Czech Republic - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Czech Republic

Czech Republic (Ceska Republika in Czech), landlocked country in central Europe, comprising the historic regions of Bohemia and Moravia and part of Silesia. For much of the 20th century the Czech Republic was joined with neighboring Slovakia to form Czechoslovakia, but in 1993 the two split to form separate countries. Centrally located Prague (Czech Praha) is the Czech capital and its largest city.

The Czech Republic is surrounded by four countries: Germany to the west, Poland to the north, Slovakia to the east, and Austria to the south. Bohemia, a land of rolling hills and plains surrounded by mountains, makes up the western part of the Czech Republic, while the lowlands of Moravia are in the east. Silesia, also a lowland region, lies to the north and stretches into southern Poland.

The country is rich in history and culture. It is famous for its architecture, including Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque styles as well as more modern influences; its scenic countryside and ancient villages and castles; its luxurious spas; and its arts, including the works of writer Franz Kafka and composer Antonín Dvořák.

From the end of World War II (1939-1945) to 1989, Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule and controlled by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Repressive tactics kept political dissent at a minimum, although there were attempts by citizens to reform the Communist government. The most notable came in 1968, the so-called Prague Spring, when Soviet troops invaded the Czech capital to quell the reformist movement.

After decades of nationalization under the Communists, the Czech economy rapidly privatized in the 1990s and 2000s. It is one of the most industrialized countries in Europe, with mining, manufacturing, and construction all important parts of the economy. This industrialization has resulted in serious environmental problems in many parts of the country, however.

Traditional Czech products that remain thriving industries include fine crystal and beer. Tourism is also an important source of revenue in the Czech Republic. Visitors are especially attracted to the architectural and historical beauty of Prague, which avoided the heavy bombing damage many European cities suffered during World War II.


The Czech Republic is about the size of the state of South Carolina. The total area of the Czech Republic is 78,867 sq km (30,451 sq mi). The maximum distance from east to west is about 490 km (about 305 mi), and the maximum distance from north to south is about 280 km (about 175 mi). Mountain ranges bound much of the country.

Natural Regions of the Czech Republic

The central part of the Czech Republic is dominated by the elevated plateaus of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands and the low plains and rolling hills of the Bohemian Basin. A number of rivers drain these areas, and much of the country’s farmland is located there.

A number of mountain ranges rise along the edges of these central regions and extend outward to form much of the country’s natural borders. The Erzgebirge in the north and the Šumava Mountains in the west are known for their spas and ski resorts. The Šumava comprise part of the Böhmerwald (Bohemian Forest), a highland region located in the west and southwest that forms the country’s border with Germany. The Sudety mountains are located in the north and form part of the border with Poland. The Sudety range includes the Krkonoše Mountains, which contain the country’s highest point, Sněžka (1,603 m/5,259 ft). One of the country’s largest nature reserves is also located in the Sudety range. Extending along the Czech-Slovak border in the southeastern part of the country is a section of the Carpathian Mountains. Also located in the southeast are the Moravian Lowlands, which contain the fertile valley of the Morava River where a variety of crops are grown.

Rivers and Lakes in the Czech Republic

The main rivers of the Czech Republic are the Elbe (known locally as the Labe), the Vltava, the Ohře, the Morava, the Lužnice, the Jihlava, and the Svratka. The Sázava, Odra (Oder), and Opava rivers are also important.

Plant and Animal Life of the Czech Republic

Most of the forest vegetation in the Czech Republic is evergreen. The main deciduous trees include oak, beech, birch, poplar, and willow. Wildlife includes rabbit, pheasant, deer, and boar. Environmental damage has severely reduced the amount of wildlife and damaged many of the country’s forests.

