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

Tens of thousands expected to march amid rising European populism and xenophobia

Presidential candidate Vaclav Havel waves to his supporters from a balcony in Prague in this December 19th, 1989 file photo. Havel, a dissident playwright who was jailed by the communists and then went on to lead the bloodless Velvet Revolution and become Czech president, died at 75 on December 18th, 2011. File photograph: Petar Kujundzic/Reuters

Presidential candidate Vaclav Havel waves to his supporters from a balcony in Prague in this December 19th, 1989 file photo. Havel, a dissident playwright who was jailed by the communists and then went on to lead the bloodless Velvet Revolution and become Czech president, died at 75 on December 18th, 2011. File photograph: Petar Kujundzic/Reuters

 

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.

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, a chief organiser of the Czech Freedom Festival, which commemorates the 1989 Velvet Revolution in the then Czechoslovakia. The red, blue and white tripod is the symbol of the 2017 festival, representing the pillars of democracy which should be defended. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Jan Gregar, a chief organiser of the Czech Freedom Festival, which commemorates the 1989 Velvet Revolution in the then Czechoslovakia. The red, blue and white tripod is the symbol of the 2017 festival, representing the pillars of democracy which should be defended. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

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.

Jana Holcova, of the Prague-based Post Bellum organisation, which every November 17th honours people who were persecuted by the communist authorities in the then Czechoslovakia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Jana Holcova, of the Prague-based Post Bellum organisation, which every November 17th honours people who were persecuted by the communist authorities in the then Czechoslovakia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“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.

Vaclav Havel, leader of the Prague opposition (right), and Alexander Dubcek, leader of the ill-fated Prague Spring, toast as they celebrate the resignation of the Czech politbureau, in November 1989. File photograph: Dusan Vranic/AP Photo
Vaclav Havel, leader of the Prague opposition (right), and Alexander Dubcek, leader of the ill-fated Prague Spring, toast as they celebrate the resignation of the Czech politbureau, in November 1989. File photograph: Dusan Vranic/AP Photo

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.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.