After a summer break, Czech protestors are set to take to the streets again ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution — but can they hope to change politics?
By Rob Anderson
Democracy” faces its biggest test so far on Saturday.
Its campaign to bring down populist premier Andrej Babis, which it launched in February 2018, drew a quarter of a million this June onto Prague’s Letna plain, the biggest demonstration since those on the same spot against communism 30 years ago.
But the organisers called a pause over the summer holidays and asked protesters to reconvene on November 16, the day before the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
Can the protest movement now regain momentum through a new wave of protests, and even if it does, will it ever have a decisive impact on Czech politics?
Million Moments was founded by Charles University theology students Mikulas Minar and Benjamin Roll in reaction to what they saw as Babis’s betrayal of his election pledge to give people a voice against their corrupt elite.
After winning the October 2017 election, the tycoon — an alleged former communist secret police informer — had been allowed by President Milos Zeman to form a single party minority government with the backing of the hardline Communists and neo-fascist Freedom and Direct Democracy party.
It looked as if a cabal of former communists and current sympathisers of Russian President Vladimir Putin had seized control of the country.
On the 28th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the students used a website to call for Babis to prove that he would fulfil his promise to “support and develop democracy”.
Then, when he ignored them, on 25 February 2018 — the 70th anniversary of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia — they started an online petition for his resignation, aiming for one million signatures (so far it has 432,000).
In an interview, Roll told Reporting Democracy that they were inspired by their protestant faith, the Czech tradition of student protest and the demonstrations in neighbouring countries, particularly Slovakia, where Prime Minister Robert Fico was eventually brought down in May 2018 in a scandal over corruption and the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak.
“We are in a different position,” Roll said. “We are not in a totalitarian regime like in 1989, but the values, the way of thinking is inspiring. We are not protesting against the system but we are trying to prevent Babis changing it.”
Students have often been the leading force behind Czech protest movements. On 17 November 1939, nine student leaders were murdered by the Nazis after demonstrations against the country’s World War II occupation; students also triggered the Velvet Revolution with a march in Prague that was heavily repressed.
Two student leaders of that march launched another protest movement in 1999, “Thank you but now leave”, against the “opposition agreement” between then left-wing premier Zeman and the right-wing leader of the opposition, Vaclav Klaus, which they felt was stifling the hard-fought-for Czech democracy.
The protest leaders feel that something similar is happening today. They point to conflicts of interest between Babis’s political power and his agro-chemical conglomerate and media empire, something that the European Commission is investigating.
They fear that Czech police probes into allegations of EU subsidy fraud in the case of Babis’s Stork’s Nest conference centre have been blocked after the premier replaced the justice minister.
That Zeman has promised to use his presidential pardon for Babis if he is ever put on trial is seen as further evidence that the rule of law and democratic checks and balances are under threat.
The movement has had amazing success, drawing all generations and right-wing, liberal and left-wing voters to a series of huge demonstrations in Prague, as well as smaller events all around the country.
It is becoming more organised and is hiring professional staff from around 400,000 euros it has raised from donations so far this year.
Million Moments has also taken upon itself the role of a watchdog to check on the government’s behaviour.
It has already had some minor successes pushing back against parliament’s controversial appointments to regulatory boards.
Arguably, moreover, the government might have already dismissed the Supreme Prosecutor (who will decide whether Babis is ever put on trial) or the head of Czech public television (which Babis says is biased against him) if it were not for the pressure of the protests.
“These protests prevented worse things happening,” Roll said.
And yet there remains a nervousness over where the movement can go from here, and in particular whether it can regain the momentum it enjoyed before the summer.
Some supporters of the protests are critical of the way the leadership called a pause over the summer, in particular of the failure to demonstrate over the dropping of the Stork’s Nest case by prosecutors in early September (though it could still be reopened by the Supreme Prosecutor).
“When there is a revolution you cannot go to Croatia,” said David Ondracka, head of the Czech branch of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International and a speaker at some of the protests.
Roll insists it would have been difficult to keep the protests at the same tempo over the summer and it would have been hypocritical to campaign against the prosecution decision while demanding that Babis maintain the rule of law.
Nevertheless, he admits that with the Stork’s Nest decision the protesters lost “our most easily understandable argument”.
