Czechs mark November 17th - Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day

Commemorative events are taking place around the Czech Republic to mark the events of November 17, 1989, when communist police cracked down on students on Prague’s Národní třída, sparking the Velvet Revolution which brought down the regime which had held power for more than 40 years.

On Friday, the first politician to visit the memorial at Národní třída was Andrej Babiš, a former businessman turned politician who heads the ANO Party and has been tasked with forming a minority government after winning the election in October.

He was flanked by other members of his party including Defence Minister Martin Stropnický, Justice Minister Robert Pelikán, and Prague Mayor Adriana Krnačová.

Mr Babiš was met by several vocal demonstrators who brought up allegations he had collaborated with the communist-era secret police and allegations of subsidy fraud in the Stork’s Nest scandal. Mr Babiš said that they had every right to express their opinion, one of the gains of the Velvet Revolution. He expressed the view that 28 years since the events of 1989, Czech society was too divided and polarised. Long-time political opponent Miroslav Kalousek, who lit a candle at the memorial later, reacted to Mr Babiš’ words by saying that society’s strength was built on variety, not union.

Other politicians from the major parties, such as Civic Democrat leader Petr Fiala but also presidential candidates as well as regular citizens continued to visit the site of the memorial throughout the day, lighting candles. Absent this year was the head of state, Miloš Zeman. His spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček, said the president as someone who had been an "active participant" in 1989 would mark the day in private.

November 17th also marks the 78th anniversary of brutal Nazi repression and murder in 1939, after students had organised a march to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal, a young man killed by the Nazi occupiers. One witness to those events, Vojmír Srdečný (who is 98 now and was a 20-year-old student at the time), said that the Gestapo and German soldiers had swept into student dorms in Prague, Brno, and Příbram, and dragged students off to Ruzyně prison. Nine student leaders were murdered by the Nazis and more than 1,000 sent to Sachsenhausen, he said at a commemorative event on Friday.

Events on the day are scheduled at a memorial on Narodní třída, as well as Albertov and on Prague’s Wenceslas Square which saw the number of demonstrators in the days of the Velvet Revolution swell to almost one million.

A concert called Concert for the Future will take place on the square beginning at half-past four in the afternoon. Performers include Zrni, Ema Smetana, Švihadlo, and Laco Deczi.

Security on November 17th has been increased accordingly and police are monitoring events closely: some 24 events were officially registered – nine of which are marches through the city. Police will be aiming to prevent right-wing and leftist extremists from crossing paths and clashing or any other potential violence.

author: Jan Velinger

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