Czechs to invoke spirit of ’89 in rallies to defend democracy

Source: The Irish Times / / By Daniel McLaughlin /

Tens of thousands of Czechs are expected to rally in Prague and other cities on Friday to commemorate the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and to warn that populism and xenophobia threaten democracy in their country and around the region.

Petar Kujundzic:Reuters
Presidential candidate Vaclav Havel waves to his supporters from a balcony in Prague in this December 19th, 1989. Petar Kujundzic/Reuters

Many Czechs fear that safeguards in their political system could be dismantled by controversial president Milos Zeman and billionaire tycoon Andrej Babis, who wants to be prime minister following his party’s victory in parliamentary elections last month.

Critics of the abrasive pair, who share anti-immigration and Eurosceptic views, believe they could align the Czech Republic with Hungary and Poland in pursuing illiberal reforms and brushing aside EU concerns over the rule of law.

Jan Gregar was only one year old when peaceful protests ended communism in Czechoslovakia and swept dissident playwright Vaclav Havel into power, but he is among a growing number of younger people who feel the revolution’s legacy is being lost amid the rise of Zeman, Babis and a far-right party that came a strong third in the elections.

There are tendencies that are dangerous…and they could develop very quickly

“We’re not trying to give an apocalyptic vision that everything is bad and we’re totally screwed,” Gregar said as he and fellow organisers made final preparations for Friday’s Freedom Festival.

“But there are tendencies that are dangerous…and they could develop very quickly. It’s important to realise this and be ready to protest and to stop them if necessary.”

Some 40,000 people rallied last year on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, the epicentre of the Velvet Revolution, and simultaneously set off alarm clocks on their cell phones “to wake up civil society to what was going on,” Gregar said.

Symbolic warning

“This year we hope up to 100,000 people will gather on the square, and at least 20 other towns and cities will hold Freedom Festival events. This time we will blow whistles, to send a symbolic warning to the authorities about their actions.”

Mr Babis’s bid to become premier has stalled due to other parties’ refusal to work with a man who is accused of fraudulently accessing EU funds and who faces questions over his possible collaboration with the communist-era secret police.

He denies the charges and insists he would be a responsible leader who would work constructively with the EU, but sceptics fear how he would use his estimated $4 billion (€3.4 billion) fortune and the two major newspapers, television channel and radio station that he owns.

“He has so much political, economic and media influence, and this is always a danger for democracy,” said Jana Holcova of the Post Bellum organisation, which each November 17th honours Czechs and Slovaks who were persecuted during the communist era.

“Babis is an image of a society that is losing its connection with the Velvet Revolution and with Havel.”

Respect for rights

Havel was jailed several times after co-founding Charter 77, a manifesto that demanded respect for human rights in Czechoslovakia, and the regime banned his absurdist plays for two decades.

Though initially reluctant to enter politics after the Velvet Revolution, Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992, and following the federation’s “velvet divorce” he led the Czech Republic until 2003. He died in 2011.

Czechs fear that Zeman and Babis may also seek a free hand to demolish any obstacles in their path

To western observers Havel never lost his lustre as a moral beacon, but at home, time and politics tarnished his reputation, and many of his compatriots came to resent the philosopher-president for his perceived sermonising, the harshness of the new Czech capitalism and even for his controversial second marriage.

For many in the Czech Republic and across the former Soviet bloc, the post-communist years brought disappointment first with the free market and then with EU membership, as well as with the greed and corruption of political elites.

It is this deep well of disillusionment that the governments of Poland and Hungary draw upon when berating migrants and Brussels, while vowing to raise up the common man if given enough power to rebuild their nations. Czechs fear that Zeman and Babis may also seek a free hand to demolish any obstacles in their path.

Anti-Islam rally

Zeman has found success as a plain-speaking man of the people, but Czech liberals abhor his outbursts: he claimed the Muslim Brotherhood was behind Europe’s migration crisis and that refugees coming to Europe would stone women and cut off thieves’ hands; on November 17th two years ago, he spoke at an anti-Islam rally that took place alongside Velvet Revolution commemorations.

Last month, he brandished a mock rifle emblazoned with the words “for journalists”, having quipped earlier this year to Russian leader Vladimir Putin that “there are too many journalists, they could be liquidated”. Zeman wants the EU to repair ties with the Kremlin, and he will pay another visit to Russia next week.

I don’t see a strong person who could lead with moral authority and say perhaps unpopular and difficult but important things

It is all a far cry from Havel’s declaration that inspired the protesters of 1989: “Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred”.

“The moral aspect of politics disappeared several years ago,” said Gregar.

“For a long time I’ve missed having someone who discusses not just economics but where we should go, what we should do, how we should behave. That is the moral alternative, but there’s no one like that in major politics now,” he added.

“I don’t see a strong person who could lead with moral authority and say perhaps unpopular and difficult but important things. This is the role of the president, but instead he is feeding on a split between Prague ‘cafe society’ and the rest of the country. That is the source of his power.”

Defending democracy

Organisers hope Friday’s rallies, concerts and speeches around Prague and across the country will show that civil society nationwide is ready to defend democracy – and deliver a Czech response to last Saturday’s Polish independence day march in Warsaw, where far-right banners and slogans were prominent.

“Obviously, what we are trying to say is in strong opposition to that,” said Gregar.

“The Freedom Festival is about solidarity and connecting people, and pointing out that the most important ideas are common to us all.”