Prague: With their country in deep political crisis, Czechs will take to the streets throughout the country Tuesday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the end of decades of repressive communist rule.
They will celebrate with exhibitions, concerts, speeches and rallies. Thousands of people in the capital, Prague, plan to participate in a reenactment of a student protest — an evocation of the event that triggered the Velvet Revolution that peacefully toppled the communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Nov. 17, 1989, began with fiery speeches at a university campus in Prague, inspiring thousands of students to march downtown toward Wenceslas Square. As darkness fell, police cracked down hard, beating demonstrators with truncheons and injuring hundreds in the melee.
Uncowed, the crowds mushroomed in the ensuing days, with demonstrators chanting: "You have lost already!"
They were right. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism in the region, by Dec. 5, Czechoslovakia had a new government. On Dec. 29, Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who had spent several years in prison, was elected the country's first democratic president in a half century by a parliament still dominated by communist hard-liners.
The peaceful nature of the historic change and the leading role of Havel were praised by many.
"Your spirit, your courage inspired the world," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a video message broadcast at a concert organized by Havel over the weekend, featuring rocker Lou Reed, soprano Renee Fleming and folk singer Joan Baez.
"You are the model," Vice President Joe Biden said during his recent visit to Prague.
"As I travel through Eastern Europe — as I travel to Ukraine and Georgia and other places, you are the model for democracy that they look to," he said.
Havel said that, despite problems, his nation of 10 million is still on the right track, enjoying a democratic society with the rule of law, respect for human rights and a free-market economy.
"I wouldn't say we abandoned the ideals we had then," he said recently.
But he warned that democracy and freedom could not be taken for granted.
"The era of dictatorships and totalitarian systems has not come to en end," he said. "It may have ended in its classical way as we know it from the 20th century, but new, much more sophisticated ways of controlling the society are being born and we need to be cautious," Havel said.
A survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that, of nine post-communist countries, only in the Czech Republic and Poland did a majority say that people were better off than they were at the transition from communism.
The Czech Republic is now a member of NATO and the European Union.
But the euphoria of revolutionary days is long gone.
Eighty-eight percent of Czechs say they are not satisfied with the current political situation, a recent public poll showed. The Median agency surveyed 1,374 people aged 18 and older questioned in September and October. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
"People have a reason to be dissatisfied," said Bohumil Dolezal, a political analyst.
"The political situation has been unstable for a long time," he said.
Besides the economic downturn, the country has been in political limbo since the government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was embarrassingly ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in March in the middle of the Czech EU presidency, just days before Obama's visit to Prague.
Currently, the country has a weak, caretaker government; a new government will be formed only after general elections in May.
Still, Dolezal said "we've got something to celebrate," because for most the revolution "was an unprecedentedly positive change in our lives."
Simon Panek, a student leader in 1989, said most people might be disgusted by politics, but "20 years ago we gained the essential thing: freedom."
Ten years ago, Havel, as president, honored former President George H.W. Bush, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Poland's 1980s pro-democracy leader, Lech Walesa, at the Prague Castle for their contributions to the fall of communism.
This time, only heads of Eastern European parliaments will participate in a conference in the Senate.
Organizers of the re-enactment of the student rally said they invited more than 800 original participants, as well anti-Communist dissidents — but no politicians other than Havel.
"We do it for normal people," said Michal Pokorny, an organizer. "It's a great anniversary but we wanted a nonpolitical celebration."
First Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2009, 13:09