Thatcher feted in Prague as she rails against the `cosmic evil'

BRITAIN'S "IRON LADY" - who was not invited to last week's celebrations in Germany marking the fall of the Berlin Wall - enjoyed pride of place in Prague yesterday at the ceremony for the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Baroness Thatcher, taking up an invitation from President Vaclav Havel, stole much of the media limelight as she joined Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush and Helmut Kohl - the elder statesmen who led the Berlin ceremonies. Other guests included the former Polish President Lech Walesa and Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of the former French President, Francois Mitterrand.

Dressed all in black, and with only a touch of flamboyance about the hat, Lady Thatcher railed against the "cosmic evil" of Communism, "Marxist vandals" and the persistence of socialist attitudes to an appreciative Czech crowd as she unveiled a bronze statue of Sir Winston Churchill. The statue is a replica of the one in Westminster.

"Cheer up!" she commanded as she completed her historical review.

Her beaming escort was Vaclav Klaus, the former Czech prime minister who is now the parliamentary chairman and leader of the main, right-wing opposition party, ODS. Mr Klaus, the architect of the Czech economic transformation many now criticise as slapdash, has never disguised his admiration for Lady Thatcher, and his desire to be her disciple in everything from privatisation to Euroscepticism.

As Lady Thatcher explained that the Czechs needed a man of vision, "whose feet are on the ground and whose eyes are raised to the stars", Mr Klaus maintained a grateful, modest grin. He returned the compliment in his speech, insisting that it was Lady Thatcher's policies that killed Communism - while omitting to mention such names as MrGorbachev, Ronald Reagan or George Bush.

"You British just don't appreciate her. She's so marvellous," said a Prague student, Zdenek Hovorka, as he watched Lady Thatcher remove the sheet from the 11-foot Churchill statue, which glares belligerently towards the headquarters of the Czech Trades Union Movement. President Havel did not attend the unveiling ceremony, preferring to watch the former US President George Bush collect an honorary doctorate at Charles University, Prague.

The ceremony over, Lady Thatcher retired for refreshments. Later in the evening, she was to join other guests for an anniversary conference at Prague Castle and a reception at which she and the elder statesmen were to meet "revolutionary heroes" and receive the Order of the White Lion from President Havel for their services to the overthrowing of Communism.

On 17 November 1989, protesters against the regime in Prague were scattered by Communist police, but came back in ever-growing numbers. Within 18 days of peaceful protests, the country's Marxist regime collapsed.

The anniversary comes as opinion polls show a growing nostalgia among Czechs for the Communist period. One poll shows the Communist Party in the lead, while another survey suggests 32 per cent of Czechs see no improvement in their standard of living. Rising unemployment, a political scene that many regard as cynically immobilised by agreement between the ruling Social Democratics and Mr Klaus's ODS, and fears that the Czech Republic is slipping down the European Union's list of candidates have sapped enthusiasm for the celebrations.

In such circumstances, the rock concerts and street events planned for the anniversary week are clearly designed torevive the hopeful atmosphere of the Velvet Revolution, and remind people of just how bad the bad old days were.

On Saturday, a retro Communist carnival on Wenceslas Square will allow Prague residents to relive the experience of queuing for bananas, applying for exit visas and being pestered and threatened by security men demanding their identification. For those who stay at home, Czech television is broadcasting a whole day of old-time Communist TV, including "Russian lectures" and a stirring movie about "abuses blocking the development of socialist economy in a washing machine company".