Student activists unveil “present” received for Velvet Revolution anniversary

Photo: CTK

The small patch of green outside Malostranská metro station in the centre of Prague has been hosting a bizarre outdoor display this month. Besides a monument to Czech WWII resistance fighters that was installed there in 2006, two new temporary memorials have been added recently to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. A wooden watchtower from a communist-era labour camp was raised there a couple of weeks ago and this past Sunday saw the unveiling of a most bizarre sculpture...

Onlookers applauded as a Prague-based student initiative unveiled a larger than life coil of excrement, sitting pretty on a giant gift box complete with a red ribbon. It is to symbolise the present they have received from Czech officials for the 20th anniversary of the student protests that triggered the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia.

Photo: CTK
“This monument displays the result of our students’ appeal from a year ago ‘Give us a present for our 20th birthday’. We were here a year ago and we wanted the politicians to give us a present for the 20th birthday, the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The present was supposed to be the removing of four legislative absurdities from the Czech legislative system.”

Silvie Mitlenerová from the “Inventura demokracie” or “Democracy Czech-Up” student initiative points at the giant and disconcertingly realistic monument as if to say: “Look what they gave us.” A year ago, on International Students’ Day which is also the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the “Democracy Czech-Up” initiative approached Czech officials with a list of four objections.

“These were the MPs’ immunity, the way of voting for the members of public media councils, unregulated lobbying and the so-called ‘wild-riders’ – legislative attachments which have nothing in common with the original law. And as we can see we haven’t received anything – not even one of the four absurdities has been removed by the 17th of November. So we have made this monument to show how it works in our politics.”

Over the course of the year, members of the student initiative met with a number of Czech legislators to discuss their demands. They recorded the meetings on camera and have now released them on DVD. Philosophy student Jiří Boudal was among those who talked to the lawmakers. Now 23 years old, he was just a small child at the time of the Velvet Revolution and has no memories of it. Even still, he believes today’s students are in a way continuing in the efforts of their predecessors 20 years ago.

“We think that the revolution was only the first step and there are a lot of things that have to be... we have to go on to push the freedom further. Because the politicians even today are trying to tell the media what they want the media to say. So we think we are continuing.”

Silvie Mitlenerová agrees today’s student activists feel like the successors of the students from two decades ago.

“We appreciate we can even do this... that we can organise protests and marches and such things, and we can study what we like and travel abroad and such things but I think we should not just celebrate these advantages but also still repair the mistakes of our Czech democracy.”

And, in Jiří Boudal’s opinion, there are a lot of things the generation of today’s students don’t like about contemporary Czech society.

“There are a lot of things. I think the most important thing is that there are the new democratic institutions but the democratic thinking is not there. As citizens we are not very used to democracy. We are not able to enter in the public area to oversee the politicians and the powerful people. That is a big problem. But there are some concrete or particular small problems like the four we have been trying to change over the last year. Those are the problem of the public media, the power of politicians over the public media, then some transparency of politics, like the regulation of lobbying is missing here. So a lot of concrete problems.”

When the new Czech democracy was emerging twenty years ago, many people thought the children being born around that time would be the first truly free citizens of this country. The toddlers of 1989 who don’t have any memories whatsoever of living in a totalitarian state have since grown up. But does Jiří Boudal think his generation is very different from the previous generations in this country?

“I don’t think we are so different as the older generation think. Because we travel a lot but still we have inherited a lot of the characteristics, a lot of the ways of living from our parents from the normalisation era. We are passive quite a lot and we don’t know how to step out of the private space or private area. And I think we should be more distinct from our parents but we are not.”

The unveiling of the symbolic pile of excrement on Sunday has not been the only event the student activists have in store for this month. The “Democracy Czech-Up” initiative, founded in order to mark the 20th anniversary of democracy by reflecting its shortcomings, has a busy schedule in November. Silvie Mitlenerová:

“From now on until the 17th of November there will be the so-called ‘Days of Inventory’. Every day there will be a happening, a conference, a protest or another public event. On the 17th of November, we will meet on Wenceslas Square at half past six in the evening and we will celebrate the 17th of November. And I would like to invite all the people who can hear me.”

Having failed to push through their demands this time, are “Democracy Check-Up” going to give up?

Photo: CTK
“During the past year we have reached the limits of a student initiative. Actually, we are not going to continue in this initiative. We have to catch up with our studies but certainly then we will be active in Czech public life and Czech civic society because we know it’s necessary. It’s very necessary.”

And as Silvie says, first of all it’s very necessary to stress the significance of November 17th as many young Czechs today don’t even know why that day is being celebrated as a national holiday.