Thirty years ago, I was nursing a painful jaw. I had been reporting on a student demonstration in central Prague, which on the evening of Friday, November 17th was violently broken up by riot police. Czechs were outraged by the beatings and flocked back to the streets the next day—and the day after. That was crucial. Previous demonstrations that year had been big, but they fizzled out. By the middle of the week, a revolution was underway and communism, at least in that corner of Europe, was history. For the anniversary of that “Velvet Revolution” I went back to Prague. The city has of course transformed. The dirt, shortages, and sinister surveillance of the communist era are history.
The city’s problems now, the mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, told me, are those of success: a housing shortage, “over-tourism,” and pressure on infrastructure. He has also been tangling with the regime in Beijing, which sought to bully the Prague municipality over its refusal to adhere to a “one China” policy.
Hřib’s unselfconscious, principled—and widely popular—stance highlights how the country has changed. I was invited to an event organised by the Václav Havel Library at the Činoherní (Drama) club, where, a couple of days after that unpleasant evening in 1989, the fragmented, amateurish dissident movement founded Civic Forum, the opposition group that negotiated the regime’s demise and put the mustachioed, chain-smoking playwright into Prague Castle as president.
One highlight was seeing heroes from the old days on stage. People who were jailed for their beliefs are always worth hearing. Another was a session with young activists from the new opposition movement, who have been at the heart of the anniversary commemorations. The hard, practical work of rebuilding the integrity of state institutions and the cohesion of society is the task now, they said, not a quick-fix revolution. Then it was the foreigners’ turn. Along with the historian Timothy Garton Ash, the translator Paul Wilson and William and Wendy Luers, a revered former U.S. ambassadorial couple, I was asked to give my assessment of the legacy of the revolution.
None of us dwelled on the Czech Republic’s current political woes. The most irritating phrase in Czech in the old days was the sing-song, defeatist “jsme malý národ” (we are a small country). It encapsulated the Munich betrayal in 1938, the Nazi occupation, the Soviet-backed Communist putsch in 1948, and the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. We rarely hear that phrase now, I pointed out. Czechs’ destiny is in their own hands. They have only themselves to blame if they do not like the way their country is run.
My message was to look more widely. Keep the Tibetan flag flying, I said (it was prominently on display at a big demonstration the day before). Stand with the Hong Kong protesters. Do not allow Taiwan to be bullied. Remember East Turkestan (the occupied region of western China where a million or more Uighurs are locked up in a latter-day gulag). And remember the Chinese themselves (Liu Xia, the widow of the Chinese Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, was an honored guest at the anniversary celebrations).
Think tanks and campaign groups in Prague have made the Czech capital a hotspot for critical analysis of the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive, hegemonic ambitions. That infuriates the leadership in Beijing—and gives hope to all those who suffer under its rule. It shows that Czechs can make a difference, not in size, but with the combination of imagination and determination. My final words were “Jste velký národ” [You are a great country]—in 1989, and now.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.