Spirit of 1989 inspires voters and protesters in central Europe

Big rallies in Hungary and Czech Republic bemoan leaders’ soft stance on Russia

Flanked by fellow heads of state from around central Europe, Czech leader Milos Zeman mounted a Prague stage to recall the revolutions that chased communists from power and reunited a divided continent 25 years earlier.

Zeman sought to invoke the spirit of 1989, but on Monday his crowd did it much better.

Thousands greeted their president with a volley of whistles, boos, eggs and tomatoes; held up an angry wall of red cards; and called for him to be ejected from power in the same way as Milos Jakes, Czechoslovakia's last communist leader.

As bodyguards raised a phalanx of black umbrellas to shield Zeman from the projectiles, nothing could protect him from ringing chants of "Shame", "Resign" and "Milose do kose!" (Put Milos in the bin!)


Zeman was elected last year as a straight-talking “man of the people”, but Czechs are increasingly fed up with what he says and how he says it.

In recent months, Zeman has praised China's style of governance, opposed strong sanctions against Moscow for annexing territory and fomenting war in Ukraine, and described Russian protest group Pussy Riot in the crudest of terms.

For many Czechs, Zeman's apparent tolerance for Chinese authoritarianism and Russian aggression is too much to take as they celebrate the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution and its great fighter for democracy, Vaclav Havel.

“This date is crucial in my life. I was 15 then and thanks to gaining freedom at such a young age I grew up as a free man,” Martin Prikryl, an organiser of Monday’s Prague protest, told Czech television.

Then vs now

“I can tell my president today that I disagree with him. Twenty-five years ago, I would have got hit by a baton.”

The Czech crowd was politeness personified for the other presidents on stage.

They even applauded Hungary's Janos Ader, on a day when he would not have received such a warm welcome back home in Budapest.

Some 10,000 people rallied at Hungary's parliament on Monday night, chanting slogans aimed at Ader's political master, prime minister Viktor Orban, and a ruling clique that is widely seen as aloof and corrupt.

It was Budapest’s fourth big protest in the last month, as growing disillusionment with Hungary’s entire political elite is channelled not through mainstream parties but civil society and pressure groups.

The US recently banned Hungary's tax service chief and five other officials from entering the country, and Washington has intensified criticism of Orban's administration as he has sought closer ties with China and Russia.

Having repeatedly clashed with the EU, Orban announced in July that the "new state that we are building in Hungary today is not a liberal state.

"It doesn't deny liberalism's basic values such as freedom but doesn't make it its core element . . . I don't think our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations," he said.

Orban styles himself as a defender of Hungary and “Hungarian values” against venal foreign politicians and bankers, and on Monday a close ally, parliamentary speaker Laszlo Kover, ordered the EU flag to be removed from the chamber. That night, a window in parliament opened and the blue-and-yellow banner unfurled in the cold air.

“Europe, Europe!” the crowd below cheered.

Kremlin friendship

Orban’s government opposes tougher sanctions against Moscow, backs its controversial South Stream gas pipeline project that bypasses Ukraine, and is borrowing €10 billion from Russia .

For many Hungarians, this turn back towards illiberalism and to Russia is particularly galling amid events to commemorate the events of 1989 – when Orban was a liberal young champion of the anti-communist movement.

On Sunday, Romanians also summoned up the revolutionary spirit, by celebrating Klaus Iohannis’s shock election victory by waving national flags with a hole in the middle – as they did in 1989, having cut out the communist emblem.

German chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the anniversary when congratulating Romania's new pro-EU president yesterday. "The end of the cold war, which I celebrated this year for the 25th time, brought a new quality to our relationship. I am convinced that together we can deepen our relationship further."

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe