Czech PM regrets communist past on Velvet Revolution anniversary

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis speaks during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution at the National Museum in Prague November 17, 2019. — Reuters pic
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis speaks during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution at the National Museum in Prague November 17, 2019. — Reuters pic

PRAGUE, Nov 17 — Billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis expressed remorse over his communist past today at a ceremony in Prague celebrating 30 years since the Velvet Revolution toppled communism in then-Czechoslovakia.

The populist mogul, who was a Czechoslovak Communist Party member in the 1980s, paid tribute to the 1989 peaceful uprising that ushered in democratic reform to the former Soviet satellite. 

His comments come after a quarter-million Czechs flooded central Prague on Saturday, in demonstrations to mark the anniversary that saw protesters demand Babis resign over allegations of graft and that he was once a communist secret agent. He has strongly denied the accusations.

“As you surely know, I was a Communist Party member. I’m not proud of that,” Babis said at a ceremony attended by the prime ministers of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia and by German parliament speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble.

He said he “wasn’t as brave” as Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright elected the president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, and thanked those behind the Velvet Revolution protests.

“I’m standing here today as the prime minister elected in a free, democratic election, and therefore I want to, at least now, express my gratitude and humility,” said Babis, whose minority government now relies on the tacit support of Communist party lawmakers to survive in parliament.

Graft allegations

Babis took office after his ANO (YES) party won the 2017 general election, campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket in the EU and Nato country of 10.6 million.

The fifth wealthiest Czech according to Forbes, Babis himself now faces a string of graft allegations and a conflict-of-interest probe by the European Commission centred on Agrofert, his sprawling farming, media and chemicals holding.

He is also tagged as an agent in secret police files from the 1980s. He has strongly denied knowingly cooperating.

ANO still tops opinion polls with around 30 percent support, but the scandals have stoked a public outcry against Babis. 

On Saturday the CTK Czech news agency quoted Interior Minister Jan Hamacek as saying some 250,000 people had rallied at Letna park—the site of some of the biggest 1989 rallies—matching a similar protests against Babis in June.

Toppling Soviet rule

Thirty years ago the Velvet Revolution saw unprecedented demonstrations and a general strike end four decades of Soviet-imposed totalitarianism in the former Czechoslovakia, just weeks after the Berlin Wall crumbled.

On November 17, 1989, Communist police brutally crushed a students’ march, sparking a student strike and the creation of an opposition movement which then negotiated the Communist Party’s departure from politics.

In late December 1989, Havel, then the opposition leader, was elected president of Czechoslovakia, which went on to peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

The neighbours joined Nato and the EU, with Bratislava also joining the eurozone in 2009. — AFP

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