Today Babis’ ANO party is once again riding high in the opinion polls, his Social Democrat coalition partners now seem resigned to sticking the course, while the economy remains strong.
Babis has consistently refused to meet the protesters in public, as they demand, and has written them off as opposition supporters who are sore losers.
Both he and Zeman paint them as Prague liberals who want to ignore the votes of poorer, less well educated voters in the provinces (who tend to vote for them).
Babis’s dismissal of the protests has some force as the movement is struggling to make inroads among his supporters, though it has increasingly extended its regional network as the buses and homemade placards of demonstrators show.
It also arguably made a mistake in allowing some opposition politicians onto its podiums, though it is now more careful to keep its distance.
“In a democracy, it is easier for an elected government just to shrug,” said Steve Crawshaw, a journalist who covered the Velvet Revolution and has written two books on protest movements.
“In a situation that is kind of democratic — even with all its flaws — it is often difficult to find a spark. The longer the protests go on, people begin to run out of energy.”
Jiri Pehe, a political commentator for the Novinky news site, agreed: “Unless there is some kind of catalyst it will be very difficult to regain momentum.”
‘Healthy civil society’
One potential trigger could be a decision by the Supreme Prosecutor to indict Babis over Stork’s Nest (or an attempt by Babis to remove him to forestall this, or a subsequent pardon by Zeman to nullify it).
Another could be a formal EU declaration that Babis has a conflict of interest, something that is expected later this autumn.
Both of these triggers could revive the movement, though analysts say it is still hard to see how the protests can move up to the next level and threaten Babis.
He is expected to continue to insist that they are just all part of an undemocratic plot against him, and so far his supporters seem to believe this.
Even if, according to a recent YouGov opinion poll, 47 per cent of Czechs fear that their democracy is under threat, this is the lowest figure among the countries polled.
What is missing is a political party that could use the energy of the demonstrations to challenge Babis’s grip on power, analysts say.
Million Moments has declared that it will not form a political party — unlike the Momentum Movement in Hungary — as it would limit its appeal. But nor does it have a new kindred political party — such as Progressive Slovakia represents for the protest movement For a Decent Slovakia.
“The opposition leaders did not use the political energy of the demonstrations,” Ondracka said. “There is enormous energy that will be seen in the new demonstrations. There is an opening for a new political force.”
There are feverish rumours in Prague about preparations to launch a new opposition party but it is far from clear that there is space for one in a fragmented parliament that already has seven opposition parties.
What might be more promising would be for Million Moments to work more closely with kindred spirits within some of the parties as well as independent candidates.
Roll said the movement was considering how to work with opposition parties while maintaining its independence.
“It is important to cooperate with politicians — it can’t be done without them,” he said, but the parties have to “change their thinking” and “open up to new people”.
This issue might become pressing soon if Zeman’s health were to deteriorate and a presidential election were called next year. Such a contest is likely to become polarised between a liberal and an illiberal candidate and Babis himself might stand, though he would be risking the rest of the political spectrum uniting against him.
When asked if Million Moments would endorse one of the candidates, Roll said: “It is a very difficult decision, if, how and whom. At that moment we lose something — part of our supporters, some of our credit.”
Yet perhaps Million Moments should not be judged purely on whether it does or does not bring down Babis in the short term but rather on its deeper and longer-term goal of building civic activism to protect democracy.
“We must work for the long term and do grassroots activity and not just big events,” Roll said. “We want to help create a healthy, active civil society, which is very important for democracy.”
He added: “One big event does not change policy. What is more important is the atmosphere in society. A lot of people were resigned, there was a lack of faith in people and hope. People are now less afraid to do something.”
Through its non-aggressive and non-polarising style of demonstrating, it has already brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. True to its name, it has also germinated local grassroots movements all across the country.
It has reminded people what the Velvet Revolution was all about and how important it is for everyone to defend those democratic gains, analysts say.
“If more and more people will find a moment for democracy — they will do something pro-active in their city, little steps — it will change something in society, in the way of thinking in society, it will have an impact and politicians will have to react,” Roll said.
In that case, the real challenge for Million Moments may not be whether it can bring hundreds of thousands onto Letna plain on a cold mid-November afternoon this weekend but afterwards: whether it can achieve the more difficult task of building something lasting to strengthen Czech civil society.