In 1989, spurred by economic stagnation and political discontent, the Velvet Revolution ushered in a post-communist, democratic era in the emerging states of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. In the late 1980s and 1990s, along with the rest of the Soviet-aligned states, the authoritarian regime of Czechoslovakia had begun to collapse. Popular unrest, which had been repressed for decades, boiled over into nonviolent revolution. The outcome of this uprising was a transition to democracy. November 2019 marks the 30 year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. To commemorate this moment in history, House Representative Peter Visclosky introduced a resolution to Congress. Here are 9 facts about the Velvet Revolution.
9 Facts About the Velvet Revolution
- The Velvet Revolution began on Nov. 17, 1989, when a peaceful, government-sanctioned ceremony to commemorate Czech-resistance against the Nazis erupted into a massive protest against the communist regime. Ten days after this demonstration, anti-communist activists led a two-hour general strike to show the popular support for the opposition. By the end of the year, democratic activists forced the communist regime out of power and instituted a democratic regime in Czechoslovakia.
- An important precursor to the Velvet Revolution was the Prague Spring of 1968. In the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubcek, then-leader of the communist party in Czechoslovakia, created major social reforms, including a free press and human rights. However, Soviet leaders in Moscow feared such reforms and sent Warsaw Pact troops to suppress the upheaval. This Soviet crackdown erased the 1968 reforms and significantly restricted the economic and political rights those reforms sought to grant, such as freedom of speech. Even though the Soviets successfully suppressed the political unrest, civil resistance prevented them from being able to gain full control over the country for eight months. Thanks in part to the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia had a strong civil society and history of nonviolent resistance by the late 1980s. Thus, the Velvet Revolution was a result of long-term developments and movements rather than one immediate catalyst.
- Ratified by the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly on Nov. 11, 1975, the Helsinki Final Act was one of the key structural factors that allowed for democratization in Czechoslovakia. It forced the communist leaders of Czechoslovakia to abide by the human rights commitments made in the agreement. A failure to do so would mean breaking with Moscow, something the Czech regime could not afford to do. The Act gave activists the ability to form organizations such as Charter 77 because they could claim the group’s purpose was to assist the government in carrying out its new policy on human rights.
- Charter 77 was a civic initiative that laid the groundwork for the Velvet Revolution. In the first week of 1977, anti-communist activists, former communists and non-political intellectuals came together to form Charter 77. It was a group of activists working to hold the government accountable for its human rights record. Charter 77 demanded that the Czech government abide by its own human rights commitments in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Václav Havel, one of the leaders of Charter 77, became president of Czechoslovakia following the Velvet Revolution.
- Gorbachev’s reforms of Perestroika and Glasnost also set the stage for broader political reform in Czechoslovakia. Perestroika, meaning restructuring, was a set of political and social reforms, which Gorbachev set in motion throughout the Soviet Union. Perestroika led to the decentralization of the Soviet economy and the loosening of the communist party’s grip on power throughout the Soviet bloc. Similarly, Glasnost, meaning openness, legalized criticism of the communist government and allowed for a free press.
- The Civic Forum (CF), a successor to Charter 77, was created in the immediate wake of the Velvet Revolution’s protests on Nov. 17. A nonviolent coalition, CF professed itself to be non-political and allowed anyone who wanted to be a member to join. It organized large grassroots demonstrations, including one in which citizens clinked their keys to signal the end of the communist regime. Along with Charter 77, CF was the most important organization during Czechoslovakia’s transition to democracy.
- One of the central social movements in the Velvet Revolution was the student movement. Nov. 17, the day the Revolution began, was International Students’ Day, and Prague students filled the streets of the city in what turned out to be a massive anti-regime protest. In the coming days, students around the country began striking and speaking out against the regime on an almost daily basis. A committee of Prague students worked with the Civic Forum to organize the general strike on Nov. 27.
- The Civic Forum and its allies achieved even greater concessions than initially asked for. On Nov. 29, the communist regime struck down a clause in the Czech constitution that permitted a one-party rule. In the coming days, the Czech people voted in free elections for the first time in three decades. The first non-communist Parliament since 1948 was formed on Dec. 10 of that year. On Dec. 29, the Czech parliament unanimously elected a democratic president.
- In June 1991, the Soviets withdrew the last of the Soviet Central Group of Forces from Czechoslovakia. On July 1, they terminated the Warsaw Pact. The fall of the Soviet Union gave Czechoslovakia more independence and confidence to turn westward. Elections in June 1992 set the stage for a break between the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic as both agreed remaining together was not economically profitable. In 1993, Czechoslovakia split in what was called a “velvet divorce.”
On Oct. 4, 2019, House Representative Peter Visclosky [D-IN-1] introduced H.Res. 618. The resolution congratulated “the peoples of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic on the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution” and the progress that each country has made in gaining independence. The House referred the resolution to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which will debate the resolution before it is brought to the entire chamber.
The Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution of 1989 catalyzed the process of democratization in the Czech Republic and Slovakia through a nonviolent, popular uprising against an oppressive regime. Civic society and grassroots movements were essential to this revolution. Thus, these 9 facts about the Velvet Revolution prove the importance of civic protest to change a society’s political, economic and social culture.
– Sarah Frazer