Czechs celebrate 20 years since Velvet Revolution

AP News
Posted: Nov 14, 2009 5:04 PM

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel opened the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Velvet Revolution with a concert attended by celebrities.

Underground rocker Lou Reed, soprano Renee Fleming and folk singer Joan Baez performed to a crowd of about 500 gathered at 13th-century church in downtown Prague.

Baez performed "We Shall Overcome" in both Czech and English to massive applause by an audience that included former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Prague. Fleming sang "Rusalka" by Antonin Dvorak and "Ave Maria" by Franz Schubert, and was then joined by Reed on his song "Perfect Day."

Video messages from President Barack Obama, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were broadcast along with greetings from rock stars Mick Jagger and Bono during the nationally televised concert.

"Your spirit, your courage inspired the world," Obama said, while Gorbachev praised the peaceful nature of the Velvet Revolution.

Earlier Saturday, Havel had harsh words for Russia's current regime while engaging students in a political debate at the Charles University's Faculty of Arts.

"The era of dictatorships and totalitarian systems has not ended at all. It may have ended in a traditional form as we know it from the 20th century, but new, far more sophisticated ways of controlling society are being born," Havel was quoted by the CTK news agency as saying.

He said Russia had developed a special, sophisticated way of general manipulation, and while displaying the attributes of democracy, its practice was limited to a level that would not harm the current regime.

At the concert, Havel also called for international solidarity with the oppressed people around the world from North Korea to Venezuela.

Havel, now 73, was co-author of the Charter 77 human rights manifesto and spent several years in Communist prisons before becoming Czechoslovakia's first president after the peaceful 1989 revolution toppled the Communist regime. Czechoslovakia split in 1993 to form the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which today refers to the 1989 events as the Gentle Revolution.

Havel, also a playwright and essayist, is known for mixing politics with the arts.

"Thank you for coming to remember the fall of the Iron Curtain," he said at the end of Saturday's concert.

The celebrations are expected to peak on Tuesday with music and rallies throughout the country. In Prague, students are expected to re-enact the protest march that led to clashes with the police triggering nationwide protests that ended 40 year of Communist rule.