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April 2004
Velvet…unite! It’s a Revolution!

By Amy Laughlin

 

Vaclav Havel

The period between November 17th and December 29th, 1989 is, to many people, uneventful. But for the citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, these six weeks, known as the Velvet Revolution, are perhaps the most important in their countries’ histories. On November 17, 1989, student protesters in then-Czechoslovakia took to the streets of Prague in what would become an overthrow of the government, the communist regime that had taken over their country nearly 50 years before in 1948.

It started as a legal nonviolent rally commemorating the death of Jan Opletal (a student who was one of the first victims of Nazism on November 17, 1939) and turned into a demonstration against the oppressive communist political system. Police flooded the scene and drew their batons on the peaceful demonstrators, eventually wounding at least 167 people. Although it was later found to be untrue, the reporting of the death of one protester outraged the students and helped generate support from the public.

Between November 18 and 27, more mass peaceful demonstrations occurred in the streets of Prague, and public discussions were held in theatres across Czechoslovakia. The Civic Forum (OF) was established as the official "spokes-group" for the concerned and outraged demonstrators and was quoted by a major Prague radio station as being "ever more critical of the policy of the present Czechoslovak leadership." The OF and its Slovak equivalent, the Public Against Violence (VPN), were joined by many Czechoslovak citizens in the peaceful overthrow of the communist regime.

Led by dissident Vaclav Havel, the Civic Forum called for the resignation of the communist government. Large-scale demonstrations that occurred between November 25 and 26, and a general public strike on the 27th, pushed the communist regime into holding a conference with the Civic Forum. The Forum demanded that Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec form a new government—preferably a coalition including all political parties.

Marian Calfa, the Premier of Czechoslovakia, formed this "coalition" government. He appointed just nine members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (many of whom had cooperated with the Civic Forum), two members of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, two members of the Czechoslovak People’s Party, and seven ministers (all of whom were either Civic Forum or Public Against Violence activists) with no party affiliation.

The new government went on to elect the former leader of the Civic Forum, Vaclav Havel, as Czechoslovakia’s new President. He and his new parliament later filled in many missing links in the Czechoslovak legal system, concentrating on human rights and freedoms, private ownership, and business law. As a near-perfect end to an essentially nonviolent takeover of government, Havel and his parliament set up the framework to hold the first free elections in Czechoslovakia in nearly 40 years.

This nonviolent overthrow of a communist regime took place in a relative "blink of an eye.” In just 42 days, concerned Czechoslovakians did what many other revolutionaries only accomplish in years, sometimes decades: they took control of a government that had dominated their lives for nearly 50 years. The Velvet Revolution stands as one of the most influential and effective movements in the history of peaceful social change.

 



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