07 December 2014

1989, 25 years on: Czechoslovakia

Monument to the student demonstrations of 17 November 1989. Photo by Rémi Diligent
It has been said that if Poland took ten years to overthrow communism, Hungary took ten months, East Germany ten weeks and Czechoslovakia ten days. This isn't quite true... the process took a good deal longer for all of them.

An 'artificial country'

Czechoslovakia was one of the countries that were created out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in late 1918 and it does seem a bit odd that two rather disparate regions should team up in this manner. Bohemia was the most industrialised part of the Empire, while Slovakia had been largely agrarian for most of its history - they'd been in the same country once, but back in the 9th century AD. Yet, Czech leaders supported teaming up with the Slovaks to form a new country.

Czechoslovakia was a bit of mixed ethnic bag; there were enough Germans (over 20% in fact) there that Hitler was able to get a hearing among many when he demanded and got the Sudetenland in 1938. After that, Slovakia was persuaded to declare independence when Hitler annexed the rest of the modern day Czech areas in early 1939 (which of course convinced the UK and France he could not be bought off) and became a client state of the Nazis during the war, until the Nazis took it over in 1944 following an uprising by the non-Nazi locals. Of course many Czechs and Slovaks made their way to the UK and fought on the Allied side - including with the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

The Red Army occupied Bratislava in April 1945 and took Prague in May; the last shots of the war in Europe were fired on 12 May; as the remaining forces of Army Group Centre didn't quite get the memo and continued to fight on for four more days. The US forces were stopped from reaching Prague first by Eisenhower; George S. Patton was not happy about that.

The end of the war saw the expulsion of most of the German population to the occupied German zones, the loss of Carpathian Ruthenia to the USSR (it is now part of Ukraine) and three years of semi-democratic rule. Eventually, after working their way into the various ministries, the Czechoslovak communists (KSČ was the Czech and Slovak acronym for their name - Komunistická strana Československa) seized power in a coup in February 1948 and the country became a solid Soviet ally. Shortly afterwards, the Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk (a non-Communist who had kept his job) was found dead in his pyjamas below his bathroom window at the Foreign Ministry; the official verdict was suicide, but post-1989 investigations concluded murder - this has been dubbed the Third Defenestration of Prague.

In 1960, the country changed its name from "Czechoslovak Republic" to "Czechoslovak Socialist Republic", abbreviated in Czech to ČSSR, claiming that had achieved socialism - and that it was the second country to do so after the USSR; indeed many of the others would stay as "People's Republics" throughout Communist rule.

The Prague Spring

Antonín Novotný, General Secretary from 1953 to 1968, was not a popular figure; he was a hard-liner and the pace of de-Stalinisation was a good deal slower in Czechoslovakia than it was elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. Support for reform was growing and in spring 1968, he was challenged by  Alexander Dubček, the First Secretary of the Slovakian party. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev saw the limited support for Novotný and allowed this challenge to succeed. Unfortunately for a lot of people, Dubček proceeded to move things a way that the USSR didn't like.

Dubček announced what he called "Socialism with a human face", an action programme that included freedom of speech, allowing emigration to the West, a federal Czechoslovakia (in two equal parts), limiting the power of the StB secret police and recognition of the State of Israel, diplomatic relations having been severed after the Six Day War of 1967 - they would not be restored until the fall of communism.

There was a brief period of considerable openness, but Moscow was getting concerned, fearing that Czechoslovakia would leave the Warsaw Pact (it wasn't planning to) and that unrest would spread.

Eventually after negotiations failed, five Warsaw Pact countries sent armed forces to remove the regime, after receiving a letter from some figures in the KSČ calling for intervention. Dubček ordered the Czechoslovak people not to resist (Prague was in no position to stop it - for one thing, they didn't think there would actually be an invasion), but there was a large amount of non-violent resistance; removing road signs, graffiti and so on. Nevertheless, there were 108 Czechoslovak deaths and 112 deaths among the invaders (mostly in accidents for the latter).

International reaction was swift and condemnatory. The US, however, had a hard time arguing its case due to its own actions in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic (it was a very bad year for the superpowers and the establishment in general in terms of public opinion, with a lot of student demonstrations); a UN Security Council resolution on the matter was vetoed by the USSR. Two protests from unusual quarters were Romania (Ceaușescu openly condemning the invasion and setting himself on a more independent course that would remain until his death in 1989 - see next article) and Albania, using this to exit the Warsaw Pact entirely and align itself with the Chinese.

The events had a major impact on the communists in Western Europe. While Hungary could be passed off as a fascist uprising put down by Soviet intervention in the minds of fellow travellers, they certainly could not do this here. Many of the parties (but by no means all) distanced themselves majorly from the Soviet Union and moved towards something called Eurocommunism, making clear their support for democratic structures in their home countries; the Italian communists eventually formed an association with the Christian Democrats!

