Prague, Czech Republic – As the Czech Republic and Slovakia mark the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, some that led the transition from communism hope the younger generation will drive another transformation.
Jiri Schneider was “a young engineer working in the forests of eastern Bohemia” when mass demonstrations erupted across former Czechoslovakia in 1989. Weeks later he was part of the Civic Forum government, tasked with rewiring the system of government.
That process, headed by absurdist playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel, was only partially successful, suggests Schneider, a former deputy foreign minister, now director of the Czech branch of the Aspen Institute think-tank.
“There were enormous achievements, but also unrealistic expectations,” Schneider says. “We failed to use the energy to properly transform society.”
Just two years later, political cynicism sparked “the Velvet Divorce” and the Czech Republic and Slovakia went their separate ways.
Still, the fall of totalitarianism and the “return to Europe” will be enthusiastically celebrated this weekend. While the two countries’ economies and quality of life are yet to catch up with neighbouring Germany, statistics show they are at the vanguard of states that stepped from behind the Iron Curtain.
The majority of the population here views the revolution positively. However, 1989 did not mark “the end of history” as academic Francis Fukuyama triumphantly predicted, and, as has happened further west, populism has bloomed in Central Europe.
The two countries were wrongfooted by the fact that liberal democracy turned out to be “a moving target”, says Jiri Pehe, an adviser to Havel and now director of the New York University in Prague.
More than 50 percent of Slovaks and 40 percent of Czechs now question whether life was better under communism. Such views are most common among those left behind by the transition: Poorer, older, less-educated Czechs and Slovaks.
Similarly, insecure electorates sit behind US President Donald Trump and Brexit, analysts have noted. In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis offer nationalist and authoritarian succour. Meanwhile, Robert Fico and his Smer party spent years providing reassurance and easy answers to Slovak voters.
Unsurprisingly, higher levels of education and income correlate with more positive views of the revolution. However, youth is the strongest signifier.
That is good news for those of the 1989 generation hoping a younger cohort will challenge populism.
Havel once said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, according to Pehe, that Czechoslovakia would need two revolutions: The first anti-communist; the second against the post-communist generation.
Schneider says he expected the second revolt 10 years ago, as corruption scandals engulfed mainstream political parties, but better late than never. Universities are again buzzing with political activism.
Last year, huge protests erupted in Slovakia following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak. They overthrew Fico and earlier this year propelled activist Zuzana Caputova to the presidency.
On November 16, hundreds of thousands will fill the streets of Czechia to protest Zeman and Babis in the latest rally organised by student-founded NGO Milion Chvelik pro demokracii (or A Million Moments for Democracy). Zeman has announced he will avoid the official celebrations the following day.
As is happening around the globe, younger generations in Czechia and Slovakia are now seeking to push an agenda that includes environmentalism, and gender and racial equality.
“The Czech political system still lags other EU states on issues like the environment,” says Zuzana Svedova, a 24-year-old student and environmental and animal rights campaigner. “But without the Velvet Revolution we wouldn’t even have had the chance to try to change things.”
Racial relations have improved dramatically over the past 30 years. Czech and Slovak football terraces are not blighted with the same levels of bigotry as those of Bulgaria and Ukraine, for instance. But issues remain, especially for the Roma.
“Democracy brought us Romani people opportunities for self-determination as a national minority,” writes Roma activist Michal Mizigar, but also “exclusion from society, poverty, and even fear for our lives.”
Illustrating the generational divide, even Zeman’s daughter is getting in on the act, calling on her septuagenarian father to drop his opposition to equal marriage.
“The anniversary of the Velvet Revolution is a good moment for formulating these positive civil society programmes,” says Benjamin Roll, the 24-year-old vice chair of Milion Chvelik.
While the likes of Roll stress they are not interested in entering politics, the older generation is eager to encourage a formal change of guard.
General Petr Pavel, until last year chairman of NATO’s military committee, has said he may return to battle to challenge for the presidency. However, he said, he hopes Czech civil society will instead find its own Caputova – so he can remain retired.