Czechoslovakia 1989: anything was possible

By Libor Krkoska


©Creative Commons/Peter Turnley
 

What did you do when the momentous changes happened and how did you experience them?

I was studying at the university in Prague and remember the changes during those months vividly. First, thousands of East Germans came, abandoning their Trabant and Wartburg cars all over the town and climbing over the fence into the garden of the West German embassy before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then the police brutally attacked a student demonstration in downtown Prague in mid-November and mass demonstrations started together with a student strike lasting several weeks. We were getting out to the main square every night in freezing weather. We did not get much sleep as we were discussing political developments late into the mornings in our dormitories.

Within a few short months Václav Havel had become our president, we had the first free elections and took the first steps to reforming the economy and introducing private businesses, with previously banned books flooding the shops and filling my library. Many small independent bakeries appeared, and to date the smell of freshly baked bread always reminds me of the changes introduced after 1989.

What was the most exciting moment for you?

While there were many political and economic changes, the most exciting moment for me was the opening of the border with the rest of Europe. Together with tens of thousands of my compatriots, I applied for a passport and travelled to Vienna on a train provided by the Austrian government. Crossing the previously sealed border on a packed train in the middle of winter and then walking along Vienna’s brightly-lit Mariahilferstrasse in the evening became for me the true symbol of the changes of 1989. Vienna has become my favourite city since, and I am always happy to return there again and again to recall the feeling of freedom we won in 1989.

How did it change your life?

1989 radically changed my life from how I had envisaged it only a few months earlier. Liberalisation did not only mean economic and political reforms, but also the freeing up of rigid university courses and the opening of new horizons. Like many of my classmates, I switched my focus to study economics and pursue a career in finance rather than becoming a mathematician as I had planned when entering university. But more than that, 1989 showed me that anything is possible. Whatever may seem eternal can disappear almost overnight, and seemingly worthless things, such as the knowledge of the English language in communist Czechoslovakia had been, can unexpectedly become highly relevant.

How did it change your country?

My country is now both very different and in many respects still the same as it was before 1989. Of course, my country as it was does not exist anymore, as Czechoslovakia split up in 1993. Today the Czech and Slovak Republics are members of the EU and Nato, and many of the issues we have been most concerned about are now taken for granted. We have regular free elections, freedom of speech, freedom of movement to travel abroad and freedom to pursue private enterprise. Our cities and towns have been rebuilt, our air is cleaner, and our wallets are generally fuller.

At the same time many of our habits and ways of doing things have not changed much, and there are not just winners but also losers of the changes triggered by the 1989 revolutions. It will probably take at least one or two more generations until transition will be over and my country will fully have caught up with the rest of Europe, overcoming the remaining traces of real socialism from the period before 1989.

Working for the EBRD to make it happen reminds me of the historic days of 1989 every day as our successes and achievements help us to demonstrate that the often painful reforms started then were worth the effort.

Libor Krkoska is a Senior Banker and Head of the EBRD’s Office in Cypru