Natural Resources of the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is heavily dependent on imported energy and raw materials. Large deposits of lignite (a type of coal), the country’s main domestic source of energy, are found near the cities of Chomutov, Most, Karlovy Vary, Teplice, and České Budějovice. Hard coal is found near Ostrava, Plzeň, and Kladno. Sizable uranium deposits and smaller deposits of mercury, antimony, and tin are located in the Ore Mountains. There are also small amounts of lead and zinc ore in central Bohemia and iron ore near Prague. Forests cover about a third of the country. The Bohemian Forest is an important source of lumber.

Climate of the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic has a humid, continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers. The average temperature range in Prague is -5°C (22°F) to 0°C (33°F) in January and 12°C (53°F) to 23°C (74°F) in July. Temperatures generally decrease with increasing altitude. Prague receives an average of 530 mm (21 in) of precipitation annually. Rainfall is generally heaviest during the summer months.

Environmental Issues of the Czech Republic

The development policies of the Communist era combined with a lack of attention to environmental issues produced serious environmental problems in the Czech Republic. Drinking-water supplies and much of the country’s soils are contaminated with heavy metals and other industrial and agricultural wastes. Air pollution is a serious problem in many cities, particularly in northern Bohemia; pollution has also degraded many of the country’s forests. Aided by outside funding, the government has begun to address the country’s environmental problems. Recent efforts include the closing of several lignite mines and stricter enforcement of environmental regulations. Environmental considerations have also led some government officials to promote nuclear energy as a key source of power for the country’s future.

The Czech Republic produces most of its energy by burning domestic coal. Much of the coal burned is low quality with a high ash and sulfur content—a key component of acid rain—producing high levels of air pollution. Forests in the Czech Republic are among the most seriously affected by acid rain in all of Europe. Water pollution also remains an environmental issue.


The Czech people are descended from Slavic tribes who arrived in Bohemia and Moravia in the 5th century AD. The Czechs—including both Bohemians and Moravians—are the country’s dominant ethnic group, representing more than 90 percent of the population; Slovaks account for several percent; and Poles, Germans, Roma (Gypsies), and Hungarians account for most of the remainder.

At the time of the 2001 census, the total population of the Czech Republic was 10,224,192, slightly below the population of 10,302,215 in 1991. The 2009 estimate was 10,211,904. The population density, based on the 2009 estimate, was 132 persons per sq km (342 per sq mi). Some 75 percent of the population lives in urban areas. The country’s population is concentrated chiefly in the north and east, with the southwestern areas toward the southern German and Austrian borders being relatively sparsely settled.

Principal Cities of the Czech Republic

Prague (population, 2003 estimate, 1,170,000) is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. It is the chief commercial, industrial, and cultural center of the country. A popular tourist destination, Prague is world-famous for its varied and beautiful architecture. The historic center of Prague, built between the 11th and 18th centuries, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992.

Other important cities include Brno (376,172), an educational and industrial center; Ostrava (316,744), a center for metallurgical industries; Plzeň (165,259), noted for its breweries; and Olomouc (102,607), a trade and industrial center.


The official language of the Czech Republic is Czech, a language of the West Slavic subgroup of Slavic languages. Moravians speak a form of Czech that differs slightly from the form spoken in Bohemia. Slovaks speak Slovak, a language closely related to Czech. Members of other ethnic groups generally speak Czech in addition to their own native languages.


In the 2001 census close to 60 percent of the population of the Czech Republic claimed to have no religious affiliation. Roman Catholics formed the largest group (more than 25 percent) of those who did claim religious affiliation. Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and members of other groups account for a small percentage of the population.

Education in the Czech Republic

Nearly all adults are literate in the Czech Republic. After completion of compulsory education at age 15, most students continue their education at a general secondary school or a vocational secondary school, both of which offer four-year programs. Others enter teacher-training institutes, which require two to four years to complete.

Under Communism, all schools were run by the government. In 1990 the establishment of private and religious schools was legalized. Although most schools in the Czech Republic are still state controlled, there are a number of private elementary and secondary schools.

