Velvet Revolution memories bittersweet as Czechs worry for their democracy

Source: The Irish Times / / By Daniel McLaughlin /

Nation marks 30 years since Vaclav Havel and fellow dissidents swept into power

Wenceslas Square
When almost a million people gathered on Prague’s Wenceslas Square and much of the country joined a general strike, it was clear that political authority had changed. Photograph: Lubomir Kotek/AFP via Getty Images

Tomas Halik admits questioning the scope of papal infallibility during a private Vatican dinner with Pope John Paul II in November 1989, when the pontiff told him: “This is the end of communism . . . Get ready: you too will soon be free!”

“He said ‘you must be prepared for great change in your country’, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” recalls Halik, a member of the “underground church” in Czechoslovakia who was secretly ordained as a priest in 1978 in East Germany.

A couple of days after that memorable dinner, the Berlin Wall was breached and within a fortnight hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks were rallying in Prague during what would become known as the Velvet Revolution.

Halik (71) says the revolution healed the nation and united church leaders such as Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek and Vaclav Maly with Vaclav Havel and other secular intellectuals who, within weeks, were being catapulted into power.

Tomas Halik
Catholic priest Tomas Halik (right) and Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who became Czechoslovakia’s president after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Photograph courtesy of Tomas Halik

Jiri Pehe, now the director of the New York University in Prague, remembers finding his homeland changing at bewildering pace when he returned from Munich in early December 1989 to report for Radio Free Europe.

He went to visit Petr Uhl, a dissident journalist and signatory of Charter 77 – a manifesto demanding respect for human rights in Czechoslovakia – who was stoking boilers in the Prague metro after being barred from any more influential post. Jiri Dienstbier, another reporter-turned-dissident, fed the furnaces alongside him.

“I was at Uhl’s flat when a guy from the boiler room rang up and asked angrily what was going on – Dienstbier hadn’t turned up for his shift,” Pehe recalls.

“Uhl replied: ‘Sorry, I was just about to call you. I think you’ll have to get by without Jiri – he’s just been appointed as the minister of foreign affairs.”

Czechoslovak Press Agency

“‘And what about you?’ the boiler-man asked Uhl. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be there for three more weeks,’ Petr replied. ‘And then I’m going to be the director of the Czechoslovak Press Agency.”

Czechoslovakia’s neighbours had blazed a trail for democracy that summer, as Poland held the first partly free elections in the communist bloc and appointed a non-communist prime minister, and Hungary scrapped the one-party state and opened its borders to let thousands of East Germans reach the West via Austria.

When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, Prague began to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin would stick to its new “Sinatra Doctrine” and allow the nations of Eastern Europe to do things “their way”, without triggering a repeat of the Soviet crackdowns on Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Pavel Rychetsky
Pavel Rychetsky, president of the Czech constitutional court, who took part in civic resistance against the communist regime that was toppled in the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Photograph: Vladimir Novotny/Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic

“Roughly since the middle of 1989, the hope began to loom and finally led up to the Velvet Revolution,” says Pavel Rychetsky, the president of the Czech constitutional court. “What surprised me most was the speed of change, the speed of collapse of the puppet regime when it had lost its puppeteer, its mentor and protector in the Kremlin.”

The regime removed him from Prague’s municipal court and Charles University over to his opposition to political trials, and he criticised the communists in articles published abroad and in underground “samizdat” form at home.

Riot police attacked

Rychetsky recalls spending days with Havel in the basement of a Prague theatre after riot police attacked student protesters on November 17th, 1989, and having “no idea whether we would soon get to the prison or to the government”.

“Finally the second scenario materialised and suddenly we faced a challenge with no easy solution . . . It is impossible to achieve everything, however, in Vaclav Havel’s words: ‘Without dreaming of a better future, there is no better future.’”

When almost a million people gathered on Prague’s Wenceslas Square and much of the country joined a general strike on November 27th, it was clear that political authority had passed to Havel’s reformists, and the communists resigned.

A transitional parliament was sworn in on December 28th, and Alexander Dubcek – leader of the doomed 1968 Prague Spring – returned from enforced obscurity in the Slovak forestry service to become the chamber’s speaker; the next day, deputies voted unanimously to make Havel the president of Czechoslovakia.

“I was seven in 1989, and living in Zlin, around 300km from Prague. Everything would always arrive with some delay to that place,” says Zdenek Hrib, the current mayor of Prague.

‘Landing on the moon’

“We were watching the TV news, and I felt that the adults could not believe that those things were really happening. It was simply incredible, and the atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive. It was like watching the first landing on the moon.”

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to gather in Prague this weekend, in a major anti-government demonstration on Saturday and events to commemorate the Velvet Revolution on Sunday.

Many Czechs see today’s leaders as an affront to the legacy of Havel and 1989: President Milos Zeman derides civil society, refugees and other soft targets while courting the Kremlin and Beijing, and billionaire premier Andrej Babis is fighting allegations of fraud and collaboration with communist-era security services.

“I sensed and supposed the ethos of the Velvet Revolution could not last forever and a significant segment of our society would feel disappointed or disillusioned by the fact that the ‘paradise on Earth’ had not come true right away,” says Rychetsky, who a recent poll identified as the most trusted Czech official.

‘Present-day reality’

“Yet I did not anticipate this disappointment would result in the present-day reality, although nothing is lost. We have a solid constitutional system with an inbuilt check-and-balances mechanism to prevent a change of fundamental rules of democracy and rule of law.”

Halik, who has recently published his autobiography, shares Rychetsky’s concerns – and his abiding sense of hope.

He says Zeman wants “to turn politics toward these undemocratic powers in the east . . . against the Velvet Revolution and attempts to be part of the west.”

“So now we have a very dangerous situation, when Zeman is manipulated by some oligarchs and these oligarchs have economic interests in Russia and China and they have great political influence,” Halik told The Irish Times.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an optimist – in our country people describe an optimist as a person with a lack of information – but I have hope. Hope is the strength to withstand even a situation that is very complicated. So I am definitely a man of hope.”