Discontent on streets as Czechs remember November 17th 1989

Photo: CTK

Czechs and Slovaks marked the 16th anniversary of the start of the 1989 Velvet Revolution on Thursday, a time when people remember the overthrow of Communist rule and reflect on the changes that have swept society since then. But discontent is growing with the current political situation, and that discontent was reflected in the mood on the streets of Prague. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron has this report.

Photo: CTK
A small crowd huddled round candles laid at the spot in Prague's Narodni street, where on November 17th, 1989, riot police began beating student protestors who'd gathered to demand change in Communist Czechoslovakia. The brutal suppression of that demonstration led to a chain of events which ended six weeks later in dissident playwright Vaclav Havel becoming the first non-Communist president of Czechoslovakia for forty years. Vaclav Havel is now enjoying his political retirement, but said it's vital that Czechs remember the events of November 17th 1989.

"Our history, and its continuity, is the journey to our identity. We can't forget something and at the same time search for our identity. That's the first step towards finding our identity - what are we today, what we were yesterday, what we were the day before, what we did, what we did right, and what we did wrong."

Vaclav Havel's successor, Vaclav Klaus, said Czechs must appreciate the enormous gift that freedom had brought them.

President Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
"The changes brought about by that enormous opening up, the people's liberation from thousands of bans and regulations which blocked our lives in the last century - that's such a huge gift we've been given. It depresses me again and again that it's not appreciated enough, and again and again people say they have the impression that there's not enough freedom. And I think we have to patiently explain - again and again - that freedom is all we can offer, and now it's entirely up to them what they achieve in that freedom."

But many people are disillusioned with the state of Czech society, 16 years since the fall of Communism. Among those who knelt to light a candle on Narodni street was Mirek Topolanek, leader of the centre-right opposition party the Civic Democrats.

"I'm afraid that this date, this 16th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution now has a new dimension. We have a socialist government, and the socialists are co-operating with the Communists in parliament, and I think it's a big memento for all the people in our country. I'm afraid we have to renew this anniversary for the second time. Not only the anniversary, but the fight against Communism and support for freedom, democracy and the values of November 17th, 1989."

Further down the street a free rock concert was taking place, organised by the right-wing Young Conservatives. Called "We Won't Remain Silent", it was an attempt to encourage opposition to the modern-day Communist Party, which is growing in strength and gaining something approaching political acceptability, thanks in part to the overtures of Social Democrat Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek. Young Conservative leader Tomas Sokol told me the Communists remained a danger to Czech society.

Photo: CTK
"I think the reason not to believe them when they say they've changed is the name of the party. I can't imagine that the Italian fascists, ten years after the end of the Second World War, would call themselves the Fascist Party. Even they renamed. Almost all the Communist parties in Eastern Europe renamed themselves. The Czech Communist Party didn't do it. So if they'd really changed something - it's just a symbol - they would have started with the name."

But events such as these - for the most part poorly attended - seem to have little power to change political reality in the Czech Republic. The left dominates parliament, and Prime Minister Paroubek - despite his apparent cosying up to the Communists - enjoys substantial support among the Czech public. Only next year's elections will tell whether Czechs really have the stomach for a minority left-wing government propped up by a largely unreformed Communist Party.