Charles University, located in Prague, is the most important university in the country. Founded in 1348 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, it is one of the oldest universities in Europe. Other important universities include Masaryk University, located in Brno and founded in 1919, and Palacký University, located in Olomouc, founded in 1573 and reestablished in 1946. The Central European University also has a branch in Prague that was founded in 1991.


Prague was a major European cultural center prior to the Communist era, and the Czech people have made numerous and significant contributions to art, literature, and music.

Czech Literature

The foundations of Czech literature date back as far as the 9th century but really gained strength during the awakening of national identity that occurred in the 19th century. Well-known Czech authors of the 20th century include Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, and Karel Čapek. More contemporary writers include poet Jaroslav Seifert, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1984, and novelists Bohumil Hrabel, Ivan Klíma, and Milan Kundera. Václav Havel was a playwright and leading figure in the Czech intellectual community before he became the country’s first president.

Czech Art and Architecture

The Czech-French painter and poster designer Alphonse Mucha, who worked during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was one of the leading artists of the art nouveau period. František Kupka, a contemporary of Mucha’s, was an early abstract painter. Both played an influential role in the development of European art.

There are many fine examples of architecture in the Czech Republic. Structures dating from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, art nouveau, and socialist realism periods are scattered throughout Prague and many other cities and towns. Artifacts associated with the Czech reformation are found in the city of Tábor in southern Bohemia. The Czech countryside is dotted with approximately 2,500 castles of various styles.

The Czech Republic has a strong folk tradition. Popular folk arts include puppet theater and the making of a blue-and-white painted fabric known as modrotisk. Hand-painted eggs and glass paintings are other examples of traditional folk arts.

Czech Music

Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, and Bohuslav Martinů are Czech composers who made significant contributions to Western music. Smetana, who wrote his major works in the late 19th century, based much of his music on Czech folk songs and dances. His famous opera The Bartered Bride (1866) provided a comic portrayal of Czech village life. Dvořák, a contemporary of Smetana, was a master of the symphony also known for incorporating Czech folk music into his works. Janáček, whose career reached its height in the early 20th century, used the styles of Moravian folk music and the rhythms of Moravian speech in the composition of his operas. The symphonies of Martinů, also influenced by Czech folk music, enriched 20th-century classical music.

Czech Libraries and Museums

The National Library, founded in 1366 as part of Charles University, is the country’s largest library. The National Museum in Prague (founded in 1818) is the most important museum. There are also important libraries and museums located in Brno and Olomouc.

Czech Motion Pictures

Despite limitations and ideological controls imposed by the Communist government, Czech films and film directors gained international recognition in the 20th century. The New Wave of Czech cinema began in the 1960s, when Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, and other directors made a number of important films that looked critically at social and political conditions in the country. The Czech film industry also has a strong tradition in animated and puppet films; among the most popular are those produced by Jiří Trnka.


The Czech lands have been traditionally among the most economically developed regions of Europe. When the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 they created a highly centralized economic system. Nearly all aspects of economic planning and management came under the control of the central government. Virtually all of the country’s economic assets were placed in state hands; economic managers and decision-makers were cut off from their counterparts in the West; and foreign trade was conducted almost exclusively with other Communist countries. Although the economy remained strong by Eastern European standards, with one of the highest standards of living in the Communist world, the policies adopted by the Communist government led to long-term economic decline in Czechoslovakia. After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the new leaders of Czechoslovakia had to deal with this legacy.

In the early 1990s the post-Communist government moved quickly to convert the economy to a system based on free enterprise. A number of reform measures were adopted, including a voucher privatization plan, which gave citizens, for a low administrative fee, coupons that could later be traded for stock in companies. The voucher plan successfully transferred large parts of the economy to private ownership, but it did little to change the infrastructure of the economy. Coupled with widespread corruption, these structural problems led to economic crises in the Czech Republic later in the decade. Corruption remains a problem, left over from Communist rule when cheating the state was a form of protest.

By the early 2000s the Czech economy had rebounded to create a solid foundation for growth. In May 2004 the Czech Republic was among ten new member countries to formally join the European Union (EU). Trade with other EU members helped the country’s GDP rise.

