

That October, some 20,000 people joined a mass demonstration on the 70th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's founding. Police beat and detained large numbers of protesters and passersby, including tourists, drawing international condemnation.

Then in January 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach, Prague witnessed a week of demonstrations demanding liberty and free elections. Police arrested several dissidents, including playwright Vaclav Havel, for trying to lay flowers near the spot where Palach had set himself alight in a bid to shake Czechs from their apathy to the Soviet occupation.

Havel was sentenced to eight months in jail, but as the result of widespread pressure at home and abroad the authorities released him in May, after just four months. Hours after regaining his freedom, Havel told reporters that the people of Czechoslovakia had risked much to secure his early release, which he said "showed a deepening of the freedom of thought in our country."

"This society, which for many years was driven into a state of apathy and lethargy, seems to have started to awaken. And I was just a small pretext for people freely to express themselves. This movement toward general freedom is what strengthens and inspires me and gives me the feeling that I was not in prison for naught."

A variety of petition campaigns were launched in early 1989 calling on the government to respect human rights. Suddenly it was a badge of respect to be among the names of the signatories being read out in radio broadcasts from the West.

Fear was dissipating -- but it was still present. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Prague on August 21 and October 28 failed to attract many participants and were forcibly dispersed by riot police.

It was the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9 -- and the subsequent absence of any Soviet crackdown -- that finally lifted the cloak of fear that had prevented the Czechoslovak people from daring to challenge the regime.

At dusk on Friday, November 17, tens of thousands of students and others participated in an officially sanctioned demonstration. What followed was the velvet revolution, which toppled the Communists without a shot fired or a shop window smashed.