PRAGUE – Thousands marched through the Czech capital Tuesday in commemoration of a student protest 20 years ago that grew into the human tidal wave sweeping away the communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Today, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are European Union and NATO members. While the world recession has left its mark, their economies are among the strongest of the continent's former communist nations, and their democracies among the most resilient. Pragmatic Czechs in particular have moved into the European mainstream, with most citizens spending little time on any normal day looking back on their Velvet Revolution.
But Tuesday was no normal day for the several thousand Czechs gathered to relive the hours that led to their nation's democratic triumph.
Nov. 17, 1989, began with fiery speeches at a university campus in Prague, inspiring thousands of students to march downtown toward Wenceslas Square. As darkness fell, police cracked down hard, beating demonstrators with truncheons and injuring hundreds in the melee.
Unbowed, the crowds mushroomed in the ensuing days, with demonstrators chanting: "You have lost already!"
They were right. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism in the region, by Dec. 10, Czechoslovakia had a new government. On Dec. 29, Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who had spent several years in prison, was elected the country's first democratic president in a half century by a parliament still dominated by communist hard-liners.
For many retracing the march, it was a joyful return to a time when repression proved no match for people power, which in a string of protests brought down the Iron Curtain across East Europe.
"I came here with hope," said Renata Krbcova, 45, who studied at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in 1989 and joined the ranks of those that rolled through the capital.
"It was a wonderful feeling, after all we hoped that something had to happen," she said.
Krbcova, who teaches Italian and Italian literature at a Prague high school, said she came again to celebrate.
"Not everything is perfect," she said. "But overall, it is on the right track."
On Tuesday, Havel, President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Jan Fischer joined hundreds of people laying flowers and lighting candles at a monument marking the site of the brutal clash.
"The demonstration, the march set the history into motion," said Havel, who was applauded by the surrounding crowd.
Earlier Tuesday he praised the memory of those who helped overthrow the repressive regime, naming dozens including his late wife Olga.
"We often tend to forget our fellow colleagues, friends, and the open-minded people in everyday life," Havel told the Czech Senate.
Prominent outsiders joined in the praise.
"I congratulate the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 20 years of democracy and reaffirm the commitment of the United States to our strong alliance," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement.
Czechs remain relatively optimistic, 20 years on.
A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, conducted among respondents of nine post-communist countries, has only Czechs and Poles feeling they are better off now than back then. The Aug. 27 survey had a percentage of error between plus or minus 3.5 and 5 percentage points, depending on the country.
But on most days, the euphoria of those revolutionary days is hard to find.
Besides an economic downturn, the country has been in political limbo since the government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in March in the middle of the Czech EU presidency, just days before President Barack Obama's visit to Prague.
Havel said his nation of 10 million is still on the right track, enjoying a democratic society with the rule of law, respect for human rights and a free-market economy. But he expressed concern about "a loss of trust in politics, the gap between the public and the politicians."
Ten years ago, Havel, as president, honored former President George H.W. Bush, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Poland's 1980s pro-democracy leader, Lech Walesa, at the Prague Castle for their contributions to the fall of communism.
This time, only heads of Eastern European parliaments will participate in a conference in the Senate.
Organizers of the re-enactment of the student rally said they invited more than 800 original participants, as well anti-communist dissidents — but no politicians other than Havel.
"We do it for normal people," said Michal Pokorny, an organizer. "It's a great anniversary but we wanted a nonpolitical celebration."
In a disquieting sign of the freedom of expression that has grown from the Velvet Revolution, hundreds of supporters of the far right extremists Workers' Party staged a protest rally near the National Theater, briefly disrupting the festivities.
CT24 news television reported the extremists attacked two people. Police said 48 extremists were detained, both from that protest and from a clash between 100 neo-Nazis and police.