Last Thursday I was given a Tibetan flag to wave in front of Czech President Miloš Zeman in the small town of Zabreh na Morave. The photo above shows me under a banner in Czech proclaiming: ‘we are ashamed of you’.
I had met a Czech friend off the train, and proceeded straight to the main square along with a substantial body of townsfolk. They had gathered for a speech by the increasingly decrepit president, who has announced his candidature in the forthcoming Czech elections.
The reason my friends were flying these flags was in response to a police crackdown on pro-Tibetan demonstrators at a public meeting between the Czech President and a Chinese delegation last year. They wanted to emphasise the democratic importance of the right to protest.
As we entered the square, an innocuous-looking character sidled up to us and revealed a police ID. He was not aggressive in the least, and said he just wanted to ensure we weren’t going to raise a hue and cry during the speech. Nevertheless, it was a sinister reminder of times not long passed when the secret police merged with the civilian population.
Most of the crowd stood impassively for the President’s speech, who was hardly visible to the crowd as his failing legs compelled him to sit down for the duration. He droned on in a monotone for about half an hour, and my friends could hardly make out a word he said.
Opinion polls indicate he is still popular, and a few partisans were in evidence. At one point I was almost bowled over by a stout middle-aged lady who said we were taking up too much space. Another woman also shouted at me for obscuring her view with the flag. But people who might be vociferous Internet trolls were surprisingly demure in public, and most refused to engage in the rational debate my friends sought.
It’s fair to say that the freshly-branded country of Czechia is not in such a happy place right now. The jubilation which greeted the fall of the Iron Curtain has long passed, to be replaced with nostalgia for those repressive, but stable, times. Now, a permissive attitude to alcoholic-fuelled festivity often proceeds to toxic self-harm. Drawn by greater work opportunities and relief from a native reserve that breeds resentment, many of the brightest have left the country; leaving politicians to stoke the flames of xenophobia, thereby obscuring growing economic inequalities.
President Zeman has exploited long-standing fears of an Asiatic Other during the refugee crisis, in a country that was criss-crossed by Turks, Mongols and other invaders. He expressed the view that it would be practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Europe. To the horror of Czech liberals he has brought a rapprochement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
What appears to be the extremely remote threat of terrorism is used to instil fear by exploitative politicians, many of whom trace their power to the Communist era. Now Czechia has its own version of Silvio Burlesconi in the shape of Andrej Babiš, who is keen to see the increasingly ineffectual president serve another term.
Babiš is the second richest man in the country, and controls a number of newspaper titles, including Dnes, the popular daily. His ANO (Yes) party manifests the same populist formula as Burlesconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, claiming to be neither right nor left wing, but really perpetuating a crony capitalism, which in Czechia grew out of Communism. ANO has recently become the largest party in the chamber of deputy. Only an outstanding corruption prosecution for appropriating EU subsidies is preventing Babiš from becoming Prime Minister.
Babiš is the Slovak son of a Communist apparatchik who was educated in a Swiss boarding school. He settled in Prague after the Velvet Revolution which divided Czechoslovakia, availing of his domestic and foreign contacts to turn the state-owned Agrofert into one of the largest companies in the country, with him as its owner. His career trajectory mirrors that of other oligarchs that emerged after the break-up of the Soviet empire.
The sad thing is that this is a country with great democratic traditions. Czechoslovakia produced political titans such as Tomas Masaryk and Vaclav Havel, who have been a shining example to the world; also the literature of Kafka, Hašek and others, offered an unparalleled critique of the power of an irrational state. Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in central and eastern Europe before World War II broke out. It is difficult to square all this with the extreme xenophobia that is found in the country today.
The town of Zabreh na Morave has its own ghosts that are rarely spoken of. In 1946 under the so-called Beneš decrees over two million ethnic Germans – so called Sudetendeutsch – were forcibly removed from the country, approximately twenty thousand of them dying in the process. Zabreh was known as Hohenstadt and was a German-speaking town, though the hinterland was Czech.
Zeman’s attitude towards this issue has been typically chauvinistic; even bizarrely claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer. Considering how the Czech people have been set upon by their larger more aggressive neighbours in recent history, it is perhaps unsurprising people should be unapologetic. But unless a nation addresses a dark past, historic failings tend to recur as we saw during the refugee crisis. The approach of my friends in Zabreh reassures me, however, that there are Czechs keeping the torch of democracy alight.