17 November 1989: The Velvet Revolution begins in Czechoslovakia

In the autumn of 1989, change was sweeping through communist Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November made it easier for Czechoslovakians, eager to escape the political repression in their country, to flee to West Germany.

Just over a week later on International Students’ Day, thousands of students assembled in Prague to protest against the government of Miloš Jakeš. On Narodni Street, the police attacked the crowds. Thankfully, nobody was killed. Many Czechoslovakians recalled the Prague Spring of 1968, when protests had led to Soviet tanks rolling in. This time around, however, the tanks stayed put, and the Velvet Revolution had begun.

The brutality of the police did nothing to stem the mounting protests and strike action that followed. Within days, Jakeš stood down as general secretary of the Communist Party and the government collapsed. By the end of December, the dissident playwright and leader of opposition group Civic Forum, Václav Havel, had become Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president in 44 years.

The new government lost no time in reforming the economy under the direction of the prime minister, Václav Klaus. Prices were liberalised, the market was opened up to foreign trade and investment, state-owned enterprises were privatised, and the tax system was reformed.

However, it soon became apparent that the Slovak economy had suffered more from direct communist control. Its mineral wealth meant that Slovakia had been made into a major armaments producer to the Eastern Bloc. As such, its economy was overly rigid and reliant on a single industry. By contrast, the Czech economy was nimbler and more diversified. It was this two-speed Czechoslovak economy that would eventually lead to the rupture of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Yet in the years since, both countries have prospered. For 2015, the European Union (of which they are both now members) forecasts GDP growth of 2.5% for each.

As for 17 November 1989, that date is commemorated every year in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day – the date on which the students first took to the streets, demanding freedom.

Also on this day

17 November 1869: Opening of the Suez Canal

On this day in 1869, the Suez Canal, designed by Frenchman Ferdinand de Lessops, opened for business, connecting Europe to Asia through Africa. Read more here.