Velvet Revolution

From Academic Kids

The "Velvet Revolution" (Czech: sametov revoluce, Slovak: nežn revolcia) (November 16 - December 29 1989) refers to a bloodless revolution in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the communist government there.

It started on November 16 1989 with a peaceful student demonstration in Bratislava. One day later, on November 17, 1989, another peaceful student demonstration in Prague was severely beaten back by the communist riot police. That event sparked a set of popular demonstrations from November 19 to late December, and a general two-hour strike of the population on November 27. By November 20 the number of peaceful protestors assembled in Prague had swelled from 200,000 the day before to an estimated half-million.

With other communist regimes falling all around it, and with growing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on November 28 they would give up their monopoly on political power. Barbed wire was removed from the border with West Germany and Austria on December 5. On December 10, the Communist President Gustv Husk appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Vclav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29 1989.

As one of the results of the Velvet Revolution, the first democratic elections since 1946 were held in June, 1990, and brought the first completely non-communist government to Czechoslovakia in over forty years.


Political situation prior to the revolution

Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communist Party from February 25, 1948. There was no opposition. Dissidents (notably Charter 77) published home-made periodicals (samizdat), but they faced persecution from the secret police, and the general public was afraid to suport them. A person could be dismissed from their job or school, or have their books or movies banned for having a "negative attitude to [the] socialist regime." This included: being a child of a former entrepreneur or non-Communist politician, having family members in exile, supporting Alexander Dubcek, opposing Soviet military occupation, promoting religion, boycotting rigged parliamentary elections, signing Charter 77 or associating with those who did. These rules were easy to enforce as all schools, media and businesses belonged to the state and were under direct supervision.

This changed gradually after the introduction of Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika in 1985. The Czech Communist leadership verbally supported Perestroika, but did little to institute real changes, and speaking of the Prague Spring of 1968 was still a taboo. 1988 and 1989 saw the first anti-governmental demonstrations, which were repressed by the police.

Chronology of the first week

  • Friday November 17, 1989 - Socialist Union of Youth (SSM, proxy of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) organizes a mass demonstration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of death of Jan Opletal, a Czech student murdered by the Nazi occupants during World War II. Most members of SSM are privately in opposition against the Communist leadership, but afraid of speaking up for fear of persecution. This demonstration gives an average student an opportunity to join others and express his opinions without fear. By 16:00, about 15 thousand people join the demonstration. They walk to Opletal's grave and - after the official end - continue to downtown Prague (map (, carrying anti-Communist slogans. At about 19:30, the head of the demonstration is stopped by a cordon of riot police at Nrodn Street. They block all escape routs and brutally beat the students. Once all are dispersed, one of the participants - secret police agent Ludvk Zifčk - keeps lying on the street, posing as dead, and is later taken away. It is not clear why he did it, but the rumor of "dead student" was perhaps critical for the shape of further events. Still in the evening, students and theater actors agree on going on a strike.
  • Saturday November 18 - Theaters in Prague are on strike. Instead of playing, actors read proclamation of students and artists to the audience. Home-made posters and proclamations are hanged on public places. As all media (radio, TV, newspapers) are strictly controlled by the Communist Party, this is the only way to spread the message. In the evening, Radio Free Europe informs that a student (named as Martin md) was killed by the police during yesterday's demonstration. This persuades many hesitating citizens to disregard fear and join the protests.
  • Sunday November 19 - Actors and audience in a Prague theater, together with Vaclav Havel and other prominent members of Charter 77, establish Civic Forum as a mass popular movement for reforms. They call for dismissal of top officials responsible for the violence, independent investigation of the incident and release of all political prisoners. College students announce a strike. On TV, government officials call for peace and want to restore business as usual. TV shows an interview with Martin md to persuade the public that no one was killed; the quality of the recording is however low and rumor stays. It will take several more days to confirm that no one was killed - and by then, the revolution will have already gained momentum.
  • Monday November 20 - students and theaters are on strike. Civic Forum representatives negotiate with Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who is sympathetic to the students' demands. However, he is outvoted in the cabinet and the government, in an official statements, refuses any concessions. Civic Forum adds another demand - abolition of the ruling position of Communist Party from the Constitution. Non-Communist newspapers start publishing information, which contradicts the Communist interpretation.
  • Tuesday November 21 - first mass demonstration takes place on Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague (it will repeat daily for the following days). Actors and students travel outside Prague to gain support of their colleagues in other cities. Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek of Catholic church declares support for the students. Governmental officials, especially Communist party boss Milos Jakes, keep their hardline position and seem increasingly out of touch. They call "People's Militia" (Lidov milice, paramilitary organization subordinated directly to the Communist party) to crush the protests, but they are called off in the last moment.
  • Wednesday November 22 - Civic Forum announced a two-hour general strike for Monday November 27. First live reports from the demonstration on Wenceslas Square appear on TV (quickly cut off once one of the participants denounces present government in favor of Alexander Dubcek).
  • Thursday November 23 - TV shows in evening news, how factory workers booed Miroslav Stepan, Prague Communist Secretary and the most loathed politician. Army informs the Communist leadership of its readiness (luckily, it was never used against demonstrators).
  • Saturday November 25 - new Communist leadership held a press conference. They immediately lost credibility as they kept Miroslav Stepan, left out Ladislav Adamec and did not address any of the demands. Later that day, Stepan resigned from his position of Prague Communist Secretary. 800 thousand people joined an anti-governmental demonstration in Prague.
  • Sunday November 26 - Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec meets Vaclav Havel for the first time. 500 thousand people come to another anti-governmental demonstration.
  • Monday November 27 - Two-hour general strike takes place throughout the country between 12:00 and 14:00, supported by 75 % of population. Ministry of Culture released anti-Communist literature for public borrowing in libraries, which effectively ended censorship. This concludes the "popular" phase of the revolution, with many public demonstrations. The following victories, though supported by students' and actors' strike until December 29, will be achieved mainly through negotiations between the government and Civic Forum.