The Czech Republic is a member of many other international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Central European Free Trade Agreement, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Agriculture of the Czech Republic

Under Communism, Czech farmland was under the control of cooperatives or the state. Since 1991 the government has supported the transfer of farms to private control, either through rental or purchase. Largely as a result of a reduction of state agricultural subsidies, the number of workers employed in agriculture has declined dramatically. Today, agriculture contributes only a small percentage to the Czech Republic’s GDP.

The principal crops grown in the Czech Republic are barley, wheat, corn, rye, sugar beets, potatoes, flax, and hops. Czech farmers also raise sizable numbers of livestock animals, including poultry, pigs, cattle, and sheep.

Mining and Manufacturing in the Czech Republic

The principal mineral extracted in the Czech Republic is coal, particularly lignite. The importance of mining has decreased since 1989, as stricter environmental regulations have made the mining of lignite less profitable.

Between 1918 and 1939 Czechoslovakia was predominantly a producer of light industrial goods, including textiles, footwear, porcelain, and glass. Under Communist rule, these industries became less important and heavy industry, including metallurgy and mining, was emphasized. Czechoslovakia became a producer of steel, machinery, and weapons. Following the collapse of Communism, many inefficient enterprises were closed. As heavy industry became less important, a number of traditional industries reemerged. These craft-based industries include footwear, glassware, and textiles. The principal manufactured products of the Czech Republic, however, remain iron and steel; machinery and equipment; motor vehicles, such as automobiles and streetcars; paper and paper products; and processed foods such as cheese and beer.


Due to limited resources, the Czech Republic must import the bulk of its energy supply. Gas and oil are supplied mainly by pipelines through Slovakia. Due largely to the problem of air pollution resulting from the burning of coal, the Czech government is increasing the country’s use of nuclear energy, although safety concerns continue to be an issue.

Tourism and Foreign Trade

The tourism industry in the Czech Republic has grown significantly since the collapse of Communism. The country’s numerous resorts, winter sports facilities, and historic cities and towns are popular destinations for travelers. Prague has become an international center for members of the business and financial communities.

Prior to 1989 nearly all of Czechoslovakia’s foreign trade was conducted with the USSR and other Communist states. By 1992 the country was trading mainly with developed Western nations. Since the Czech Republic emerged as an independent country in 1993, trade has remained strongly oriented toward the West. Admission to the European Union in 2004 has increased the Czech Republic’s trade with other EU members.

The country’s main exports include streetcars, chemicals, iron and steel, machinery and equipment, and military equipment. Other exports for which the Czech republic is known are beer and glassware. Pilsner beer originated in the town of Plzeň and is still made there, while Budweiser originated in another Czech beer center, České Budějovice, known as Budweis in German. Glassware, including fine crystal, has long been a Czech specialty.

Currency and Banking

The Czech Republic and Slovakia had agreed to maintain a common currency when they separated in January 1993, but within a month the two countries began using separate currencies. The monetary unit of the Czech Republic is the Czech koruna. The country is expected to eventually adopt the euro (the monetary unit of European Union countries), but progress in this effort has been slow.

In the early 1990s the Czechoslovak banking system shifted from a state-controlled system to one that included private commercial banks. The country’s central bank is the Czech National Bank, located in Prague. The Czech stock exchange, also located in Prague, opened in 1993. A currency crisis in 1997 forced the government to reorganize the banks and implement tighter monetary controls.


The Czech Republic adopted a new constitution creating a parliamentary democracy in 1993. The president of the country is elected by parliament for a five-year term and may not serve more than two consecutive terms. The president appoints the prime minister; under the advice of the prime minister, the president also appoints the members of the cabinet. The prime minister, who is typically the leader of the party with the majority of seats in parliament, acts as head of the government.


The Czech parliament consists of two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) and the Senate (upper house). Members of both houses are elected by popular vote. All citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote.


