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20 years ago today Havel negotiated the Communists out of power

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Nov. 17 gets all the glory when it comes to Czechs (& Slovaks) shedding their communist shells in favor of democracy 20 years ago. But today, Dec. 10, is really the day of revolutionary change in what became known as The Velvet Revolution.

It was Dec. 10, 1989, when dissidents — led by Vaclav Havel — succeeded in negotiating the communists out of power. The student protest on Nov. 17 kick-started a spiral of demonstrations and negotiations over the next three weeks with the communist government. As the protests grew, the negotiations intensified.

With no military, or even moral, support coming from Moscow; and with regimes falling all around them – East Germany, Poland, Hungary – Czechoslovakia’s communist government was under siege. Tanks seemed untenable, so their only way out was through talks. Perhaps the greatest risk to the revolution that would eventually come was the communist’s offer of a power-sharing deal. With hindsight and distance, rejecting that offer may have seemed like the obvious choice.

Many of us watching from the West saw the Berlin Wall collapse on Nov. 9th, and assumed (rightly, it turns out) that that was the end of the Soviet-bloc. But on the ground it was not so cut-and-dry. Virtually no one here believed — because they could not imagine — that the retrograde communist regime was on the verge of collapse.

Fortunately, Havel and his supporters rejected that offer from the government. Havel certainly knew that East Germans had been coming to Prague since the summer; abandoning their pithy little 2-stroke Trabants on the streets of the capital, and walking into the West German Embassy to escape. And he almost certainly knew of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as one who has often praised U.S. and British radio broadcasts blasted into the Warsaw Pact countries, Havel probably knew what was going on in Poland and Hungary as well.

But a playwright at heart, Havel had no formal negotiating skills. Since the Kremlin had always been the overseer of the Communist-bloc countries, it has been said that Czechoslovakia’s communist government was equally — if not more — unprepared to negotiate an outcome suitable to their liking.

And so it was that on Dec. 10, 1989, Havel succeeded in negotiating the communists out of power, without a shot being fired. In short, that’s how the Velvet Revolution was born.