Czechs celebrate fall of communism 20 years ago

PRAGUE – With their country in deep political crisis, Czechs took to the streets throughout the country Tuesday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the end of decades of repressive communist rule.

They will celebrate with exhibitions, concerts, speeches and rallies. Thousands of people in the capital, Prague, plan to participate in a reenactment of a student protest — an evocation of the event that triggered the Velvet Revolution that peacefully toppled the communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Nov. 17, 1989, began with fiery speeches at a university campus in Prague, inspiring thousands of students to march downtown toward Wenceslas Square. As darkness fell, police cracked down hard, beating demonstrators with truncheons and injuring hundreds in the melee.

Uncowed, the crowds mushroomed in the ensuing days, with demonstrators chanting: "You have lost already!"

They were right. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism in the region, by Dec. 10, Czechoslovakia had a new government. On Dec. 29, Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who had spent several years in prison, was elected the country's first democratic president in a half century by a parliament still dominated by communist hard-liners.

On Tuesday, Havel, President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Jan Fischer, joined hundreds of people laying flowers and lighting candles at a monument marking the site of the brutal clash.

"The demonstration, the march set the history into motion," said Havel, who was applauded by the surrounding crowd.

Earlier Tuesday he praised the memory of those who helped overthrow the repressive regime, naming dozens including his late wife Olga.

"We often tend to forget our fellow colleagues, friends, and the open-minded people in everyday life," Havel told the Czech Senate.

The peaceful nature of the historic change and the leading role of Havel were praised by many.

"Your spirit, your courage inspired the world," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a video message broadcast at a concert organized by Havel over the weekend, featuring rocker Lou Reed, soprano Renee Fleming and folk singer Joan Baez.

"You are the model," Vice President Joe Biden said during his recent visit to Prague.

"As I travel through Eastern Europe — as I travel to Ukraine and Georgia and other places, you are the model for democracy that they look to," he said.

A survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that, of nine post-communist countries, only in the Czech Republic and Poland did a majority say that people were better off than they were at the transition from communism.

The Czech Republic is now a member of NATO and the European Union.

But the euphoria of revolutionary days is long gone.

Besides the economic downturn, the country has been in political limbo since the government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was embarrassingly ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in March in the middle of the Czech EU presidency, just days before Obama's visit to Prague.

This version CORRECTS date of new government to Dec 10