Czechs are marking the 19th anniversary of the fall of communism and the return of democracy to their country. Nineteen years ago today the communist police cracked down on an unarmed student demonstration, sparking nationwide solidarity and setting in motion a series of mass protests that led to the fall of communism. Leading politicians, cultural figures and members of the public on Monday visited memorials to the victims of communism on Wenceslas Square, Národní třída and other sites in the Czech Republic to lay flowers and light candles in memory of those who fought against oppression. The commemorative ceremonies are also linked to an earlier anniversary – a student march in 1939 held in protest against the Nazi occupation that was brutally suppressed. The protest served as a pretext for more reprisals against Czech intellectuals. The Nazis raided a university campus on the night of November 17, nine students were executed without a trial and 1200 were deported to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. All Czech universities were then closed.
Speaking at a ceremony in Prague, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek reminded Czechs of the value of freedom and democracy, stressing that they should never be taken for granted. Referring to the victory of the political left in the October regional elections, Mr. Topolánek warned against the communists’ return to power. He spoke about the significance of Czech participation in the US missile defense shield, saying that the country’s close allegiance with the Western world strengthened its independence. He said opponents of the radar were putting the country’s future security at risk.
Meanwhile, NATO reaffirmed on Monday its backing for a planned U.S. missile shield in Europe after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it would bring no extra security on the continent. NATO leaders including Sarkozy welcomed U.S. plans to deploy the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic as a "substantial contribution to the protection of allies" at a summit in Bucharest last April. But after talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday, Sarkozy said that deploying the U.S. anti-missile system would do "nothing to bring security and complicates things". Mr. Sarkozy said he had won Russian backing for talks on security in Europe next year and urged a freeze in missile deployments by Moscow and the United States until then. His remarks were immediately questioned by Czech politicians who said Mr. Sarkozy had no mandate for his remarks.
In Prague, supporters and opponents of the radar took to the streets to voice their opinions on Monday. They clashed on several occasions and at Prague’s Národní třída they got into a verbal conflict with members of the public who came to pay their respects to the victims of communism. The two sides exchanged angry words when people asked the demonstrators to take their banners elsewhere and not to make use of the occasion for their own activities. The police eventually stepped in, asking demonstrators to keep at a distance from the memorial.
The former Czech president and dissident leader Václav Havel was met with a round of applause from the crowd and shouts of “long live Havel” as he made an appearance at the Narodní trida memorial to light a candle and lay flowers. Mr. Havel said he was far less disturbed by the presence of the communists in Czech politics, than he was by the signals indicating close links between the underworld and people in high office. Mr. Havel also criticized opponents of the US radar, saying that defense issues were not a matter to be debated out in the streets. He said it would be good to ask the older protesters why they had not come out in force to demonstrate against the presence of Soviet troops in the country twenty-five years ago.
As of November 17, Czechs traveling to the US will no longer be required to apply for a visa. They will be able to travel on a biometric passport, after filling in an online form known as ESTA or Electronic System of Travel Authorization. Approval by the ESTA system will give Czech citizens unlimited entry to the US over a two year period. The country’s acceptance into the US visa waiver programme will not make any difference to those Czech citizens who already have US visas. Czech and US leaders have greeted the move as a historic step in bilateral relations.
Neo-Nazis clashed with police in the town of Litvínov on Monday as officers moved in to prevent a 500-strong protest march from reaching Janov, a part of town that is home to a strong Romany minority. Cobblestones, bottles and other objects flew through the air as the police fought to get the situation under control with water canon, tear gas and the sheer number of 1,000 men. Several people are reported injured and a police car was set on fire. The event was organized by the ultra-right Workers Party and the strong gathering was clearly intended as show of strength aimed against the Romany minority. In the Romany quarter some three hundred men gathered to defend their turf, many of them armed with sticks and knives. The police had received strict orders to prevent the two sides from coming into contact.
The Czech government has ordered the Czech embassy in Hanoi to suspend the process of issuing visas to all Vietnamese applicants until further notice. The move comes in reaction to the rise in organized crime among the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic. Interior Minister Ivan Langer told Czech public television that concrete measures must be taken in order to protect the Czech Republic from mafia practices and criminal activities. The Czech-Vietnamese Society has protested against the blanket measure, saying that only a fraction of the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic is involved in organized crime.
Half of Czechs believe that President Václav Klaus is damaging the image of the Czech Republic, according to a new poll. The poll released by STEM also reveals that three-quarters of those polled believe that the Czech president should not present his own personal views whilst abroad. As a ceremonial and apolitical head of state, Mr Klaus is tasked with representing the Czech government and its people whilst overseas, but much to the chagrin of critics, the Czech president has rarely shied away from expressing his own often controversial views ranging from subjects such as Europe and climate change. Recently, Mr Klaus sparked controversy by meeting with a vocal opponent of the Lisbon Treaty while on an official visit to Ireland.
A gas explosion in a street near the centre of the town of Hradec Králové has caused one death and six injuries, according to reports. The incident occurred in a residential home in the early hours of Sunday morning. The explosion is said to have been so powerful that neighbouring windows in the area were blasted out of their frames. Police and fire services soon arrived at the scene, and soon discovered the body of a thirty-three-year-old woman in the wreckage. After a search of the five-storey apartment, police also found six injured, including three children. A sixty year-old man injured in the explosion is said to be in a serious condition. The precise cause of the explosion, believed to have been caused by a gas leak, remains unclear.