Key events of the following weeks

  • November 29 - Parliament, still dominated by the Communists, removed the article guaranteeing a leadership role to the Communist Party and Marxism as a state ideology from the Constitution.
  • December 3 - President Gustav Husak nominated a new cabinet, headed by Ladislav Adamec. It had 15 Communist and only 5 non-Communist ministers (so called "15:5 government") and was rejected by the Civic Forum.
  • December 4 - Government announced freedom to travel abroad. It was no longer necessary to apply for a permission (Vjezdn doloka) before traveling to Austria. In the following weekend, 250 thousand people will visit this country.
  • December 10 - President Gustv Husk nominated a new cabinet, headed by Marin_Calfa, based on an agreement between Civic Forum and the Communists, and resigns. Strike of theaters was called off, but students stayed on. Secret police burned their files (incomplete files, insufficient to convincingly prove or disprove collaboration, caused embarrassment to many public figures in the following decade).
  • December 14 - Thomas J. Bata, son of a famous Czech entrepreneur Tomas Bata and a president of Bata Shoes, arrived in Czechoslovakia to a warm welcome by the population as a symbol of old Czech industrial traditions and entrepreneurship, which were suppressed by the Communists and now were to return.
  • December 21 - People's Militia was abolished, and their weapons confiscated by the army. Later on it was established that the milia had operated against the law throughout the whole Communist era from 1948.
  • December 28 - Federal Parliament, still consisting of Communist deputies coming from rigged one-candidate elections of 1986, passed a law allowing for co-optation of new personalities. Several non-Communists became deputies this way. This reform of the Parliament "from inside" was orchestrated by Prime Minister Marin Čalfa and helped re-establish legitimacy of the Parliament immediately without the need to call elections (which took place in June 1990). Alexander Dubcek was elected Chairman.
  • December 29 - Federal Parliament elected Vaclav Havel as President. Students ended their strike. The Velvet Revolution ended.
  • In the following months, Communist Party lost much of its membership (especially those who joined it only as a vehicle for promoting their business, academic or political career). The federal parliament introduced key laws for promoting civic rights, civic liberties and economic freedom. The first free elections were scheduled for June 1990. Problematic events included the first parliamentary deadlock, caused by Czechs and Slovaks disagreeing over the name of the state (the first step towards a Velvet Divorce), nasty accusations of collaboration with Communist secret police (relying on incomplete documents, as some files were burned in December 1989) and an increase in crime (due to anarchy, a low esteem for the police and an extensive general pardon by the new president Havel, who in effect released all petty criminals from jails). In general, the population was content, and considered such problems the price of their democracy.

Open questions

Some events of the Velvet revolution have not been so far satisfactorily explained. For example,

  • It is not clear to what extent it was spontaneous vs. orchestrated by the secret police. For example, the incident with the "dead student" was staged by secret police provocateur Martin Zifčk, assisted with other secret agents (those who took him to hospital and initially disseminated the rumor). Zifčk is currently a chairman of "Communist Party of Czechoslovakia", a non-parliamentary group willing to re-establish a Communist regime, with popular support below 1 %, and rejects all inquiries relating to his role in the revolution.
  • Army and People's Militia were ready to attack the demonstrators, but did not get the order.
  • Secret police surveilled all leaders of the revolution and was able to arrest them. However, they restrained and let the revolution progress.
  • A Soviet military advisor was present in the control center of the police force, which beat the demonstrators on November 17. Supposedly, he did not intervene, but his role is not clear either.

Generally, it is assumed that there was a split between different factions of the Communist leadership (namely, young Communists anxious to replace old ones) and some of them tried to use the popular unrest to promote their agendas - ultimately ending the Communist rule.

The term

The term Velvet Revolution was invented by a journalist after the events, caught on in world media and eventually in Czechoslovakia itself. Media, riding on infotainment wave, saw this success and started tradition of inventing and assigning a poetic name to similar events - see color revolution.

See Also

External link

cs:Sametov revoluce da:Fljlsrevolutionen de:Samtene Revolution nl:Fluwelen Revolutie ja:ビロード革命 pl:Aksamitna rewolucja zh:絲絨革命


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