Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Velvet Revolution

The Berlin wall was the ultimate symbol of the suppression of civil liberties by the Communist regimes in the Eastern Europe. Therefore when it fell on the 9th of November 1989, the fate of all the Eastern bloc regimes was decided. When and how they would fall were questions to be answered by the passage of time. But the fact that they would eventually fall like a pack of cards was a forgone conclusion after that remarkable day.

Czechoslovakia was a unique member among the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. It was the only Eastern European democracy until Nazi Germany occupied it. During the Second World War, the country was not subjected to heavy bombing and not many battles were fought on its soil. Therefore, unlike much of continental Europe, the infrastructure of the country remained largely intact. After the war, democracy returned with the Communist Party having more influence than before the war. This was partly due to the presence of Soviet troops and partly due to the part played by the party in the anti-Nazi struggle. Their influence culminated in February 1948 when they seized power.

For two decades, the Communists ruled the country strictly following the Soviet model. Then everything seemed to change during the ‘Prague Spring’ which resulted in the invasion by the Warsaw pact countries. The Soviet style control was reestablished and Czechoslovakia was effectively an occupied country until 1989. Due its strategic location and its industrial capabilities, Czechoslovakia was vital for the defense of the Soviet Union. Therefore the ‘big brother’ wanted the ‘little brother’ in total control, whatever the cost may have been. The Communist Party ruled the country effectively as the organ of Soviet occupation. It tried to appease the population by increasing the living standards with little success. The feeling of despair of the Czechoslovak people was epitomized by the sacrifice of Jan Palach who burned himself to death in January 1969.

The Soviet way of thinking began to change with the ascendancy of Gorbachev in the Kremlin. The cost of maintaining satellites was considered an impediment to the economy of the Soviet Union. Rather than confronting the West, Gorbachev strived for more understanding between the superpowers intending to end the Cold War, so that he would be able to drastically reduce the staggering defense expenditure of his country.

The reforms introduced in the Soviet Union called for more open criticism of the regime and the past mistakes. This eventually undermined the firm hold on power of the Communist Party. In Eastern Europe, no Soviet satellite was willing to follow the example from Moscow. Initially, Gorbachev was expected to be replaced by the more hard-line Communists unhappy with the sweeping reforms he introduced. Therefore, no leader of the Eastern bloc wanted to follow his lead knowing that his possible successor would prosecute them for it later. But, ‘Gorby’ managed to survive and yet the Eastern Europeans were still reluctant to follow him. The major reason for this reluctance was the fact that many leaders of these countries had been in power for at least more than a decade. To criticize the past meant criticizing themselves, which they were not willing to do.

However, the new thinking of the Gorbachev camp in Moscow was a staggering blow to the Eastern European countries. Their economies were organized on the Soviet method and therefore heavy industry was given the priority and consumer goods were in a short supply. The foreign debt had now become a huge burden because the market for the industrial products had fallen in the West due to recession. The combination of mismanagement, low production and the fall of the markets for the industrial products resulted in the effective crippling of the economies of Eastern Europe. With the Soviet Union not willing to help out, the Eastern bloc was in dire straits.

The people of Czechoslovakia, living in an occupied country with a nominal independence, longed for true independence and liberty. They were not entirely silent after 1968. The suicide of Jan Palach was but one act of defiance. Later, Charter 77 became the base of the fight for liberty, which was signed by Czechoslovak intellectuals in January 1977. Some of the signatories were prosecuted harshly, including Vaclav Havel who became the first post Communist President of the country in 1989, at the end of the Velvet Revolution.

The Velvet Revolution was the process which started with student demonstrations on the 17th of November 1989, a week after Berlin wall had fallen and the Bulgarian leader Zhivkov had been replaced. Actors of theatres and other people joined in the protests soon, and the government found itself in difficulty to control the situation. With media personnel also joining the opposition ranks the Communist regime gradually fell apart, first in Slovakia and later in the country in general. The revolution ended with the Communists stepping down and Vaclav Havel becoming the president in the Federal Republic in late December 1989, ending 41 year domination by the Communists.

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