The highest court of appeals in the Czech Republic is the Supreme Court. There is also a Constitutional Court, a Supreme Administrative Court, and various high, regional, and district courts. The president of the republic appoints the judges of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Constitutional Court appointments are subject to approval by the Senate.

Political Parties

The largest parties in the Czech Republic are the center-left Czech Social Democratic Party and the center-right Civic Democratic Party. Other important parties include the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and the centrist Christian and Democratic Union. Many smaller parties also compete for voters.

Local Government

For purposes of local government, the Czech Republic is divided into 13 regions and the capital city of Prague. Local government rests primarily with the municipalities, which are headed by mayors.


The region that became the Czech Republic was inhabited by Celtic and Germanic tribes before Slavic tribes from eastern Europe arrived in the 5th century AD. Soon after their arrival, the Slavic tribes were conquered by a Mongolian people known as the Avars. In about 623 a Frankish merchant named Samo organized the Slavic tribes into a kingdom and led this kingdom to defeat the Avars. Samo ruled over this Slavic kingdom, centered in Bohemia, until his death in 658.

In Moravia, Slavic tribes helped the Frankish king, Charlemagne, destroy the Avar empire in the late 700s and were rewarded by receiving part of it as a fief. In the early part of the next century, a Slavic chief named Mojmír I expanded this Slavic state to include Bohemia, Slovakia, southern Poland, and parts of western Hungary. The expanded state came to be known as the Empire of Great Moravia. In 907 Magyar tribes from Hungary conquered the region, the empire disintegrated, and Slovakia came under Hungarian rule.

The Rise of Bohemia

In the 10th century the Premyslids—a dynasty of the legendary Cechove, or Ceši, tribe, from which the Czechs derived their name—unified neighboring Czech tribes and established a form of centralized rule in Bohemia. Under the Premyslids, Bohemia expanded its territory and came under the protection of the German-based Holy Roman Empire. In 1212 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II made Bohemia a largely independent kingdom within the empire. During the 1200s, many German craftsworkers and merchants settled in Bohemia, contributing to the growing prosperity of the region. In 1335 Bohemia was expanded to include a large part of Silesia.

Bohemia achieved great political and cultural prominence under King Charles IV (also called Charles of Luxemburg), who reigned from 1347 to 1378. Under Charles, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, Prague grew into a major European center of learning and culture. Extensive building projects were undertaken, the most significant of which was the founding of Charles University in 1348, the first university in central Europe.

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries an important church-reform movement took place in the Czech lands. Based on the teachings of the Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus (also spelled John Huss), the Hussite movement attacked the authority and corruption of the Roman Catholic church (see Hussites; Hussite Wars). Hus was tried for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1415. His death triggered a series of religious wars in Bohemia, which ended in 1446 with a compromise. In 1458 Jirí of Poděbrady, a Protestant, was elected king of Bohemia by supporters of Jan Hus. Jirí was the first Protestant to be elected king in all of Europe. In the late 1400s, most of the Czech nobility converted to Protestantism.

Habsburg Rule

In the 15th century, Bohemia was ruled by a Polish prince, Vladislav II, who was also the king of Hungary. In 1526 the death of Vladislav II’s heir left the crowns of both Hungary and Bohemia vacant, and Ferdinand I, a member of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, became king of Hungary and Bohemia. Much of the next century was characterized by conflict between the Czech nobility and the Habsburg monarchy. In 1618 a revolt by the Czech Protestant nobility began the Thirty Years’ War. In 1620 the Bohemian army was defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain and many Czech nobles and cultural leaders were killed or forced into exile. Those who remained in the Czech lands were forced to convert to Catholicism and to give up their own language and culture in favor of German.

