Czechs mark 1989 protests that broke grip of communism


THOUSANDS OF Czechs took to the streets of Prague yesterday to commemorate the start of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, six weeks of protests that toppled one of eastern Europe's most hardline communist regimes and carried dissidents into power.

Later, thousands of people marched along the route of that demonstration, and remembered how the security forces had brutally beaten the protesters, sparking false rumours that a student had been killed and stoking the public anger that would bring down the regime.

"The demonstration, the march, set history in motion," Mr Havel (73) told the crowd. "The changes we commemorate today were undoubtedly aided by those who for long years tried to freely express themselves and testify to the real situation in our country."

Mr Havel was jailed for denouncing the communists and his satirical plays were banned.

The November 17th protest and police crackdown led to a series of demonstrations that ultimately united students, workers, intellectuals and religious groups in demanding the kind of radical change that had brought down the Berlin Wall and was transforming Poland and Hungary.

The Velvet Revolution's only "death" was false, but hugely influential reports that student Martin Smid had been killed by police at the rally proved to be wrong. Still, the reports steeled public determination to oust the communists. It is now believed the rumour was spread by the security services, either by reformist elements who wanted to hasten the demise of the regime or loyalists who hoped to discredit the protesters by blaming them for spreading lies.

"The riot police squeezed us into one area, closed the side-streets and started beating us. It was chaos, the girls were screaming, and then commandos appeared from somewhere and started punching and kicking people," recalled engineer Jiri Smucler, a student in 1989.

"I tried every door handle and found one that opened. There were dozens of people hiding inside that building, many of them bloodied and needing treatment."

Mr Klaus called yesterday's events a "joyful commemoration", while Mr Fischer and his predecessor as premier, Miroslav Topolanek, said the hopes and achievements of 1989 should be weighed against current Czech dissatisfaction with politics and the economy.

"If the fruit of our tree of liberty and democracy sometimes tastes a little bitter, then something is wrong. The growth of violence, selfishness, xenophobia, racism and . . . a growing lack of interest in public affairs have their origin in the dysfunction of democracy," said Mr Fischer.

Mr Topolanek - whose government was ousted this year while holding the EU presidency - added: "More than ever in the last 20 years, we now feel that the country is still immature; that democracy is far less 'anchored' than we would wish; that freedom is a flower that needs watering."