Tomorrow it will be exactly 15 years from the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution in 1989. Because it was an amazing period of the Czechoslovak history, I believe that this anniversary deserves an article. Those of you who are interested in Central and Eastern Europe might want to read it.
Although Mikhail Gorbachov started glasnost' and perestroika in the Soviet Union already in the middle 1980s, these trends did not quite penetrate to Czechoslovakia. Despite the Czechoslovak communists' claims that they followed his process of democratization (namely of "přestavba" which means "re-building"), the reality was quite different. Václav Havel was in prison and the economic reforms were stuck. The lives of all people were "normalized" and they looked much like in the 1970s. Not much progress. Most people were frustrated. Socialism was a boring system, indeed.
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For most of us, it was very hard to imagine that things could speed up. In October 1989, Eastern Germans started to escape to West Germany through the embassies in Budapest, Prague, and other cities. History was obviously moving on in other countries but Czechoslovakia looked frozen. The developments in Poland and Hungary were being pictured as chaos that must be avoided in Czechoslovakia. There were no signs that the Party was forced to change anything. Some people like to say that Czechoslovakia was completely controlled from Moscow - but the years 1987-1989 were a great evidence that it was not so. Unfortunately - because the Soviet Union was ahead!
However, on Friday, November 17th, 1989, the students were celebrating the "international students' day". Well, it was exactly 50 years after the Nazis closed the Czech universities and killed or arrested the most inconvenient students. Those active students in 1989 not only admired their predecessors in 1939, but they also wanted to show that they did not like the practises of the socialist totalitarian system.
As you know, the young participants of the demonstration in Prague were beaten by the socialist police. Those of us who listened to the Radio Free Europe knew what happened on Friday. Most people who were interested in politics knew about these events by Saturday, and it was becoming clear that something important was going on. There were some rumors that a particular student named Martin Šmíd was killed by the police. These rumors were not true - in fact, a couple of years ago, I exchanged a plenty of e-mails with exactly this Martin Šmíd. He advocated astrology while I don't believe this science too much. ;-) At any rate, he definitely survived.
There were other important and confusing details such as an agent of the Communist Secret Agency that pretended he was a student, but I don't want to bother you with these details.
Nevertheless the anti-socialist dissidents, famous actors, musicians, and other people were slowly joining this "children's revolution". Various groups of people began to write down petitions and organize strikes. On Monday, the revolution was already underway. Although we were high schools students, our role was more important than what would be reasonable to expect. We were able to elect the principal of the school, and we wrote our own petitions.
In the evening, there was always a big demonstration in Prague, and smaller demonstrations in other cities including Pilsen, my hometown. The demonstrations were frequent, and the biggest one in Prague attracted more than one million of people.
New leaders started to emerge - Václav Havel, Jiří Dienstbier, Václav Klaus, Valtr Komárek, Miloš Zeman, Jiří Bartoška, and so on. Many of them had had no political experience. Many of them were actors and musicians, and so forth. Some of these early leaders are still doing politics; most of them have returned to their older jobs.
The communists started to have problems with the workers, too. An infamous boss of the Communist Party in Prague, Miroslav Štěpán, was explaining to the workers of ČKD, a big factory in Prague, that no country in the world - neither socialist nor capitalist nor third-world country - can allow children, 15-year old children to decide who will be in the government. Thousands of workers started to scream: "We're not children! We're not children!" Obviously, he was in trouble. Such things would have been unthinkable 2 weeks earlier.
The demonstrations in the streets were incredibly lovely and peaceful. The people were very nice to each other. Everyone thought that they agreed about everything - which, of course, turned out to be false as soon as the communists were eliminated from the government, and other questions beyond "the same socialism yes/no" had to be answered. They were ringing the keys. And the developments were extremely fast. Imagine a country where nothing really changed for 20 years - and suddenly the leading role of the Party is eliminated, the president and the Party's chief resign, and a new president is elected although he was in prison 2 months ago - and everything happens without any violence whatsoever.
I was always proud about the velvet character of the revolution even though I have also had many doubts about that strategy every time the communists said something outrageous after 1989. Could we have reduced their influence more significantly by replacing the velvet with a tougher material? I am not sure about the answer... Czechoslovakia was nevertheless the only country in which the communists did not return to the government after 1989 - the social democratic party was revived and became strong (for a couple of years, at least - although they are the senior party in the current government, they received essentially zero votes in the last two elections).
At any rate, thousands of changes had to be made between 1989-1991. It was pretty easy to guarantee the freedom of speech and other basic human rights. Our first president Václav Havel became the symbol of all these changes and new philosophies. It was much harder to transform the most socialized economy in the world into a moderately vibrant emergent free market. Thousands of companies had to be privatized - and some of them did not have a bright future because they lost the Russian markets etc. The currency had to become convertible, controlled by free market currency exchange rates. Václav Klaus, a charismatic economist who was neither a communist nor a true dissident, was ready to realize this task, and although it was a difficult one and its realization could not avoid some problems, I think that the result was very good.
Václav Klaus symbolized the transformation process of the economy, and consequently, he became very unpopular among many people in the middle 1990s. Nevertheless, his popularity jumped well above 60 percent once he was elected the second Czech president in 2003 - of course, the main reason is that he is not responsible for the economy anymore.
Although there are many "usual" and "expected" problems facing the people, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are clearly much better off today. Back in 1989 we discussed the question how many years would we need to catch up with some western European countries, and even though some of our guesses were unrealistic, most of them were not that far off. Today, both parts of Czechoslovakia belong to the European Union. The countries' citizens can do (and have) virtually everything as our Western fellows who have not lived in socialism.