German culture was dominant in the Czech lands for the next 150 years. In the late 1700s industries began to develop in Bohemia and Moravia and many Czech peasants began moving to urban areas, which at that time were populated almost entirely by Germans. At the same time, Czech writers, journalists, and intellectuals began working to create greater national consciousness among the Czechs. By the second half of the 19th century, a mass movement calling for Czech self-government had developed in the Czech lands. Habsburg rule continued, however. In 1867 the Habsburg domains in central Europe were reconstituted as the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

The Republic of Czechoslovakia

During World War I (1914-1918) Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and other Czech leaders began to advocate the idea of an independent state for Czechs and Slovaks, and worked to increase support for their cause among Czechs and Slovaks living abroad. In 1918 the war ended, the empire of Austria-Hungary collapsed, and the independent state of Czechoslovakia was created, bringing Czechs and Slovaks together in a common state for the first time in modern history. The new republic included Bohemia and Moravia, part of Silesia, and Slovakia; the eastern region of Ruthenia became part of Czechoslovakia the following year.

The constitution of Czechoslovakia established a democratic republic committed to the protection of civil rights for all citizens. Masaryk served as president of the republic from its founding until 1935, when he was succeeded by Edvard Beneš. During the 1920s and early 1930s Czechoslovakia was remarkably stable. The country had inherited a wealth of economic resources from the Habsburg monarchy, including a strong industrial base, and this period was one of considerable economic prosperity. The chief domestic problem facing the new leaders of Czechoslovakia was a growing disaffection among the country’s large national minorities, the Slovaks and the Sudeten Germans.

Despite their similar heritage, Czechs and Slovaks differed in a number of important ways. The Czech lands were highly developed economically with a social structure similar to that of other developed European nations, while Slovakia was largely agrarian; the Czech leadership rejected the authority of the clergy, while the majority of Slovaks were practicing Catholics; and the Czech people had generally more education and experience with self-government than the Slovaks. Although attempts were made to industrialize Slovakia, these efforts were largely unsuccessful, due in part to the Great Depression, the worldwide economic slump of the 1930s. Poverty, unemployment, and frustration over the predominant role played by Czechs in the country’s political and economic life led many Slovaks to emigrate from Czechoslovakia or join nationalist Slovak movements.

Resentment was even stronger among the country’s German population, most of whom lived in the Sudetenland on Czechoslovakia’s western border. Unhappy with their loss of status following the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the impact of Czechoslovak laws on their economic situation, many Sudeten Germans came to support extreme nationalist parties and the policies of Nazi Germany (see National Socialism).

The Nazi Invasion

In 1938 German dictator Adolf Hitler used the demands of the Sudeten Germans to force the government of Czechoslovakia to give the Sudetenland to Germany. Czechoslovak leaders relied on their French and British allies to resist Hitler’s pressure. However, at the Munich Conference of 1938, the French and British decided to appease Hitler (see Munich Pact). Faced with desertion by his allies, President Beneš agreed to German demands. Later that year, Hungary and Poland claimed other parts of Czechoslovakia. Faced with the threat of being divided by Germany, Poland, and Hungary, Slovak leaders decided to withdraw from the republic and declare independence. The Slovak state created in March 1939 copied the policies of Germany and had little real independence. Meanwhile, German forces invaded and occupied Bohemia and Moravia, claiming the entire region as a protectorate. World War II broke out several months later. In mid-1940 Beneš, who had resigned as president in 1938, established a government in exile in London.

Although the Czech people suffered greatly under German occupation, loss of life among Czechs during World War II was relatively minor compared to that of other nations. The Jewish population of the Czech lands was virtually annihilated, however. More than 70,000 Czech Jews were killed by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945.

In May 1945 troops from the USSR liberated most of Czechoslovakia. The part of Bohemia containing the city of Plzeň was liberated by American forces. Beneš and the other members of the government in exile returned and the republic of Czechoslovakia was resurrected, with the exception of Ruthenia, which was taken over by the USSR. From 1945 until February 1948, Czechoslovakia enjoyed a form of limited political pluralism. While leaders of the Communist Party held many important government positions, other political parties were also represented. During this period, the government nationalized a number of major industries and expelled large numbers of Germans and Hungarians from their homes.

