‘Europe’s Moral Conscience’ leading the way in their protests
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Czechs and Slovaks have, for centuries, been at the vanguard of protest and dissent. PAUL KNOTT reports on the latest outbreak of popular protest.
The Czechs and their Slovak neighbours have a strong claim to be the conscience of Europe. Throughout their history, they have frequently led the way in challenging corrupt, dishonest and dictatorial authority. Now they are on the march again.
In 2018, huge protests in Slovakia forced out the prime minister, Robert Fico, a slippery political operator who was accused of inaction in the case of a murdered journalist, 27-year-old Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.
Kuciak had been investigating tax fraud by top businessman connected to senior politicians. Several alleged organised crime group members have been charged with the killing. In April, the Slovaks followed up their ejection of the Fico government by unexpectedly electing the liberal, anti-corruption activist Zusana Caputová as president.
This year it is the turn of the Czechs. Since April, weekly protests organised by the 'A Million Moments For Democracy' group have been gathering momentum.
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A crowd of 120,000 marched through central Prague in early June, followed two weeks later by more than 200,000 gathering in Letná Park in the hills overlooking the capital's spectacular old city. These are serious numbers in a country with a population of only 10.7 million.
The protestors' target is the Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš, whose resignation they are demanding. Babiš is a billionaire businessman turned populist politician. As with many of those who got rich quick after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, Babiš has long been suspected of sharp practices while assembling his commercial empire.
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Now, the police have recommended that Babiš be directly charged with fraud. The case relates to an alleged misuse of EU funds to build a farm and conference centre known as Stork's Nest for Babiš's agro-industrial conglomerate, Agrofert.
The police's action follows an EU audit report condemning Babiš's conflicts of interest in channelling EU funds to his own company whilst he was serving as Czech finance minister.
In accordance with EU procedures, national finance and prime ministers have responsibility for allocating most of the EU subsidies provided to their country, such as those for agriculture. According to the Belgian investigative magazine Mondiaal Nieuws, Agrofert's share of these subsidies has increased from 23 million euros to 81 million euros since Babiš joined the government in 2014.
In mitigation, Babiš claims to have stepped back from the day-to-day direction of Agrofert while fulfilling government roles. This defence has failed to satisfy the police or EU auditors, who say that he still stands to benefit substantially from any funds diverted to the company.
Babiš continues to hold the controlling interest in Agrofert, from which he earned 3.5 million euros in the first six months of 2018 alone.
Concerns about the Stork's Nest case were compounded when the justice minister, Jan Knezinek, abruptly resigned the day after the police recommended charges. He was quickly replaced by a Babiš acolyte, Marie Benesova. This step is important because while the police can recommend a prosecution, only the public prosecutor can instigate one. And the prosecutor is chosen by the minister of justice.
For many of the protestors, the case is emblematic of Babiš' behaviour since he became involved in politics. One of them, Josef Meisner, an electrician, told the New York Times that Babiš was abusing the Czechs' hard-won democratic system for his own enrichment and that he "blocks any law that is not favourable to his business interests".
While the declared aim of the protests is to bring about Babiš' resignation, it is striking how principle motivates many of the participants more than any specific objective. Civil servant Jarmila Avratova told the Financial Times that she was marching because "I don't want any kind of authoritarian regime to make a comeback and I don't want young people to think this situation is normal".
'A Million Moments For Democracy' organiser Benjamin Roll explained that the group's name came about because "we want to share with people that everyone should care, that everyone can do something, even something small. If a million people find even a little moment for democracy, things can change".
Such resistance to unjust authority is deeply rooted in Czech history, going as far back as 15th century theologian Jan Hus.
Hus is known as the first church reformer, pre-dating figures such as Martin Luther and Jean Calvin in campaigning against rule from Rome by the then corrupt and all-powerful Catholic hierarchy. He was ultimately burned at the stake as a result.
In the early 20th century, Tomáš Masaryk was instrumental in securing Czechoslovak independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became his country's first president. More widely, Masaryk's activities helped to end an era of autocratic, imperial rule.
On a less exalted level, even the Czechs' greatest literary hero, Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk, is a comic character who through dumb insolence and incompetence, whether feigned or otherwise, defies all attempts to make him conform to Austro-Hungarian military discipline and fight in the First World War.
Indeed, the Czechs' rich literary culture provides a significant connection to the more recent events influencing the current protests. Prague's Wenceslas Square and Letná neighbourhood were chosen as venues for the recent mass rallies because they are closely identified with the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which ended communism in Czechoslovakia.
1989 was the culmination of two decades of resistance to totalitarianism by a core of activists following the brutal suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring uprising by the Soviet bloc's armed forces. Many of those involved in this informal movement, which became known as Charter '77, were writers and artists, most famously the playwright Václav Havel.
For most of this period, these activists were subjected to harsh oppression, including regular imprisonment, blocking of contact with the outside world and being denied work other than manual labour. Few in the world foresaw the fall of the immense Soviet empire and this small, unarmed group had little immediate prospect of overthrowing it.
Nonetheless, they resisted for the sake of dignity and preserving the hope of a better future. Their principles were best captured in Havel's essay The Power of the Powerless and mantra "living in truth". These ideas focused on the value of refusing to participate in the spreading of lies, or even to be complicit by quietly accepting them in order to get on with daily life.
Whatever the prospects of ending the dishonesty of those in power, it was crucial to keep truth alive. The ideals of Charter '77 spread across the Soviet bloc and they worked. By the end of 1989, most of Europe's communist regimes had fallen and Havel was president of Czechoslovakia.
None of this is to suggest that the Czechs and Slovaks are uniformly principled and heroic. Plenty of people participated willingly in the communist system or conformed to its demands. More recently, enough Czechs, albeit a minority, voted for Babiš and his allies to enable them to form a government. But, at their best, they do have a remarkable record of resisting corrupt and unjust regimes.
The Czechs may once again be setting the lead for others in Europe to follow. Banners with slogans such as "Yes to Truth, Not Lies" are notably prominent at the continuing protests in Prague.
The parallels with the Velvet Revolution era principles of "living in truth" are clear. However long it takes to overcome the dishonest populists plaguing our continent, it is essential to maintain our dignity by keeping the truth alive.
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