Czechs and Slovaks celebrate Velvet Revolution and denounce current leaders

More than 200,000 people rally in Prague against populist premier and president

People rally in Prague against the government of prime minister Andrej Babis the day before the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Photograph: Gabriel Kuchta/Getty

People rally in Prague against the government of prime minister Andrej Babis the day before the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Photograph: Gabriel Kuchta/Getty

 

Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets over the weekend to mark 30 years since the Velvet Revolution and protest against current leaders whom they accuse of eroding democracy and the rule of law.

More than 200,000 Czechs rallied in Prague’s Letna park on Saturday, rekindling memories of demonstrations in 1989 that drew half a million people to the same place to demand an end to communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

This year the protesters called on Czech prime minister Andrej Babis to resign over allegations of fraud and of collaborating with the communist-era StB secret police, and they denounced Czech president Milos Zeman for courting Russia and China despite national security and corruption concerns.

The Million Moments for Democracy group that organised the rally warned Mr Babis, a billionaire tycoon, that he would face more protests unless he stepped down by the end of this year or cut all ties with his business empire and sacked a justice minister critics accuse of shielding him from prosecution.

“Above all, we want politicians who respect democratic principles and institutions, who do not lie, do not steal, do not issue threats, and do not have conflicts of interest,” the leader of A Million Moments, Mikulas Minar, told the crowd.

Benjamin Roll, another student leader of the group, said: “Some of our politicians do not understand why we are here . . . The struggle for freedom and democracy never ends.”

Tribute to dissidents

Hecklers berated Mr Babis with chants of “StB!” as he laid flowers on Sunday at a monument to the Velvet Revolution in central Prague; he denies being an informer but lost a court case over the issue in his native Slovakia last year.

In a speech later on Sunday at the Czech national museum, Mr Babis struck an uncharacteristically contrite note while paying tribute to dissidents like Vaclav Havel, who was propelled into the presidency by the Velvet Revolution, and anti-communist protesters who were attacked by riot police 30 years earlier.

“As you know, I was a member of the Communist Party. I’m not proud of it. As I said many times, I was not as brave or committed as Havel at the time . . . Thank you to those who had the courage to [protest] in November 1989,” Mr Babis said.

“Today I am here as the elected prime minister of our country, chosen in free democratic elections . . . I am working and I want to continue working as prime minister for all the citizens of our country. The main thing is that we are all Czechs, citizens of a country that has great, hardworking and creative people.”

Enemies of democracy

Mr Zeman travelled to a commemoration in Slovakia but did not attend public events in the Czech Republic, where his spokesman described protesters as enemies of democracy; last year, flowers laid by Mr Zeman and Mr Babis at the Velvet Revolution monument in Prague were thrown in the bin by demonstrators.

Central Prague was filling up on Sunday night for speeches and concerts that organisers hoped could draw 250,000 people to the landmark Wenceslas Square.

“We think November 17th is a day when we should all reconnect around values and take a stand to show that we want to live in a democracy,” Jan Gregar, an organiser of Sunday’s Freedom Festival, told The Irish Times.

In neighbouring Slovakia – which split peacefully from the Czech Republic in 1993 – anniversary events mingled with anti-government protests that began in early 2018, following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova.

A wealthy businessman whom Kuciak investigated is accused of ordering the murder, and revelations of his close contacts with politicians have prompted the resignation of several senior officials.