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Czech, Slovak Ambassadors Reflect on Enduring Influence of Velvet Revolution

By Jonas Meuleman

The year 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the nonviolent transition of power in Czechoslovakia that toppled the communist regime led by President Miloš Jakeš and installed a democratic government — a historic event that continues to have major reverberations today.

Czechoslovakia at the time had been under communist rule since 1948 but throughout the years resisted the Soviet-imposed ideology (unsuccessfully), notably with the 1968 Prague Spring and the 1988 Candle Demonstration in Bratislava. But pressure began to mount for political and economic reforms in late 1989 with a series of massive protests that eventually forced the communist government to resign, prompting demonstrations in other Warsaw Pact countries and leading to the downfall of Soviet communist control of the Eastern bloc.

To celebrate the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and examine its enduring influence, the Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars invited Slovak Ambassador Ivan Korčok and Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček to speak at its annual Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture on Nov. 13.

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Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček speaks at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s annual Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture on Nov. 13 on the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which brought down communism in Czechoslovakia. Photos: Wilson Center

The Freedom Lecture was established as the official memorial to President Woodrow Wilson, who had a deep connection to the Czech and Slovak Republics. Wilson, who died in 1924, championed for the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 after the World War I collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is considered the “foster father” of Czechoslovakia.

According to Ambassador Korčok, the work of the Velvet Revolution is not over and the Wilsonian ideals of freedom and democracy are still elusive in countries around the world, including those in the West.

“This legacy, 30 years on, is important because we need only look around ourselves to see that history has not ended in 1989. Globally, and including increasingly in the West, the struggle for democracy will never end. Neither does the struggle for freedom and values,” the Slovak ambassador said.

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At a lecture to mark the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Slovak Ambassador Ivan Korčok pointed out that “history has not ended in 1989. Globally, and including increasingly in the West, the struggle for democracy will never end. Neither does the struggle for freedom and values.” Photos: Wilson Center

The Velvet Revolution protests started on Nov. 17, 1989, when students took to the streets on the evening of International Students Day, the anniversary of the storming of the University of Prague by the Nazis after demonstrations broke out against the German occupation. The Nazis killed nine students and sent over 1,200 to concentration camps.

Katarína Cséfalvayová, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the National Council of the Slovak Republic, and ?imon Pánek, executive director and co-founder of People in Need, the largest Czech humanitarian organization, also spoke at the Freedom Lecture.

While Cséfalvayová was too young to participate in the revolution, Pánek was a leading student activist during the 1989 protests.

Pánek, among others, created the stuha, or ribbon group, in the year prior to the demonstrations to collectively organize students to demand change from the communist regime in a way that was focused on dialogue rather than confrontation.

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Katarína Cséfalvayová, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the National Council of the Slovak Republic, and Simon Pánek, executive director and co-founder of People in Need, the largest Czech humanitarian organization, discuss the Velvet Revolution at the Wilson Center. Photos: Wilson Center

“After it was made clear to us that [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev would not undertake action and allowed the demonstrations to happen, we organized ourselves around Václav Havel and started talks with the communists,” Pánek recalled, referring to the famous dissident and writer. “To our surprise, they came with an offer. This was a big relief, because it meant that we were choosing for dialogue rather than confrontation on both sides. When you sit around the table and discuss, it means you are doing so as partners, not as enemies.”

With a newly established government led by President Havel, Czechoslovakia peacefully dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The two countries subsequently joined the Visegrád Group, with Poland and Hungary as the other two members.

At the time of its creation in 1991, the Visegrád Group was established to increase economic, security and cultural cooperation within Central Europe, promote freedom and democracy throughout the former Soviet satellite states and advance integration with the European Union.

Today, however, the goals of the Visegrád Group look very different. Countries like Poland and Hungary are increasingly seen as promoters of illiberal democracy, embracing a brand of populism that rejects immigration and the EU, which has criticized the two countries for clamping down on media freedom and interfering with the rule of law.

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Václav Havel, a noted Czech dissident and writer who would go on to become the first president of the Czech Republic, is seen honoring those who were killed by government forces in the 1968 Prague Spring during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which peacefully toppled that communist government. Photos: By MD - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Both Pánek and Cséfalvayová expressed concern with growing nationalism and populism on the continent.

“Part of the reason why populism is on the rise is the speed of technological changes — AI [artificial intelligence] especially — along with the end of the Anglo-American domination,” Pánek said. “We have been dominating the world in the West for the last 200 years, and the world has since become a lot more multipolar. People are not as optimistic about the future any more, and that creates good breeding ground for populism.”

Both speakers said that countering disinformation is key to tackling the current wave of disillusionment with the West.

“If we want to restore our position globally and become the role model, we have to act like liberal elites by starting with our own environment to fight against disinformation,” Pánek said. “Every one of us for example could and maybe should go on Facebook and counter some of the disinformation published every day.”

The speakers also noted the relevance of the Velvet Revolution to current pro-democracy protests throughout the world, such as those in Hong Kong, the Middle East and Latin America — and the importance of supporting those movements.

“If there is something we have learned during these last 30 years, it is that the change to freedom and democracy is not something that is only of concern to us in Central Europe, and that the enlargement of the democratic space has benefited us all,” Cséfalvayová said. “That is why we should not resign from a common effort to further enlarge the space of freedom and democracy. In the short term, this means supporting the people in the countries concerned. In the long run, we are helping all of us toward a stable, predictable world with a rule-based order.”


Jonas Meuleman is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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