These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



From Perestroika to (Velvet) Revolution

    
 
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

In 1985, 17 years after the Prague Spring ended amid clouds of tank exhaust and a blizzard of purge orders, Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union. His programme - to revive the flagging Soviet economy by encouraging innovative thinking among the public - bore a marked resemblance to what Dubček and his allies had tried to do in 1968.

The similarity put the Czechoslovak leadership in an uncomfortable position. In 1986, 12 of the Czechoslovak Communist presidium's 14 members had been in power since 1971, as had nine of the 11 members of the Slovak presidium. Thus party leaders owed any legitimacy they had to the idea that perestroika and glasnost - the catchphrases of Gorbachev's programme - were wrong. "Conceding the legitimacy of the 1968 reform attempts would mean that they [party leaders] had no right to rule...which was, in any case, the perception of most of the Czechoslovak population," Henderson writes.

Thus a halting, mild version of Gorbachev's programme went into effect. Stressing the need to remember the "lessons" of 1968, the government acknowledged that the economy could stand a bit of modernising. Personnel at the top began to shuffle. Normalisation enthusiast Husák lost his position as party head to the Czech Miloš Jakeš, although he remained president. Vasil Biľak, who had officially called in the tanks in 1968, was ousted from the Czechoslovak Communist Party presidium in 1988.

Hints of glasnost began to appear. In 1987, the official Slovak environmental organisation published a blunt critique of Bratislava's ecological situation, implicitly criticising the regime's environmentally ruinous industrial efforts. "While the official reaction was hostile, it was notable that the publication appeared at all," Henderson writes.

Religion, not surprisingly, also served as a rallying point for reform in Slovakia. A petition demanding more religious freedom circulated in 1987 and 1988, gaining more than 500,000 signatures, the majority from Slovakia. In the context of post-1968 normalisation, this marked a watershed event of the public exerting its will. Reverting to their thuggish practices, government police in March 1988 "hamfistedly attacked a large religious rally in Bratislava's Hviezdoslav Square that included many older women holding candles and singing 'Ave Maria,'" Henderson writes.

But that crackdown only encouraged more public dissent. Throughout 1988 and into 1989, large, vociferous demonstrations against the regime took place in Prague, with smaller, quieter ones occurring in Bratislava. The government reacted fitfully, repressing some demonstrations and tolerating others. "Neither strategy stemmed the flow," Henderson writes.

    
 
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

The conflict reached its crisis on Nov. 17, 1989. On the same date in 1939, Nazi troops had violently crushed a student demonstration in Prague. For that reason, it had gained status on the Communist calendar as National Students' Day. Fifty years later, an officially sanctioned demonstration in Prague swelled to 50,000 people demanding reform. "The police trapped a forward group of several thousand as they moved on Wenceslas Square, and then, eventually, moved forward and attacked, batoning them as they attempted to flee along the only escape route available to them," Henderson writes.

Official media ignored the event, but Slovaks learned of it through word of mouth and reports picked up from Austrian media. On November 19, 500 Slovaks gathered to create Public Against Violence (VPN), which would partner with the Czech dissident group Civic Forum (OF) to help bring down the Communist government.

Meanwhile, demonstrations erupted in towns throughout Czechoslovakia, including Bratislava, Košice, Banská Bystrica, Zvolen, and other Slovak cities. Alexander Dubček laid down his wrench and joined Václav Havel, who had only emerged from prison in May, at a Prague demonstration on November 24. That night, the entire presidium of the Czechoslovak Communist Party resigned. The government - broadly defied, discredited, and lacking support from the Soviet Union - had no choice but to dissolve soon after. By December 28, Havel had been elected president and Dubček chair of the Federal Assembly.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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