Several thousand people attended a Concert for the Future on Prague’s
Wenceslas Square on Saturday night.
The concert lasted for more than five hours with music interspersed with speeches by activists, former politicians and personalities from the arts world. The speakers criticized the present political culture in the country and spoke about the need to protect and nurture freedom and democracy.
There were calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who faces charges of EU subsidy fraud.
The concert was preceded by a protest gathering against the prime minister on Old Town Square attended by thousands of people.
Czechs on Saturday marked the 29th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that triggered the fall of communism in 1989. Traditionally the anniversary was marked by public gatherings, concerts, marches and cultural events, but this year public discontent with the political situation brought a tense atmosphere to the celebrations.
This year the Czech Republic is celebrating many special anniversaries. Yet despite the importance of commemorating a hundred years since the Czechs gained independence, the 50 years since the 1968 invasion and more, there is and always has been one anniversary that overshadows the others in terms of political statement – November 17th.
The annual Festival of Freedom, which organises many of the November 17th celebrations, will offer a wide-ranging programme in dozens of cities across the country. Visitors can look forward to concerts, theatre shows, discussion panels and readings in some of the iconic locations of the Velvet Revolution. The main theme of this year’s festival will be the support of discussion in society.
President Miloš Zeman has warned the Social Democrats, who had a poor
showing in the recent municipal and Senate elections, of a possible split
in the party of which he was a long-time chairman.
In a wide-ranging interview with Czech Radio on Monday evening live from the presidential residence in Lány, Zeman again said he favoured a dissolution of the Senate.
He also defended his decision not to make appearances on 17 November, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, and on 21 August, the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops, saying it was enough for him to remember these dates in silence.
Zeman said he would speak on 28 October, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of Czechoslovak independence, when State honours are given out. He also revealed that he will honour resistance fighter Josef Bílý posthumously.
The Czech president also recalled in the interview how he had used obscene expressions in a live broadcast four years ago. Despite protests from the moderator, Zeman once again used vulgar words in the live interview.
Commemorative events are taking place around the Czech Republic to mark the
events of November 17, 1989, when communist police cracked down on students
on Prague’s Národní třída, sparking the Velvet Revolution which
brought down the regime which had held power for more than 40 years.
On Friday, the first politician to visit the memorial at Národní třída was Andrej Babiš, a former businessman turned politician who heads the ANO Party and has been tasked with forming a minority government after winning the election in October.
He was flanked by other members of his party including Defence Minister Martin Stropnický, Justice Minister Robert Pelikán, and Prague Mayor Adriana Krnačová.
Mr Babiš was met by several vocal demonstrators who brought up allegations he had collaborated with the communist-era secret police and allegations of subsidy fraud in the Stork’s Nest scandal. Mr Babiš said that they had every right to express their opinion, one of the gains of the Velvet Revolution. He expressed the view that 28 years since the events of 1989, Czech society was too divided and polarised. Long-time political opponent Miroslav Kalousek, who lit a candle at the memorial later, reacted to Mr Babiš’ words by saying that society’s strength was built on variety, not union.
Other politicians from the major parties, such as Civic Democrat leader Petr Fiala but also presidential candidates as well as regular citizens continued to visit the site of the memorial throughout the day, lighting candles. Absent this year was the head of state, Miloš Zeman. His spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček, said the president as someone who had been an "active participant" in 1989 would mark the day in private.
November 17th also marks the 78th anniversary of brutal Nazi repression and murder in 1939, after students had organised a march to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal, a young man killed by the Nazi occupiers. One witness to those events, Vojmír Srdečný (who is 98 now and was a 20-year-old student at the time), said that the Gestapo and German soldiers had swept into student dorms in Prague, Brno, and Příbram, and dragged students off to Ruzyně prison. Nine student leaders were murdered by the Nazis and more than 1,000 sent to Sachsenhausen, he said at a commemorative event on Friday.
Events on the day are scheduled at a memorial on Narodní třída, as well as Albertov and on Prague’s Wenceslas Square which saw the number of demonstrators in the days of the Velvet Revolution swell to almost one million.
A concert called Concert for the Future will take place on the square beginning at half-past four in the afternoon. Performers include Zrni, Ema Smetana, Švihadlo, and Laco Deczi.
Security on November 17th has been increased accordingly and police are monitoring events closely: some 24 events were officially registered – nine of which are marches through the city. Police will be aiming to prevent right-wing and leftist extremists from crossing paths and clashing or any other potential violence.
The freethinking part of Czech society suffered several defeats in recent
years, rector of Masaryk University in Brno, Mikuláš Bek maintained in
his address to attendees at Albertov in Prague on Friday marking the
courage and dedication of students and others who fought oppression in
Czechoslovakia on November 17, 1939 and 1989.
Freedom and democracy, he said, needed to be cared for and he said one shouldn't be afraid to fight for it. In his speech, he ranked the first direct presidential election as one defeat freethinking society had suffered recently. The rector added there was "no reason to panic" and that education could change Czech society for the better.
The rector of Charles University, Tomáš Zima, remembered the courage of students in both 1939 and 1989 and said he had no doubt if freedom and democracy were threatened today, people would again stand up in its defense.
Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová is a political activist and university lecturer. Back in 1989, she served as a press spokesperson for the student leaders protesting against the communist regime. Pajerová also helped to organise some of the now famous protests that led to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. I joined her for an informal conversation about the subsequent mood in the country – and how for some, hope soon turned to cynicism. But I began by asking her to briefly describe her role in the events of November 1989:
Police will be out in force on November 17 to maintain law and order in
view of the record number of street gatherings and demonstrations being
held on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. According to Prague City
Hall, 24 events are officially registered, of that nine marches through the
Commemorative events will traditionally take place at Národní třída, where communist police cracked down on a peaceful student march 28 years ago, Wenceslas Square and Albertov, which witnessed a brutal crack-down on Czech university students on November 17, 1989. Police reinforcements are being sent to Prague from the regions and drivers have been warned to expect traffic restrictions in the city centre.