5 Celebrities Fighting the Water CrisisIn 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.”

H.Res. 618

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
Photo: Flickr

South Sudan Is PoorSouth Sudan is poor. In 2015, the extreme poverty rate increased to 66 percent. Only 27 percent of the population is literate, with an enormous gender gap: the literacy rate for males is 40 percent while the literacy rate for females is 16 percent. The infant mortality rate is 105 for every 1,000 births and 17 percent of children are not immunized. Roughly 38 percent of South Sudan’s people have to walk 30 minutes to access drinking water and 80 percent of the population does not have a toilet. The quality of life in this country is very low; however, with new policies the government can improve the country’s welfare.

Why is South Sudan poor? The landlocked country is isolated from humanitarian professionals and foreign investors. Poor roads make the country impassable during the rainy season. The World Food Program reported that they only have a three-month window to deliver 100,000 tons of food (roughly 6,500 truckloads) before the rains come and make many areas inaccessible.

Before South Sudan’s independence, the Sudanese government largely failed to build good roads in rural areas and left them neglected. Corruption was prevalent, causing those who controlled the companies’ capital to use those resources purely for their own gain.

The world’s newest country is still developing government infrastructure. Between 1955 and 2005, Sudan was engulfed in a brutal civil war, which left countless dead and homeless. After a failed peace agreement, South Sudan seceded from the north in 2011. However, fighting broke out in the country in 2013 and continues off and on to this day.

The new government is wracked by division and as a result does not have the ability to build roads, provide basic education or ensure the welfare of its constituents. Moreover, funds and resources are often channeled into certain areas while others are ignored. Violence also plays a key factor in hindering aid from reaching key areas.

However, conditions in the country could improve in the near future. A new government policy relying more on the country’s vast oil wealth could improve living conditions. The government has also made health and education a focus. The World Food Program is making progress in the country as well. The organization helped stave off a famine in 2014 when it dispatched 190,000 tons of food to the country and assisted 2.5 million people. South Sudan is poor, but there are many opportunities for improvement.

Bruce Edwin Ayres Truax
Photo: Flickr

Poverty and Inequality in Bolivia
In 2009, poverty and inequality in Bolivia were some of the highest in South America. Extreme poverty rates were roughly 40 percent and the poorest 10 percent received only 0.5 percent of the total national income.

There was a sharp turnaround between 2004 and 2014, according to the World Bank. Economic growth averaged 4.9 percent annually, moderate poverty rates dropped from 59 to 39 percent, and inequality plummeted. Poverty and inequality in Bolivia began to wane.

 

Fighting Poverty and Inequality in Bolivia

 

It was not until 2006, a year after the election of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, that government commitment to economic growth and poverty reduction began to drastically improve. Morales increased spending on health, education, and poverty reduction programs by 45 percent between 2005 and 2006.

On July 22nd, 2017, President Evo Morales declared Bolivia completely independent from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Spurring this independence are the improvements achieved by Morales’s government. Since his election, inflation has run below four percent each year, basic consumption goods have been at a surplus, extreme poverty has fallen to 17 percent and the richest 10 percent of the country, which used to earn 128 times more than the poorest, now only earns about 38 times as much.

What’s more, as Francisco Toro writes, “Bolivia was running budget surpluses every year between 2006 and 2014. This allowed it to draw down the public sector’s debt, which fell from 83 percent of GDP in 2003 to just 26 percent in 2014, even as Bolivia built up its international reserves dramatically, from $1.7 billion in 2005 to $15.1 billion at the end of the boom in 2014.”

Much of this had to do with the burgeoning natural resources in the country. Export revenue, in the decade following the appointment of Morales, grew by six percent contributing to the impressive reduction of poverty an inequality in Bolivia.

Independence from the World Bank and IMF marks a new era for Bolivia. Its unprecedented economic improvements and reduction of poverty and inequality are a victory for the fight against poverty. The question is, will the world follow suit?

