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The Velvet Revolution demonstrated the power of civil society

November 17 is a national holiday in Slovakia, symbolising the fall of the Communist regime. More and more Slovak and Czech students as well as other fellow citizens flooded the streets of cities on this and the following days, eventually resulting in the end of the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. People held keys in their hands and jingled farewell to the old regime, an inherent sign of the Velvet Revolution.

Even though we commemorate November 17, the prologue leading to ensuing events was established the day before.

On the eve of International Students Day, November 16, Slovak high school and university students organised an unauthorised demonstration in the centre of Bratislava, the Slovak capital. Around 250 students expressed resistance to communist leaders, marching from the Presidential Palace to the main building of Comenius University, demanding academic freedoms and a real, not just declared, democracy.

The march was peaceful and the first student protest against the regime. According to witnesses, many participants were threatened with expulsion from university, including repercussions for their relatives. However, this event had the opposite effect and ignited a chain of protests all over Czechoslovakia.

The following day security forces brutally interfered with a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. When thousands of students started marching towards the city centre, the police surrounded them and later closed off the area. Students were beaten, hundreds injured. This incident mobilised the nation.

The next day, students in Prague initiated a week-long strike, joined by theatre actors and later students from all over the country.

On November 19, Slovak artists followed suit, denouncing the attack against the students in Prague. They formed the Public Against Violence, a leading opposition movement in Slovakia. The Civic Forum was created in Prague, an organisation calling for regime change. It was led by Václav Havel and other dissidents from Charter 77, a civic initiative criticising the communist government for not implementing human rights.

Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to attend anti-communist demonstrations, firstly at Wenceslas Square in Prague, a day later in front of Comenius University in Bratislava, with other cities following.

The communist politicians were perceived as blind, arrogant, ignorant, incapable of any sensible leadership, and full of empty rhetoric. How could young students full of ideals settle for these representatives who possessed so much power over the direction of their lives?
The protesters demanded nothing less than the resignation of the discredited Communist party and government functionaries, freedom for political prisoners, media freedom and free access to media, the freedom to gather, among other things.

Finally a breakthrough, one that weeks before could not have been expected. On December 10 president Gustáv Husák appointed a largely non-communist government and resigned.
At first, it did not seem likely that protests by students and artists could lead to such fundamental societal and political changes. Their courageous efforts against a state that could intimidate and suppress people resulted in a non-violent revolution. Thirty-three years ago, the so-called “Velvet Revolution” allowed future generations to reap the benefits of freedom, including that of free speech and the right to gather, ultimately setting Slovakia on the path to democracy and European integration.