Prague - The demonstration against the communist regime held in Prague exactly 25 years ago, on August 21, 1989, marked the 21st anniversary of the invasion of the country by Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet army and heralded the Velvet Revolution that toppled the regime three months later.
The Czechoslovak communist regime was always afraid of “provocations” on the anniversary of the invasion that suppressed the Prague Spring reform movement in 1968.
Thanks to the Soviet perestroika and glasnost and the developments in the neighbouring socialist countries in the late 1980s, even people in Czechoslovakia stopped fearing to show their dissatisfaction with the regime.
The first bigger protest occurred in Bratislava in March 1988. This “candle demonstration” for religious freedom and democracy was dispersed by the police. On the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion five months later, about 10,000 people gathered in Prague and the police again firmly intervened against the protesters.
The wave of protests continued with a gathering marking 70 years of independent Czechoslovakia on October 28, 1988, a legal demonstration at Prague´s Skroup Square on the Human Rights Day in December, and the so-called Palach week of protests related to student activist Jan Palach who immolated himself in 1969.
August 21, 1989 was another occasion for people to show their discontent. The demonstration was not massive as part of the dissident movement preferred diplomacy to street protests then and only the Democratic Initiative and the Movement for Civic Freedom groups organised it. Later president Vaclav Havel, who was the informal head of the Czechoslovak dissidents, called for careful actions in an interview for Radio Free Europe.
Communist Party´s Prague hardline leader Miroslav Stepan announced that the security forces were ready to use all means available including guns against the demonstrators, if necessary.
In spite of this, more than 1,000 people gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague´s centre. Political activists from Hungary, Italy, Poland and East and West Germany arrived to support the Czechoslovak opposition.
People chanted slogans in support of independent movements and its representatives, human rights and democratic developments in Poland and Hungary. Both Hungary and Poland distanced themselves from the 1968 occupation, which the Czechoslovak authorities criticised.
The police violently scattered the demonstration. Apart from policemen and members of th People´s Militia paramilitary organisation, 2,300 soldiers and a tank regiment of 1,160 troops were prepared to take action.
According to the then Interior Ministry report, 1,500 people took part in the demonstration, the identities of 990 people were checked and 105 Czechoslovak and 56 foreign citizens were arrested. As a preventative measure, the secret police arrested 81 people even before the demonstration, 166 were ordered to join a military training course and 487 people from Hungary, Italy and Poland were not let across the Czechoslovak borders.
Another illegal protest was held in Prague on St Wenceslas Day, September 28, and the police again intervened against about 300 people participating in it. After a demonstration on October 28, nearly 380 people were arrested.
Vaclav Havel planned another big protest for December 10, which is the Human Rights Day. But a student protest in Narodni Trida street on November 17 triggered the Velvet Revolution that toppled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.