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Europe

Czechs Mull Communist Party Ban

Unlike in most former Eastern Bloc countries, the Czech Republic's communists did not transform themselves into a modern left-wing party after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Now, a campaign is on to outlaw them.

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Is the sun setting for communist symbols in the Czech republic?

Maintaining their old name and symbols has not hindered the communists; in fact, they enjoy the support of almost 20 percent of Czech voters and have slowly acquired legitimacy.

But not everyone is prepared to sit back and watch the communists go from strength to strength: A new campaign wants to make the propagation of communism illegal.

"Let's ban the communists," is the cry at a demonstration on Prague's Old Town Square, in front of the very balcony where communist leader Klement Gottwald announced that the party had taken power in 1948. Now, over 15 years after they were swept from power, a campaign has been launched to make the propagation of communism -- like Nazism -- punishable by up to five years in prison.

15. Jahrestag der Samtenen Revolution

Thousands of demonstrators in Prague helped bring about the fall of communism during the "velvet revolution" of 1989

"What we would like to achieve in fact is to change the focus onto the fact that the communist party never accepted responsibility for the things that happened during the 40 years of communism in this country," said Simon Panek, one of the organizers of the campaign and a student leader in 1989. "Visibly we are asking for the banning of the communist party name and symbols -- the same as Nazi symbols -- because for us these are the symbols of a dictatorship which maybe was less hard in the short term, but the impact of communism was devastating as well."

Adapting to a changed reality

Forcing the Czech Communist Party to adapt to the new system as have others in eastern Europe was the reason behind the campaign, said Czech Senator Jaroslav Stetina, one of the authors of the new amendment.

"Our communist party is the last totalitarian, not reformed communist party in central Europe," he said. "And we want to change it like in Hungary, like in Poland and other countries."

But even some of those who suffered under the communist regime oppose the ban.

15. Jahrestag der Samtenen Revolution

An estimated 20,000 people stand around St.Wenceslas statue, to support a declaration of student leaders of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, calling on top Czech politicians to resign

"Now it's too late," said Czech Interior Minister Frantisek Bublan, who for years was forced to take menial jobs. "This campaign should have started 15 years ago, when there was more political will. If the communist party had been banned after the Velvet Revolution (of 1989), its members would have just transformed themselves. But at least now we wouldn't have communist symbols or that name. This new campaign is basically a lot of hullabaloo; banning the party now would be unconstitutional and it wouldn't achieve anything positive."

Havel 's mistake?

Whether the communists should have been banned in the immediate aftermath of the revolution has always been a bone of contention. At the time, democracy leader Vaclav Havel opted for a more practical, conciliatory approach.

Milan Paulmer, who fled communist Czechoslovakia, said Havel -- as the first post-1989 president -- should have banned the party immediately.

Vaclav Havel im Theater

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, right, and his wife Dagmar

"I think President Havel should have done that," he said. "He shouldn't have had so many people around him who were in government during the Communist system. If he had had over there some new blood or some democratically oriented people, it could have been done at that time."

But isn't it to late now?

“It's never too late," Paulmer said. "It will be a little harder but I think it's not too late."

Communists outraged

But Miloslav Ransdorf, a leading member of the communist party, said he was outraged by any attempts to equate communism and Nazism.

Gründungsveranstaltung der europäischen Linken

Miloslav Ransdorf (far left) during a meeting to prepare the founding of a united European Left party in Berlin in 2004

"It is an offensive, offensive argument," said Ransdorf, who is deputy chairman of the United Left grouping at the European Parliament. "This comparison cannot be valid. You know from history that communism and Nazism were opposite political concepts. In the struggle against Fascism, Nazism a third of the members of the communist party in the past died. So for us it is something incredible.”

The majority of Czechs have so far reacted with indifference. And given the fact no major political parties have backed the ban, debate on the issue looks likely to remain in the realm of the symbolic.

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