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Celebrations to mark 20 years since 'Velvet Revolution'

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Celebrations get underway today to mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime in what was then known as Czechoslovakia. Four years later the country split into the Czech and Slovak republics.


AFP - Twenty years after the peaceful coup that toppled communism in their country, leaders of the 1989 Velvet Revolution agree that Czechs have yet to properly settle accounts with history.

One-time anti-communist dissidents insist that while the Czech Republic now enjoys democracy and freedom, it has failed to draw a thick line under the past and deal properly with the defunct regime's legacy.

As a consequence perhaps, the Communist Party, unreformed since the coup, is blossoming and few officials from the four-decade communist regime have been brought to justice.

"We could have settled accounts with communism better," former dissident and now senator Alexandr Vondra said recently.

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The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia merely tweaked its name after 1989, from the original Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. It has held seats in parliament ever since the revolution.

The party eschewed a thorough overhaul, unlike its peers in other post-communist countries such as fellow 2004 EU entrants Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, which transformed themselves into less hardline left-wing parties.

The Czech Republic's communists have nevertheless emerged from all recent general elections as the nation's third-strongest political force, raking in votes from over 10 percent of the electorate.

Former Czech president Vaclav Havel insists the party was able to shun the opportunity to reform itself because there was not enough political and social will to force real change.

"It's like a boulder weighing down our political system," said Havel, a leading light in the dissident movement for years before and during 1989.

Simon Panek, another prominent player in the peaceful 1989 pro-democracy drive, has a more severe stance.

"We made a mistake... The Communist Party should have been banned," said the co-organiser of the crucial November 17, 1989 student protest which was crushed by riot police and which catalysed the Velvet Revolution.

Screenwriter Jiri Krizan, another 1989 dissident leader, said he blamed the motto of the Velvet Revolution -- "We Are Not Like Them" -- for "slowing the Czechs down in calling things by their name, in pointing at the culprits responsible for what was happening here for years."

"It's not a matter of revenge or punishment. It's about pointing people out, which hasn't happened to the present day," he said.

Few former Czech communist leaders have been put on trial and fewer still have served sentences, with many avoiding jail due to old age and health problems.

The rare exceptions include Miroslav Stepan, head of Prague's Communist Party committee before 1989, who gave the order to suppress anti-regime rallies in 1988 and to drive protesters at a 1989 rally out of Prague.

Stepan was sentenced for two years and six months but served only a year. At present, he works as an economic consultant.

"I find this very sad -- that there are people who spent their lives fighting for freedom and were persecuted throughout their lives... (they have) become pensioners with tiny incomes, while their torturers have huge wages and severances," said Havel.

He added a thorough change would take a long time as "the reconstruction of the civil society, which was totally shattered decades ago, is terribly lengthy and painstaking... it is really a task for decades."

"I admit I was very wrong when I thought it would come earlier," said 73-year-old Havel.

Panek said that in 1989, "we all shared the illusion that... we will change too, that the euphoria and goodwill may last. This was of course a naive illusion."

"But when I take an objective look and compare this with central and east European countries, I can see they are in a similar situation," Panek, now director of the humanitarian organisation People In Need, told AFP.

But all the leaders agreed the basic task of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was fulfilled.

"The shift towards a democratic country with the rule of law, towards freedom, respect for human rights, a market economy -- this all has taken place, though far more painstakingly and slowly" than we had expected, said Havel.

"We may grumble about the current situation, but we can hardly say we've left the path we set out on at that time," he added.

"Of course we have made lots of mistakes, but we have perhaps avoided an even larger number of mistakes."

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