Joseph Dover

Photo: Pixabay

Human Rights in GeorgiaIn the summer of 2008, international attention was directed at the human rights in Georgia, and violations surrounding the Russo-Georgian War. But while eyes have shifted to other zones of conflict, the disputes about the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia still entail insecurity and human rights abuses.

Ethnic struggles and disputes over independence had already lingered in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for years, when armed conflict broke out between Russia, Georgia and the Georgian breakaway regions in August 2008. All sides were accused of abusing human rights in Georgia during or after the conflict. Human Rights Watch reported that the Russian army fired on civilian vehicles in numerous cases, killing and wounding many. Russia and Georgia also allegedly both made use of cluster ammunition, inflicting further deaths upon civilians and leaving behind unstable “minefields,” according to the NGO.

The war only lasted for five days, but the withdrawal of Georgia from the breakaway regions did not end the suffering of civilians. The South Ossetian army was accused of conducting a violent “cleansing” campaign against ethnic Georgians in the aftermath of the war: destroying villages, killing civilians, torturing prisoners of war and displacing tens of thousands of Georgians. Reportedly, the Georgian population of the conflict zone was reduced by at least 75 percent.

In 2016, the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into possible war crimes, such as pillaging and attacks against civilians and peacekeepers, as well as crimes against human rights in Georgia, including forced transfer of populations and murder.

South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence has been recognized by the Russian government after the war, as well as by Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. But the regions are still generally regarded as Georgian territories currently occupied by Russia by the majority of the international community. The breakaway regions have their own governments but are dependent on support from Russia. The boundaries are guarded by Russian forces in addition to the de facto forces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and both regions receive financial aid from the Russian government.

Tensions about the future of the Georgian breakaway regions remain. In a referendum earlier this year, almost 80 percent of South Ossetia’s population voted to rename the region the “State of Alania,” mirroring the name of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which is part of the Russian Federation. The referendum was perceived as a provocation in Georgia since the name stresses an ethnic distinction from Georgia and suggests unity with North Ossetia-Alania, and therefore with Russia. Georgia, as well as the United States and the EU, have condemned the referendum as illegitimate.

As Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International state in their most recent reports, the tensions around South Ossetia and Abkhazia still infringe on the rights of residents living and working in the frontier area.

In the past year, Russian and South Ossetian authorities conducted an effort to fence what they consider to be a “state border.” Therefore, some local residents’ access to their land or homes was cut off, impacting their “rights to work, food and adequate standard of living,” according to Amnesty International. Russia also continues to move the border, thus increasingly creeping further into former Georgian territory. In October 2016, the New York Times reported on the plight of the residents of the border village Jariasheni. One of them does not dare to return home after his house was suddenly on the other side of the elastic boundary line. Some residents have been arrested after finding themselves on the wrong side accidentally, because of the line’s uncertainty. “[W]ho knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” one resident is cited.

Abkhazia has also increasingly tightened the control over its border: in 2016 and 2017, all but two border crossings have been closed. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu criticized these closures for impacting local residents’ livelihood and for restricting the freedom of movement of hundreds of citizens who used the crossings daily. As Voice of America reports, they were used, for instance, by ethnic Georgians to visit their schools or medical facilities. The closure also cuts through family ties and hampers some residents’ access to their property and crops, affecting human rights in Georgia.

The boundaries are not recognized as borders by Georgia and its allies, who see them merely as “administrative boundary lines” – but crossing these boundaries can have very real and serious consequences. In the past year, dozens of people were reportedly detained by Russian or regional authorities while trying to cross the boundary lines. Several of them accused the authorities of torture and ill-treatment, for example, of beatings. In May 2016, a Georgian man was killed by an Abkhazian border guard while trying to enter Abkhazia.

As Georgia strengthens its ties with the European Union and NATO, Russia continues to enhance its influence over the Georgian breakaway regions, seemingly heading for an outright annexation. A permanent, peaceful solution to the conflict and thus an end to the insecurities experienced by the local residents are not yet in sight.

Lena Riebl