Havel warns Czechs on 'revolution' anniversary

 

CZECH REPUBLIC: To chants of "Thank you!" and "Long live Havel!" former dissident Vaclav Havel led celebrations yesterday marking 15 years since the start of the Velvet Revolution, which ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia and carried him to the presidency, writes Daniel McLaughlin in Prague.

But the playwright joined many leading Czech political and cultural figures in striking a warning note amid the revelry over the lingering influence of a Communist Party that still claims the support of one in five Czechs, and which critics say has undergone relatively little reform since being kicked out of power in 1989.

Soon after Mr Havel lit a candle and laid a wreath at a monument to the Velvet Revolution, which began with a brutal police attack on a march for democracy, scuffles broke out at Communist Party headquarters in central Prague.

Members of the city's Young Conservatives organisation stuck posters on the building reading "Down with communists!" and bearing the names of victims of communist purges, prompting a furious response from a group of young left-wingers.

Police intervened as they traded blows and chants of "Red monsters!" and "Capitalism - dirt and filth".

"We are extremely unhappy that, 15 years after the fall of communism, they [the communists] still have about 20 per cent support and society has failed to do away with communism," said Mr Lukas Petrik, chairman of the Young Conservatives.

Mr Havel warned that the Czech Republic and Slovakia - which split peacefully at the end of 1992 and both joined the European Union this year - had to guard against a communist resurgence fed by widespread wariness of Brussels and discontent over the slow improvement in living standards in large swathes of both nations.

He urged Czechs to rekindle the hope and unity that surged through the country a decade-and-a-half ago, when the police crackdown on demonstrators only steeled public resolve to finally end more than 40 years of rule by Moscow-backed communists.

Taking heart from the recent collapse of the Berlin Wall and Mr Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist stance in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovaks plunged into weeks of mass protests and crippling strikes that brought the government to its knees and, by the end of 1989, had swept a coalition government into power and Mr Havel into the presidential palace.

"During the first days, the danger was great. The army and the police were on alert," Mr Havel said yesterday. "They were insisting that the political leadership let them turn violently on the demonstrators." But they were fighting an irresistible current: "Society was ready for change," he insisted.

Despite the anniversary events, the mood was largely subdued in Prague, and opinion polls suggest that most Czechs and Slovaks are disappointed by the lack of improvement in their lives since 1989.