Velvet Revolution

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

On November 17, 1989, a peaceful student demonstration in Prague was severely beaten back by the 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 in early December. On December 10, the Communist President Gustáv Husák 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 Václav 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 support 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 Dubček, 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 Czechoslovak 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 (see e.g. the Candle Demonstration) and 1989 saw the first anti-governmental demonstrations, which were repressed by the police.

The actual impetus for the revolution came from the developments in neighboring countries – by November 16, all neighboring countries of Czechoslovakia, except the Soviet Union, got rid of the Communist rule, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, and the citizens of Czechoslovakia could see all these events every day on TV (both foreign and domestic). The Soviet Union also supported a change in the ruling elite of Czechoslovakia, although they did not anticipate the overthrow of the communist regime.

Chronology of the first week

  • Thursday November 16, 1989 – On the eve of the International Students Day (the 50th anniversary of death of Jan Opletal, a Czech student murdered by the Nazi occupiers during World War II), Slovak high school and university students staged a peaceful demonstration in the center of Bratislava. Since the Communist Party of Slovakia had expected troubles and since the fact alone that there was a demonstration was a problem in Communist countries, armed forces were at alert since before the demonstration. In the end, however, the students peacefully moved through the city and finally sent a delegation to the Slovak Ministry of Education to discuss their demands.
  • Friday November 17, 1989 – The Socialist Union of Youth (SSM/SZM, proxy of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) organizes a mass demonstration to commemorate the International Students Day. 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 Národní Street. They block all escape routes and brutally beat the students. Once all are dispersed, one of the participants - secret police agent Ludvík Zifčák - 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 :
    • Two students visit Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec in his private house and describe to him what (really) happened at Národní Street.
    • At the initiative of students from the Prague Academy of Dramatic Arts, the students in Prague begin a strike. Gradually, this strike is joined by university students throughout Czechoslovakia.
    • The students are supported by theaters in Prague, which are also on strike now. Instead of playing, actors read a 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 (see Mass media in Communist Czechoslovakia), this is the only way to spread the message. In the evening, Radio Free Europe informs that a student (named as Martin Šmíd) was killed by the police during yesterday's demonstration. This persuades some hesitating citizens to disregard fear and join the protests.
  • Sunday November 19:
    • Theaters in Bratislava, Brno, Ostrava and other towns are also on strike and follow the example of their colleagues from Prague. Members of artistic and literary associations as well as organizations and institutions in some other areas of the society join the strikes.
    • Members of a civic initiative meet the Prime Minister who says to them that he was prohibited to resign to his post two times and that if they want to achieve changes there have to be mass demonstrations like in Eastern Germany (some 250 000 students). He also asks them to reduce the number of "casualties" during the expected changes to a minimum.
    • About 500 Slovak artists , scientists and other persons meet at the Art Forum (Umelecká beseda) in Bratislava at 17:00, denounce the attack upon the students in Prague on November 17 and formed the Public Against Violence, which will become the leading force behind the opposition movement on the territory of Slovakia. Its founding members included Milan Kňažko, Ján Budaj and others.
    • Actors and audience in a Prague theater, together with Václav Havel and other prominent members of Charter 77 and other dissident organizations, establish the Civic Forum (the equivalent of the Public Against Violence for the territory of Czechia) as a mass popular movement for reforms at 22:00. 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 Šmíd 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 permanent strike.
    • Civic Forum representatives negotiate with Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec without Václav Havel and more or less unofficially. Adamec is sympathetic to the students' demands. However, he is outvoted in a special cabinet meeting the same day 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.
    • First mass demonstration in Prague (100 000 persons), first demonstrations in Bratislava
  • Tuesday November 21 -
    • First official meeting of the Civic Forum with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister says that he personally guarantees that no violence will be used against the people.
    • First organized mass demonstration takes place on Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague (it will repeat daily for the following days). Actors and students travel to enterprises in Prague and generally outside Prague to gain support of their colleagues in other cities.
    • First mass demonstration takes places on Hviezdoslav Square in downtown Bratislava (it will repeat daily for the following days on the SNP Square). The students present various demands and ask people to participate in the planned general strike for Monday November 27. A separate demonstration demanding the release of the political prisoner Ján Čarnogurský (the later Prime Minister of Slovakia) takes place in front of the Palace of Justice. Alexander Dubček holds an address at this demonstration – his first appearance during the Velvet Revolution. As a result, Čarnogurský will be released on November 23.
    • Demonstrations in all major towns of Czechoslovakia
    • Cardinal František Tomášek , the Catholic primas of Czechia, declares support for the students and issues a declaration in which he criticizes the situation in all social spheres of Czechoslovakia
    • For the first time during the Velvet Revolution, the "radical" demand to abolish the article of the Constitution establishing the leading role of the Communist Party is expressed by Ľubomír Feldek at a meeting of the Public Against Violence. It will be spontaneously supported by the popular demonstration on November 25 and finally accepted by the Communist Party of Slovakia on November 26.
    • In the evening, Miloš Jakeš, the chairman of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, holds a special TV address on federal TV. He says that order must be preserved, that socialism is the only alternative for Czechoslovakia and criticizes "groups" that stand behind the current development in Czechoslovakia.
    • Governmental officials, especially Communist party boss Miloš Jakeš, keep their hard-line position and seem increasingly out of touch. In the night, they call 4000 members of the "People's Militia" (Lidové milice, paramilitary organization subordinated directly to the Communist party) to Prague 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 federal TV (quickly cut off once one of the participants denounces present government in favor of Alexander Dubček).
    • Striking students force the representatives of Slovak government and of the Communist Party of Slovakia to participate in a dialogue, in which the official representatives are immediately put on the defensive.
    • Employees of the Slovak section of Czechoslovak TV Bratislava require the leaders of Czechoslovak TV to provide true information on the events in the country, otherwise they would initiate a strike of TV employees. Uncensored live reports from demonstrations in Bratislava follow.
  • Thursday November 23 -
    • TV shows in evening news, how factory workers booed Miroslav Štěpán, Prague Communist Secretary and the most loathed politician. Army informs the Communist leadership of its readiness (luckily, it was never used against demonstrators).
    • Czechoslovak Army and the Ministry of Defense are preparing for actions against the opposition. Immediately after the meeting, however, the Minister of Defense holds a TV address, in which he says that the army would never undertake interventions against the Czechoslovak people and calls to stop the demonstrations.
  • Friday November 24 -
    • Miloš Jakeš is replaced by puppet politician Karel Urbánek as the General Secretary of Communist Party.
    • Federal TV shows pictures from November 17 for the fist time and the first TV address of Václav Havel, dealing mostly with the planned general strike. Czechoslovak TV and Radio announce that they will join the general strike.
    • A discussion with representatives of the opposition is broadcast on the Slovak section of Czechoslovak TV. It is the first free discussion on Czechoslovak TV since its foundation. As a result, the editorial staffs of Slovak newspapers start to join the opposition.
  • Saturday November 25 -
    • New Communist leadership holds a press conference. They immediately lost credibility as they kept Miroslav Štěpán, left out Ladislav Adamec and did not address any of the demands. Later that day, Štěpán resigned from his position of Prague Communist Secretary.
    • The number of participants in the regular anti-governmental demonstration in Prague reached 800 000 people. Demonstrations in Bratislava had a maximum number of participants around 100 000.
  • Sunday November 26 -
    • Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec meets Václav Havel for the first time.
    • The editorial staff of Slovakia's Pravda, the central newspaper of the Communist Party of Slovakia, joins the opposition.
  • 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 governments, the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence.

