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Page last updated at 21:47 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Prague marks Velvet Revolution

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Rob Cameron describes the scene as Prague marks the anniversary

Czechs and Slovaks have been marking the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution - which ended Communist rule in the then-Czechoslovakia.

A crowd of 5,000 retraced the route of the Prague student march that changed the course of Czechoslovak history.

In 1989, the Communist Party relinquished power after hundreds of thousands demonstrated for 12 days.

The dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, who led the revolution before becoming president, was among the marchers.

He joined students past and present who had earlier gathered in Prague's Albertov district - home to several faculties of Charles University - to retrace the steps of the 17 November march.

False rumours

The gathering 20 years ago began as an officially-sanctioned demonstration, but several thousand students broke off and tried to reach the city's Wenceslas Square.

Tuesday's crowd included people young and old, some pushing baby carriages, others carrying Czech flags as they followed the route towards Narodni street.

Map

"I came here with hope. It was a wonderful feeling," remembered Renata Krbcova, 45, who as a student in 1989 had joined the march.

She said she had come again to celebrate.

"Not everything is perfect but overall, it is on the right track," she added.

Narodni street now features a small memorial to hundreds who were surrounded, and beaten, by a line of riot police.

False rumours - possibly planted by the communist secret police - that one of the students had been killed sent a wave of anger through Czechoslovak society that prompted the angry demonstrations.

The date is now a public holiday, and for most Czechs and Slovaks, an opportunity to celebrate two decades of freedom and democracy.

ANALYSIS
Rob Cameron
Rob Cameron, BBC News, Prague

The anniversary in Prague is certainly more low-key than the bombastic celebrations that marked the fall of the Berlin Wall last week.

There were no foreign statesmen making grandiose speeches; even Czech officials have taken something of a back seat.

Instead the events were mostly organised by private individuals, a fitting tribute to a revolution that was started by ordinary students.

Twenty years on, few Czech people - except elderly Communists - would turn the clocks back.

There is, however, general discontent with party politics, burgeoning corruption and a sense of moral and social decline.

Although politicians have largely taken a back seat in the anniversary, Mr Havel, incumbent Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Prime Minister Jan Fischer and a crowd of hundreds lit candles and laid flowers at the monument marking the site of the brutal clash.

"The march set history into motion," said Mr Havel to applause.

Marchers later saw a concert in the city centre featuring Mr Havel and US folk singer Joan Baez.

In a speech to the Czech senate earlier on Tuesday, Mr Havel paid tribute to the memory of those who had helped to bring down the Communist regime, including his late wife Olga.

"We often tend to forget our fellow colleagues, friends and the open-minded people in everyday life," he said, going on to name dozens who had died since the protests.

In a statement, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also joined in the praise, saying: "I congratulate the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 20 years of democracy and reaffirm the commitment of the United States to our strong alliance."

At a Prague concert organised by Mr Havel over the weekend, US President Barack Obama broadcast a video message saying: "Your spirit, your courage inspired the world."



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