Unlike in Hungary, Dubček was not executed - he actually briefly kept his job until anti-Soviet demonstrations following Czechoslovakia beating the USSR in the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships led to his removal under pressure from Moscow; Gustáv Husák (who had ironically actually spent about ten years in jail from 1950-1960, including six in the notorious Leopoldov prison) would replace him.

On 19 January 1969, Jan Palach, a 20 year old student, set fire to himself in protest at the Soviet invasion; he died several days later and two other students would self-immolate in the same manner in that year. He would later get a memorial in Prague.

The Soviet troops stayed after the invasion and would remain until after the fall of the regime; they would form the Central Group of Forces opposite NATO forces in West Germany.

(An interesting side note: David Nykl, who played Radek Zelenka in Stargate Atlantis came to Canada as a toddler after his family fled the country following these events - Nykl used a Czech accent to play Zelenka, but actually has a Canadian accent off-camera)

Charter 77 

Gustáv Husák engaged in what was called 'normalization' - a wholesale purge of reformist elements from the party (including Dubček, who ended up as a minor functionary in Slovakia), strict censorship and a spot of militant atheism to boot. There were no overt reprisals and it wasn't a return to Stalinism, but the StB were pretty repressive. He hoped that improvements in living standards would placate the population and it generally did (temporarily), as the populace were able to get hold of new cars, appliances etc. OK, the cars were Škodas... but that was frankly better than nothing.

(It's amazing just how far Škoda has come recently - no-one makes jokes about their cars these days as they're now very good; however, one reason for the jokes in the West was that a lot of them did actually end up being sold in Western Europe)

In 1976, an underground rock group by the name The Plastic People of the Universe were arrested and jailed for "organized disturbance of the peace". Their "crimes" were having long hair and using rude words in their music. In protest against this, a Czech playwright named Václav Havel and other prominent figures put together a manifesto called Charter 77 (Charta 77), criticising the government for not abiding by the human rights agreements it had signed up to, such as the Helsinki Accords in 1975 - however, to try to cover their backs legally they said they would not engage in political activity. This was published on 6 January 1977; while the original was confiscated by the StB secret police (An English copy can be found here (I don't speak Czech, but that may be the StB file data at the back), copies were circulated underground (being copied by hand or typewriter) and ended up in the Western press; Radio Free Europe would broadcast the contents back to Czechoslovakia.

(Ironically for a work meant to be photocopied and distributed to as many people as possible, Wikisource has the text hidden for a possible copyright violation!)

The government reacted harshly - signatories to the Charter (which was not published in full in the official press for obvious reasons, being deemed an illegal document) were dubbed "traitors" and faced sanctions ranging from loss of driver's licences all the way up to imprisonment or exile. Their children also lost access to education. Havel and others set up the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted in 1979 to support dissidents along with their families; this got him and five other members sent to prison, but Havel's plays continued to circulate underground.

Other Czechoslovak celebrities, such as singer Karel Gott, were forced to sign an 'anti-charter' if they wanted their careers to keep going.


Charter 77's influence was limited - even those involved were not optimistic they could get fundamental change in Czechoslovakia. Pope John Paul II was invited to the country in 1984, but the government stopped him from coming.

(The church was still allowed to operate, but under heavy restrictions - the government also sponsored a group of pro-regime Catholic clergy)

In 1984, Jaroslav Seifert won the Nobel Prize for Literature; he was too ill to collect the award himself and his daughter picked it up for him. As he was a dissident, the official media only gave it a tiny mention.

The regime's hope that it could provide an 'opiate for the masses' through consumer growth worked initially, but by the 1980s, the economy was stagnating; Czechoslovakia was reliant on the USSR for trade and also for oil - despite a global fall in prices in the mid-1980s, the Soviet price actually rose due to the formula used among the COMECON countries. There were problems with debt as well.

(It's rather amazing how much we actually helped prop up these regimes through loans, buying their goods etc... Communism probably could have been taken down a lot faster if we hadn't... then again, it might have collapsed in a much more unpleasant way).

The Velvet Revolution 

The events in other parts of Europe were making themselves noticed in Czechoslovakia; for example, the large number of East Germans passing through the country to Hungary and the West. However, the USSR was not anticipating that country going the same way as Poland, the GDR and Hungary.

On 17 November 1989, a non-violent demonstration by students to mark 50 years since the Nazis stormed the University of Prague turned into a demo against the regime itself; with 15,000 protesters heading into central Prague, where they were set upon by riot police. Once the crowd dispersed, one person was left lying on the ground and taken away by medics. He was in fact an undercover StB agent... and not dead, merely overcome. However, a rumour began to spread that a student had been killed in the attack by the name of Martin Šmíd; this was picked up by a Charter 77 activist and reported as fact by the BBC. Martin Šmíd was fictional (the story had been made up for unknown reasons by an injured demonstrator), but despite government attempts to disprove the story, people believed it and it furthered anger against the regime.