Communist Czechoslovakia

In the 1946 elections, the Communist Party won 38 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than any other party. In February 1948 the Communists provoked a crisis that led to the resignation of non-Communist government ministers and the formation of a new Communist-dominated government. President Beneš resigned soon afterward, and was replaced by Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald.

Once in power, Czechoslovakia’s Communist leaders attempted to copy the Soviet model of political organization and economic development. Other political parties were outlawed or subordinated to the Communist Party, which became the only effective political force in the country. The secret police became increasingly powerful. Economic decision-making was centralized, and almost all economic assets became state property. Farmers were forced to enter collective farms. Government censorship of the press and various forms of artistic expression became widespread.

The early 1950s was a period of harsh repression in Czechoslovakia. Many top political leaders were imprisoned or executed for having opinions that the government considered disloyal. In 1953 Gottwald died and was replaced by Antonin Zápotocký, who permitted a moderate liberalization of conditions. However, when Antonin Novotný assumed the presidency in 1957, strict governmental control was reimposed.

The Prague Spring

During the 1960s the country experienced a decline in economic performance. In 1968 a Slovak named Alexander Dubček became the head of the Communist Party. Dubček introduced a program of liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring or “socialism with a human face” in an attempt to find a form of socialism better suited to Czechoslovakia. The press was given greater freedom, citizens were granted opportunities to participate in politics, and steps were taken to decentralize the economy. However, the USSR feared that the reforms would weaken Communist control of Czechoslovakia, and on August 21 of that year, the Soviet Army, assisted by troops from other Warsaw Pact nations, invaded Czechoslovakia and halted the liberalization process. In April 1969 Gustav Husák replaced Dubček as head of the Communist Party. Many intellectuals and party leaders who had supported liberalization lost their positions as well. Húsak reestablished tight party control and censorship of the press, and the Communist Party came to dominate political life once again.

During the 1970s the Communist leadership of Czechoslovakia attempted to gain popular support and preserve political stability by raising the standard of living. They also used force and coercion against people who opposed the regime. In these conditions, most people withdrew from public life. However, a small but important group of dissidents (political protesters) openly opposed the regime. Charter 77 and the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted (known by its Czech acronym, VONS) became the most important dissident organizations.

The End of Communist Rule

In the late 1980s the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia grew, encouraged by the reforms that were taking place in the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev. In late 1989 Czechs joined with Slovaks in mass demonstrations against the Communist government. Less than one month later, the government resigned and non-Communists took control of the country. A new movement called Civic Forum was formed to represent democratic forces in the Czech lands, and a similar movement called Public Against Violence (PAV) developed in Slovakia. In December the parliament elected Václav Havel, a dissident and non-Communist, to be the country’s new president. The transition to non-Communist rule in Czechoslovakia occurred so smoothly and peacefully that it came to be known as the Velvet Revolution.

In June 1990 the first free elections since 1946 were held in Czechoslovakia. The majority of seats in parliament were won by Havel’s Civic Forum in the Czech Republic and by the PAV, led by Vladimír Mečiar, in Slovakia. The parliament reelected Havel as president in July, and Havel asked Marian Čalfa, a former Communist, to head the government as prime minister. The country’s new leaders took office and began the process of reinstituting democratic institutions in Czechoslovakia. Freedom of the press and other political freedoms were restored; and laws were passed to remove the legacy of Communism from the legal system.