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. The speaker of the federal Parliament resigned.
  • November 30
    • Education in Marxism-Leninism and the history of international workers' movement officially cancelled for universities and colleges.
    • The Presidium of the Slovak parliament (Slovak National Council) resigned. It was gradually replaced by non-Communists.
    • The federal government decided that barbed wire should be removed at the border with Austria (later also at the border with West Germany), and that Czechoslovak citizens do not need "exit visa permits" anymore when travelling abroad. Barbed wire at the border with Austria was removed from December 1.
  • December 3 - President Gustáv Husák nominated a new federal 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 and public demonstrations..
  • December 4 - Government announced freedom to travel to Austria (later to all countries). It was no longer necessary to apply for any documents before traveling to Austria. In the following weekend, 250 000 people will visit this country. A permanent queue of cars reaching from the city center of Bratislava to the border crossing with Austria will arise.
  • December 6 – Most members of the government of Czechia were replaced by non-Communists. František Pitra remains Prime Minister of the Czech government.
  • December 10 :
    • President Gustáv Husák nominated a federal cabinet, headed by Marián Čalfa, based on an agreement between Civic Forum and the Communists, and resigns. It was the first federal government since 1948 in which the Communists had no majority.
    • 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).
    • 100 000 persons participate in a demonstration walk from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia to Hainburg, Austria.
  • December 11- Barbed wire removed from borders with West Germany.
  • December 12 - Slovakia received a new government headed by Milan Čič. It was the first government of Slovakia since 1969, in which the Communists had no majority.
  • December 14 - Tomáš J. Baťa, son of a famous Czech entrepreneur Tomáš Baťa 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 militia had operated against the law throughout the whole Communist era from 1948.
  • December 22 – The Civic Forum, Public Against Violence, Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and representatives of students and other political entities agreed that Alexander Dubček would be made speaker of the federal parliament, while Václav Havel would be made President of the republic.
  • 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 Marián Čalfa and helped re-establish legitimacy of the Parliament immediately without the need to call elections (which took place in June 1990). Alexander Dubček was elected Chairman (speaker) the same day.
  • December 29 - Federal Parliament elected Václav Havel as President. Students ended their strike. The Velvet Revolution ended.

In December and 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 (see Dash War, 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 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 Zifčák, assisted with other secret agents (those who took him to hospital and initially disseminated the rumor). Zifčák 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 carried out surveillance on all the leaders of the revolution and had the ability to arrest them. However, they did not do so 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 first events, caught on in world media and eventually in Czechoslovakia. Media, riding on infotainment wave, saw this success and started tradition of inventing and assigning a poetic name to similar events - see color revolution.

In Slovakia, however, the revolution's name from the beginning of the events has been the Gentle Revolution (Nežná revolúcia).

See also

External links

  • Velvet Revolution on Detailed day-to-day history with key documents quoted (in Czech language only). Shortened version was used as a source for Chronology above.
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