Students and theatre actors began to go on strike; theatres would only be open for public discussions. With the TV and radio strictly under government control, word was spread by posters, word of mouth etc. There were fears of a bloody repression, with the defence minister announced the army was ready to "defend the achievements of socialism" and rumours of troops around Prague being prepared for action circulated. 

One feature of the demos and the revolution was people jingling their keys to indicate the opening of doors... and to tell the Communists it was time to go home. Google's doodle for the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the 25th anniversary of the revolution starting featured these keys.

However, it wasn't to be; the USSR did not support the regime doing that sort of thing.  On 19 November, members of Charter 77 established Civic Forum (for the Czech half) and Public Against Violence (for the Slovaks) to unify the dissident movement and call for change, wanting the following.
  • Resignation of two officials responsible for the police attack.
  • A commission to investigate said attack.
  • Release of political prisoners.
  • Resignation of the leaders who were responsible for the Soviet invasion.
Unofficial negotiations began on the 20th, when Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec met with Civic Forum without Havel present- he was sympathetic, but could not get support among his cabinet. Civic Forum now added a new demand - an end to the KSČ's leading role in the state.

Dubček turned up the following day and addressed a crowd in St. Wenceslas Square, but it was clear that there was no support for any socialism at all.

The dissident movements called a two-hour general strike for the 27th and the Slovak part of Czechoslovak federal television, after a strike threat, began to air uncensored coverage of events in Bratislava. On the 24th, they aired the first free discussion ever on Czechoslovak TV; Havel made an address... and on that day, the entire Presidium resigned, with Miloš Jakeš replaced as as General Secretary by Karel Urbánek; he would be the last Gen Sec.

Formal negotiations began on 26 November, the day before the strike, although the Communists were very clearly on the back foot.

The strike had a participation rate of an estimated 75% and the Ministry of Culture then proceeded to allow anti-communist literature to be borrowed from libraries. Two days later, the party's leading role in the government was removed from the constitution and they were done.

Adamec resigned as PM on 7 December; he was replaced by Marián Čalfa. Three days later a new Cabinet, not dominated by communists, took office, with President Husák resigning the same day. He was thrown out of the party the following spring and died in 1991, with no-one bar his family really caring.

Havel soon became the biggest victor of the lot - he was unanimously elected President on 29 December.

Dubček became chairman of the Federal Assembly and head of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia; unfortunately he was killed in a car crash on 7 November 1992.

The Velvet Divorce

It became clear that the two peoples were on different courses quite quickly; the Czech area had a higher GDP per capita, the two halves spoken different languages, the Slovaks were far more religious than the Czechs and the 1992 elections saw major political differences in the two. The Slovak National Council elected wanted independence, while the new Czech National forum and new Czech PM, Václav Klaus (who needed the Slovak Movement for a Democratic Slovakia for a majority in the Czechoslovak legislature), favoured closer integration. The two sides met together for negotiations and it became clear that there was no way that a continued union was going to work. On 17 July, the Slovak National Council backed a declaration of independence and the 'divorce' discussions began.

Federal property (such as the Su-25 jets, which eventually ended up being retired anyway) was mostly split on a 2:1 ratio in favour of the Czechs, based on their relative populations. The border was mostly based on the existing one, although there were issues where it went through settlements, which were worked out. One issue not resolved was the Romany population - mostly registered in Slovakia, but living in the Czech Republic, they had difficulties regarding their citizenship for a decade afterwards.

Both countries agreed to not claim the title of successor state to the defunct Czechoslovakia and also not to use the symbols of the old country (the coat of arms contained symbols for each, which were easily taken for new coats - the Czechs got the lion and the Slovaks the cross); however, the Czechs were unable to find a suitable new flag and unilaterally decided to carry on with the Czechoslovak flag, the Slovaks were OK with that.

On 1 January 1993, the two countries separated, without bloodshed, starting new lives in the same neighbourhood. The Czech Republic and Slovakia had been born.

(The Czech Republic remains the standard name of the country in English; attempts to get 'Czechia' into wider English use haven't worked so far... or for that matter Česko in Czech...)

The Czech Republic and Slovakia today 

For a divorced couple, the Czech Republic and Slovakia get on arguably better than they were when they were married! Both countries are now members of NATO (the Czechs entered in 1999, Slovaks in 2004), joined the EU in 2004 and with the signing of the Schengen Agreement have eliminated routine border checks between the two of them. However, while Slovakia joined the eurozone in 2009, the Czech Republic continues to use the koruna as its currency (it is not likely to join until at least 2019).