The government also took steps to reintroduce a market economy in Czechoslovakia. In the early 1990s a mass privatization program went into effect with the goal of shifting large numbers of state-owned companies into private hands. This was achieved mainly through a voucher privatization plan, which allowed citizens to purchase low-cost vouchers that they could later trade for shares of stock in companies. Nearly all eligible citizens participated in this plan. The country’s new leaders also reoriented Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy. They established good relations with the United States and Czechoslovakia’s Western European neighbors and indicated their interest in joining international organizations such as the European Community (now the European Union or EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The Breakup of Czechoslovakia

However, as these and other reforms got underway, tensions developed between Czech and Slovak leaders. In part, the tensions reflected the different histories of the two regions, but they also reflected the fact that economic reform produced greater hardship in Slovakia than in the more economically developed Czech lands. Because of their economic differences, Czechs and Slovaks held conflicting views about the appropriate pace and nature of economic reform. They also disagreed about how power should be divided between the federal and republican governments. These differences complicated the reform process and prevented the adoption of a new constitution.

Disagreements between the two republics came to a head in the June 1992 parliamentary elections. The right-of-center Civic Democratic Party, led by Václav Klaus, won the elections in the Czech lands, while Vladimír Mečiar’s left-of-center Movement for a Democratic Slovakia won the largest share of the votes in Slovakia. Disagreements between the republics intensified, and in July Slovakia declared its sovereignty. Havel resigned as president of the Czechoslovak federation after this step.

Throughout the fall of 1992 Czech and Slovak leaders negotiated the details for disbanding the federation. In November the federal parliament voted to dissolve the country officially on December 31, despite polls indicating that a majority of citizens opposed the break up. In January 1993 the Czechoslovak federation was replaced by two new independent states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. By the end of the year, the two countries had reached agreement on the division of 95 percent of federal property, and had established close links, especially in the area of trade.

An Independent Czech Republic

The Czech Republic experienced remarkable political stability after it became an independent nation on January 1, 1993. That month Václav Havel was elected the country’s first president and Václav Klaus became prime minister. Under these two men the Czech Republic emerged from decades of Communist stagnation, making the difficult transition to a democratic system of government and a free-enterprise economy while reaching out to the rest of Europe and the world. In 1996 the country held its first parliamentary elections, with Klaus losing some support but retaining his position as prime minister.

Another challenge facing the country has been the plight of the country’s minority groups. After a great deal of debate, the government voted in 1994 to return property to the families of Czech Jews who were dispossessed by the Nazi regime during World War II. Treatment of the country’s large Roma minority (often called Gypsies) also became a subject of debate as the Czech Republic sought to enter the EU. In 1997 hundreds of Roma attempted to seek asylum in Canada because of persecution suffered in the Czech Republic. Despite efforts by Havel, discrimination against Roma in education, employment, and other areas continued.

In 1997 the Czech Republic was plunged into a financial and political crisis after currency speculation caused a severe drop in the value of the Czech koruna and foreign investors withdrew capital. Scandals involving defrauding of both domestic and foreign investors, aided by poor government regulation and official corruption, led to a collapse of confidence in economic policy and to several ministerial resignations. Unusually, President Havel intervened personally to criticize the administration of Václav Klaus and propose a change of government. In late 1997 the prime minister and his cabinet resigned. Havel was narrowly reelected by the parliament for a second presidential term in early 1998.

Czech Membership in NATO and the EU

Despite its domestic policy difficulties, the Czech Republic, along with Hungary and Poland, was invited to become a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999. But that same year a critical European Union (EU) report blamed the inertia of the government in Prague for the slowness of Czech preparations to join the EU. A dispute with Austria over a nuclear power plant, opened in a Czech town near the Austrian border, temporarily threatened to derail the Czech EU bid. But a compromise was reached after Czech officials agreed to adopt stricter safety regulations and safeguards. Czech conflict with Slovakia eased after the two governments settled a financial dispute that had soured relations since their separation. The Czech government returned several tons of gold to Slovakia and canceled an outstanding debt of nearly $1 billion.

The majority of Czech voters favored membership in the EU in a referendum held in 2003. The following year the Czech Republic became a member state of the European Union.

Havel finished his second term as president of the Czech Republic in 2003. Barred from a third term by the Czech constitution, he retired from politics. Former prime minister Klaus succeeded Havel and was reelected in 2008. But the political situation remained unsettled after Havel left office, after a series of prime ministers served only briefly.

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