When Students Take Democracy into Their Own Hands

Pepik Hipik / On Flickr by Pepik Hipik

In late November and through December this year, Czech and Slovak people celebrate the 30 years anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, a time when organized student protests created an impulse that led to dramatic social change. Velvet Revolution was a turning point for Czechoslovakia due to which democracy and freedom won against oppression and communism. This year, students and people went to protest again, demanding the same values as 30 years ago, but this time they do not stand against communism, but against populism.

It was eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 17th in 1989, when student protesters took to the streets in Prague to fight for democratic values and principles that were buried in August 1968 when the Soviet Union led armed forces to occupy Czechoslovakia. The invasion of five communist countries under the Warsaw Pact arrived on the 20th of August 1968 and occupied the main cities across the Czechoslovakia.

The invasion was a response to the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization under the communist regime at the beginning of 1968. The communist party, ruled by Alexander Dubček, promoted new reforms and rights to the people of Czechoslovakia such as: guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom to travel and free media. However, these reforms were not received well by the Soviets who then sent 2 000 tanks and over 200 000 troops to occupy the country and begun the process of normalization

Pepik Hipik / On Flickr by Pepik Hipik

The Czechoslovakian army did not take any steps to defend the country, so the people decided to resist in their own way. Just five months after the invasion, in January 16th 1969, Jan Palach, student of the Charles University, set himself on fire in the centre of Prague and died three days later in a hospital. His motive was straightforward: to protest against the occupation and suppression of freedom. Palach’s act was later followed by several young people and students across the country. Communists did not allow Palach’s family to have a funeral for him and some tried to politically cover his self-immolation and claimed it as a mistake.  Palach’s protest did not result in any change of political system at that time but it did leave a deep, dark mark in Czech and Slovak history. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, civil-based defences continued. People started nonviolent protests in the streets or by spreading information across the country through secret prints of prohibited books. Many students and young people, called “manicka”, grew long hair as a form of nonviolent protest against the regime and a symbol of freedom. However, this action was not left without noticing. Manickas were expelled from schools, universities or lost their jobs. The regime did not leave any act of resistance without punishment, those who showed any signs of protest where immediately subject to communist secret police force and arrested or imprisoned. 

The normalization period lasted until 1989. The year started by so-called Palach’s Week, when groups of students and people wanted to publicly honour the memory of Jan Palach in Prague, but were brutally forced away by police. For many, this week was a prelude to what came nine months later, the Velvet Revolution. On November 17th 1989 university students filled the streets in Prague demanding freedom, democracy and human rights. Students planned a peaceful march and their motto was “we come with empty hands, we want freedom”. However, that did not stop the police who beat students with batons later that day.

Josef Sramek ml.. Street photo from the “Velvet revolution” in prague 1989 / Commons wikimedia by Svobodat

In the following days, people across the country joined students in protests and shared their demands for freedom. By the November 27th, around 75 percent of the population joined  massive strikes; schools, universities, firms and institutions were closed and demanded to the government: freedom, democracy and human rights. Towards the end of the month, protests were more and more intensive and people demanded free elections and a new government. In December, Civic Forum, which was a movement established by civil society, put Václav Havel as a candidate for a new president. Havel, who was a month before the Velvet Revolution arrested by the most conservative communist government, was now sitting with communist at the same table, representing people’s demands and fighting for democracy. At the end of the year, Václav Havel became the first non-communist president, voted by all members of parliament, including communists. 

Pavel Matejicek, Vaclav Havel / On Flickr by Václav Havel

Two years later, the Czechoslovakia non-violently separated into Czech Republic and Slovak Republic.Václav Havel remained Czech president until 2003 and died in 2011.

The revolution was peaceful and there was no loss of life during the time of protests and strikes with the exception of the events from November 17th. Because of its soft nature, the revolution is called the “Velvet Revolution”.

It is 30 years after the revolution and students are in the streets again, celebrating the past and warning against new threats to democracy and freedom. This time, it is the student movement Million Moments for Democracy, founded by Mikulas Minář and Benjamin Roll – students of theology at Charles University – who organize massive protests during the anniversary of Velvet Revolution against the current premier Andrej Babiš.

Andrej Babiš is one of Czech Republic’s  billionaires who happened to be a former agent of the Secret Communist Police force (StB).  “I’m very unhappy about the fact that the Prime Minister is a former StB agent and Communist. He has no self reflection whatsoever” said one of the protesters, a senior citizen who also protested 30 years ago during the Velvet Revolution. Million Moments for Democracy and protesters demand Babiš’s resignation due his communist past, serious accusation of corruption and conflicts of interests. “Instead for caring for his own citizens, he cares about his own business” argues Minář. 

Besides the current protests against the prime minister, Czech Republic faces also external threats that worry its people. The Czech Security Informative Service (BIS) published a security report of 2018 which warns against Russian and Chinese activities that have interfered with the areas of Czech politics, diplomacy, espionage, economy and spread disinformation. The BIS spokesman Ladislav Sticha argues that Russia’s goal is to get the Czech Republic back under its influence, the Chinese use us as a gateway to the European Union,”.

The report uncovers weak spots in Czech politics that shake with democratic principles and independence. Whether or not Million Moments for Democracy will be able to overcome those issues is currently unclear, however, if there is a lesson that the year 1989 can teach us is that even in the darkest moments when values and principles are destroyed, a group of students can start a change. 

The anniversary of the Velvet Revolution was not only a celebration of Czech democracy, but honour of democracy as such.“The fight for democracy never ends” said Roll at the protest and asked people to “think of those who are, at this moment, fighting for values and principles of democracy and freedom in Hong Kong, China, Russia or anywhere in the world. For those, let’s take a moment of silence”.

Laura Blažková