Czechs view events in Belgrade with hope

Czechs have been following the latest developments in Serbia with great hope and sincere sympathy. These are not just events going on in a distant part of the world, they are close to Czechs. Olga Szantova explains why that is so:

The warm relationship between Czechs and Yugoslavs dates back to the last century, maybe even further. As Slav nations under the Austro-Hungarian empire, cultural representatives of both the Czechs and the nations of what later became Yugoslavia joined forces in the struggle against cultural and national oppression. Many Czechs, in search of an easier life, moved to that part of the Austrian empire and you can still find entire Czech-speaking villages there. Many Serbs, on the other hand, found new homes in Bohemia.

After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the First World War, cultural contacts continued, with the Czechs not always distinguishing between the various nations that formed the newly founded Yugoslavia. During the Second World War Yugoslav partisans, who managed to make their way to Czechoslovak territory, were very active in the Czech and Slovak partisan battles against the German occupiers, and many Czechs helped in liberating Yugoslav territory. Then, during the communist era, when Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito was criticized by Moscow, and the official communist leadership of Czechoslovakia joined in that criticism, many Czechs and Slovaks were arrested and sentenced for backing Tito's attempts at introducing more democracy behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1968, when Czechoslovakia struggled for much the same aims in the Prague Spring, the Tito government backed these attempts. Czechs on holiday in Yugoslavia in August 1968, at the time of the Soviet-led occupation, were made very much at home there and received all possible help. Throughout the communist years many Czechs fled to the West via Yugoslavia, where the borders were so much easier to cross. Yes, Czechs do have a 'special relationship' with the people of former Yugoslavia, and many Czech people were horrified when NATO bombed Yugoslavia in March last year.

For many Czechs, watching last night's demonstrations in Belgrade on television must have been deja vu. Eleven years ago, the Czechs also rid themselves of a hated regime in mass demonstrations. There is widespread hope here that the Serbs will achieve their aim just as peacefully as the Czechs did in 1989. The Czech Foreign Ministry expressed those hopes when it issued a statement that the will of the Serbian people must be respected, and its aspirations for democratic change in the country must win.

Author: Olga Szantová
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