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Twenty six years since the "Velvet revolution"

The article by the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Denmark, Mr. Jiří Brodský, on the occasion of 26th anniversary of the "Velvet revolution".

In my country, the Czech Republic, I belong to the luckier generation which did not spend most of the life in the unfree communist system. What I remember from before 1989 is the long queue into the only grocery store in our quarter in the very centre of Prague and the shelves filled with one kind of product which had the same price printed on the package for many years. I remember the compulsory tutorial of Russian language at my elementary school and our drawing of the Aurora ship (which marked the beginning of the October revolution in the Soviet Union) in art classes. I remember the empty slogans of the Communist party and the empty slogans on the noticeboard in our classroom, as well as in the media. I remember that neither my father nor any of his sisters were allowed to enrol in university due to the fact that my grandfather owned a small private business before 1948. I remember the barbed wire around the then Czechoslovakia, on its border with the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria. I remember my parents having had to vote compulsory and display the Soviet flag into the windows of our flat next to the Czechoslovak one on the national holidays. And if the so called control committees could not see both flags displayed in the windows, the wrong doer must have expected consequences at the workplace.

I also remember that life seemed “quite normal” when listening to all kinds of music from the Western world, going to cinema, watching British, French and American, but also Danish films and series on TV. As children we, of course, read also Hans Christian Andersen and played with Lego. In the 1980s it had been ever more feasible for our parents to read specialized foreign literature from behind the Iron curtain. We also used to go on holiday to the seaside. We could not go to Italy or Greece, but to Bulgaria or former Yugoslavia. We drove Škoda cars and Soviet Zhiguli and Moskvich cars. There was a phenomenal boom of weekend houses where people could spend time with their families and have an alternative life to their working careers. For many of them it was a certain form of internal emigration.

Twenty six years ago, after the events in Poland and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Prague became the place of the so called Velvet Revolution. The student peaceful manifestation to remember 17 November 1939 and the death of Jan Opletal was suppressed by riot police. This was followed by a series of demonstrations, foundation of the Civic Forum, resignation of the Communist party leadership on 24 November, the appointment of the first non-communist government on 10 December, the election of Václav Havel as President on 29 December and, in June 1990, the first democratic Parliamentary elections since 1946.

The atmosphere in my country in 1989 was characterized by a tremendous euphoria, enthusiasm and also high expectations. It was a unique moment of “relaxation” in all spheres of life, of optimism and also unique – unprecedented and unrepeated – interest of the entire, especially Western, world in our country and in the entire Central Europe. It is well known to Danes, but I wish to mention that in the hearts of Czechs Václav Havel will always represent a symbol of the struggle for democracy and human rights. He, like no one else, has had merit in the international position, prestige and authority the Czech Republic gained in the world after the fall of the Iron curtain.

One of the slogans that appeared spontaneously in the streets of Prague during those days was „back to Europe“. You rightly assume it did not suggest that we had not been part of Europe. On the contrary, our country has always been in the very heart of the European continent and Czechs feel themselves Central Europeans. The slogan rather suggested a return among mature European democracies, among which Czechoslovakia belonged between 1918 and 1938. Hence, democracy was not something unknown, the country was returning to its democratic statehood and parliamentary democracy traditions. The major difference was, of course, the external – or rather international – circumstances. For most partners abroad, the single existent label for any European country to be recognized as mature, democratic and also stable, was a membership in what was then the European Community. The priority of the Czech foreign policy was hence to aim at the membership in the EC and also in NATO. We became a NATO member in 1999 and joined the European Union ten years ago, in 2004. Since the membership in these two organizations constitutes two legs on which the Czech foreign policy after 1989 stands. We are where we belong and we feel we would have had belonged from the very beginning, had it not been for the communist past.

If I was to describe the period of early 1990s metaphorically, I would compare it to a swing of a pendulum. While the pendulum retained one absolute position epitomized by the orientation of our politics, economy and society towards the Soviet Union and its satellites before 1989, it swung to the other absolute position expressed by our Western orientation after 1989. Not only the streets names were changed, the red stars and regime symbolic statues removed almost overnight. Russian language ceased to be compulsory at elementary schools (many of my class-mates really quitted Russian language courses day-to-day) but also the entire export made the very same swing. What was different in the Czech Republic from other post-communist states – among other things – was that the Communist party did not change its name and it was – and still is – identifiable as such on the political spectrum. We had no private economy at all, there was no single private hairdresser or grocery store. As our first Minister of Finance in early 1990s Václav Klaus expressed it: “Margaret Thatcher had to privatize three or four firms per year, the Czechoslovak government had to privatize three or four firms per hour”. In the Czech economy market replaced central planning and private ownership became more prominent than the state ownership. Our country liberalized, opened up, deregulated and de-subsidized. In all its roles the very visible hand of the state receded to the background and free individual got to the forefront.

