Twenty years on: Czechs remember collapse of the Communist regime

20 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Czechs waved flags in Prague in a cry for independence. Today some question whether they really achieved that goal.

Just a few days after the fall of the Berlin wall, Europe witnessed the start of what would become another historic collapse. Massive anti-government rallies in Czechoslovakia brought the communist regime to its knees within weeks. It's remembered as the Velvet Revolution, for being a totally bloodless event.

“For the first time in my life I saw so many people together. They were so emotional, waving national flags and singing national anthems. Hundreds of thousands of people,” Jan Zahradil, a Member of the European Parliament, recalls of those days.

Two decades on, it still feels like yesterday for Zahradil. In 1989, he joined the Civic Forum movement – the driving force of what became the “Velvet Revolution”.

“A large majority of the nation was so dissatisfied with the communist regime. It was unable to satisfy people’s basic needs. We saw the Perestroika and Glasnost policies of Gorbachev, but our communist leadership was unable to recognize what was going on,” Jan Zahradil says.

Jan says after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was only a matter of time before the winds of change reached neighboring Prague, and that people would rise against the regime. It took little more than a week to change the political regime in the country.

On November 17th, 1989 a crowd of several thousand students marched the streets of Prague in a peaceful demonstration to mark International Students’ Day. At Narodny Avenue they were blocked off by riot police. The rally was brutally dispersed. This incident triggered mass protests and, by the next day, Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague filled with half a million people.

After several days of nationwide protests and strikes, the Communist government stepped down. The revolution was bloodless, earning its “velvet” nickname.

After twenty years, Prague wants everyone to remember what life was like before. But has the country – now a member of the EU and NATO – profited from the change? Former dissident journalist Petr Uhl has little doubt.

“Of course, we lost some social guarantees, like free obligatory healthcare for instance. But after 20 years I can say the law is working here, the police are doing their job and, most importantly, there is a system to protect human rights in the Czech Republic,” Petr Uhl says.

But not everyone is as happy. When Washington announced plans to install a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, more than two thirds of the Czechs stood against the idea. This, according to the country’s Communist Party, shows that the ideals of the Velvet Revolution have not been fulfilled.

“No more bi-polar world, no more military alliances. That’s what we heard 20 years ago in the square. And? Our country joined NATO. I also wonder, what is the Czech national interest in Afghanistan? There’s none, but our soldiers are there,” says Jiri Mashtalka from the Communist Party of the Czech Republic.

What’s more, the country’s leader is one of the biggest Euro-skeptics around. President Klaus has claimed the EU is as big a threat to freedom as the Warsaw Pact – the treaty which rigidly bound Czechs to the Soviet Union.

It’s why the country held back on passing the Lisbon Treaty to reform the EU, which Klaus fears will further erode his country’s sovereignty.