They retained the +42 country code for international until 1997, when the Czechs took +420 and the Slovaks took +421. Liechtenstein got +423, for what it's worth)

(A follow up to the East Germany article, their code +37 got discontinued and was split among a number of ex-Soviet states and four of Europe's tinier states like Monaco)

The Czech Republic

The Czech Republic engaged in the wholesale privatisation that followed the collapse of the communist systems, but in their case, the shares were mostly sold at moderate prices to ordinary citizens, giving them something they could invest in and creating a lot of shareholders in the now private companies. There was a steady economic boom (with the exception of a crisis in 1997) until the economic crash when the country suffered a sharp economic contraction due to problems with its export markets e.g. Germany but has returned to growth since then. It is now firmly at Western European levels in terms of GDP (no other ex-Pact state can claim that), it is now a vibrant tourist destination and according to its statistical office, 97% of its population had access to a mobile phone in 2012.

Prague now has a lot more posters on the streets than it did when it featured in the video for INXS' single "Never Tear Us Apart" and I visited in 2004; I liked it but got a bit tired of the architecture by the end of my stay, which also featured a frankly dangerous taxi ride that involved the driver mounting the pavement.

In 1993, the Czech Republic's parliament passed a resolution declaring the old regime illegal and the KSČ (which had finally dissolved when Czechoslovakia ceased to exist), the first such legislation in the former Soviet bloc. 

Havel spent just over three years as Czechoslovakian president and another ten as a less powerful President of the Czech Republic; he remained a highly popular (although at times controversial figure, given his support for the NATO war with Yugoslavia) figure, produced another play after leaving office and was voted third greatest Czech in a TV poll, while still alive. He died in 2011, receiving a flood of tributes and today Prague's main airport is named after him.

The current President (the first elected by popular vote instead of Parliament) is Miloš Zeman, a fairly controversial figure who upset some Czechs by being nostalgic about the communist days. The real power lies in the hands of PM Bohuslav Sobotka of the centre-left Czech Social Democratic Party, head of a three-party coalition since earlier this year - he was 18 when the revolution happened and so has no connection to the old regime in any form bar having lived there.

The Czech military, as did most of the armed forces of Europe, downsized considerably following the end of the Cold War - it is largely oriented towards defence, but has participated in NATO missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The MiG-29 fleet was traded to Poland for helicopters - the Slovaks ended up with the maintenance kit for the Fulcrums in the divorce; after using MiG-23s and even MiG-21s for air defence, the country now has a lease (until 2027) on 14 Saab Gripens. Conscription was ended in 2004.

Today, the Czech Republic is a popular filming location for overseas works; while the local industry was always pretty strong (it had a boom before the war and Czechoslovak won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar on two occasions, while a further statuette going to Kolya in 1996, which oddly enough revolves around the revolution), Prague's Barrandov Studios have played host to filming for well-known works such as Casino Royale, The Bourne Identity and Alien vs. Predator, while the BBC's swashbuckling action series The Musketeers is also produced there. It's also a good place for game production - Bohemia Interactive, best known for the ARMA series, are based there and the second game in that series includes a DLC covering the modern Czech army.

The Plastic People of the Universe? Reformed in 1997 at Havel's suggestion and are still going.


The Slovak Republic or Slovakia is definitely the less well-off and less well-known of the two countries, although it is catching up with its neighbour in terms of GDP. The economy is growing quickly, it no longer needs aid from the World Bank and has been dubbed the Tatra Tiger.

That said, I can't name any famous living Slovaks (I can name two famous Czechs and three famous Belgians) - children of immigrants don't count, even if that list includes one Jessica Biel. It also doesn't have the same level of fictional prominence as its neighbour - arguably the most famous (or rather infamous) example was the Hostel movies... filmed in the Czech Republic and laughably inaccurate in their portrayal of Slovakia. A few films I've heard of and indeed seen were filmed in the country though. It really says something that the most famous film set in Slovakia was 1987's James Bond film The Living Daylights, which was filmed in Vienna!

The country's head of state is the independent entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska, elected in the second round of the 2014 elections. The real power lies with Prime Minister Robert Fico (who was in fact runner up in 2014), head of the centre-left Direction – Social Democracy, who won an absolute majority in the 2012 legislative elections. These elections resulted from Iveta Radičová losing a vote of confidence and a major corruption scandal (this remains a problem for many former Bloc countries, although it's not as bad as in some places) handed victory to the centre-left.

The military barely numbers a small division in total (14,000) with the air force featuring only a dozen front-line fighters, upgraded MiG-29s; however, it has taken part in operations in Kosovo, Cyprus and Afghanistan, where it has acquired a reputation for being very good at bomb disposal.. Compulsory military service was abolished in 2006.

Final note

I'd love to see a Czech/Slovak version of The Bridge. 

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