Communism was not defeated, it collapsed

I am aware that there are no scales, which could measure the impact of external and internal factors, and there is not any monocausal explanation of the fall of communism. I am convinced, however, that the main cause of the collapse was the internal problems of the regime.

When discussing the tragic era of communism in my country, it is crucial to distinguish between different decades. I definitely see the most dramatic and brutal period in the 1950s that is connected with many men and women killed and many put in jails, but also with bravery of many Czechs. On the other end of the same axis, in the 1980s, I see the weakening and softening of the regime. I also see the loss of fear among people and their increased frustration from the lack of freedom and from the ineffectiveness of the regime, contrasting with freedom and prosperity in the Western world.

The regime was not ready to voluntary declare itself dead. What physically brought communism to an end differed in each of the Central European countries, implicitly inspiring or influencing one another. If I were to mention some external help, which accelerated the collapse of communism, I would definitely highlight the names of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. This era was distinct and unique also thanks to them.

Communism “delayed” my country

Before the Second World War Czechoslovakia belonged among the most advanced industrial countries and mature European democracies. One of the impacts of communism is almost half a century long “interruption” of this development. By making this point I do not wish to apologetically imply that the communist era is to be blamed for all the problems in my country before or after 1989. I wish to say that we must not reconcile with any advocacy of historical inevitability of communism. Nor must we accept some “starting from scratch” theories. In other words, communist era is a part of the Czech Republic’s history, it cannot be forgotten and it cannot be downplayed. However, our present time should not be burdened by constant referring to communism. Communism should not be a vehicle for escapism from the highly relevant present time.

The legacy of that era today or the lessons learnt

When I pointed out that it was an era that delayed my country, I must add that that it was a time which was not entirely wasted, despite the passivity, inefficient economy and atomization of society. Due to our experience with living in communism, in the lack of freedom, and in the extreme case of paternalistic state, we are sensitive or rather oversensitive to different threats to freedom, to restrictions and collectivistic tendencies. The barbed wire around the country was removed. The country has developed in a full-fledged parliamentary democracy and market economy. Still, we can see – and are sensitive to – freedom-restricting regulations, empty slogans, far-reaching fifty- or hundred-year plans (because we had centrally planned five-year plans and they always failed). One of the crucial questions that should be asked is whether the Western world has learnt from our experience, and the answer to such a question must be given by somebody from the Western world.

The Czech Republic today

The Czech Republic enjoys historically the longest period of its democratic statehood – and there are many reasons for optimism. The economy is still driven primarily by industry. The GDP inter-annual growth in the third quarter of this year was 4.3%. In the past twenty six years, the GDP volume has nominally increased by 500% and it is not an overstatement to say that in economic terms these years represent historically most successful era for my country. The Czech Republic has been a popular destination for foreign capital since the 1990s. There are over ninety Danish companies operating in the country. According to Eurostat, the percentage of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the Czech Republic is the same as it is in Denmark. We are known in the world not only for the Czech beer (as I try to explain to the Danish high school students) but also for highly competent/qualified experts, skilled workforce, reliable infrastructure, cost competitiveness, and high level of education. Again, the OECD study on the student performance in maths and reading shows closest score for two countries, Denmark and the Czech Republic.

When I look at the quarter of Prague where I spent my childhood, I can see dozens of small shops today, all of them private, all of them full of goods from different countries of the world, all of them with prices that are not decided by central planners but determined by supply and demand. We live again in a democratic, economically prosperous parliamentary democracy, a member state of NATO and EU. We are free in many respects (e.g. free to study any language and even free not to go to the elections). We can travel, study and work in the countries west of our borders which was a chance the generation of my parents was denied. It is something today’s Czech teenagers take for granted and they rather tend to compare things in space than in time. But I think it is necessary to make time comparisons.

Thomas Jefferson said that every generation needs a revolution. I am quite happy with the one I saw.

Jiří Brodský, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Kingdom of Denmark