“If Something Is Wrong, I Have To Be There”: Voices From Last Sunday’s Protest in Letná Park

Brno Daily was at the scene of the large protests in Prague’s Letná Park last Sunday, talking to some of the participants about why they were there, and what they were hoping the protest would achieve. Photo credit: Jack Stephens.

Brno, Jun 27 (BD) – Last Sunday an estimated 250,000 people descended on Prague’s Letná Park, in a co-ordinated show of dissent against the government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who is under investigation for financial irregularities related to European Union subsidies received by his businesses. However, the protesters who spoke to Brno Daily mentioned a variety of reasons for being there, reflecting the diverse range of ages and types of people present.

Sona, a political activist carrying a marionette of a stork.

Many of the participants were carrying placards or other props reflecting their grievances, such as Sona, a political activist carrying a marionette of a stork: “He used 50 million crowns from European funds to build his villa, which is shaped like a stork’s nest, so it’s a symbol of his corruption.” Others were more direct, such as the placard held by Martina, which she explained as: “This is our Prime Minister, and this is just a human being peeing on his head, because we really don’t like him.” Martina added that, as well as a simple statement of opposition to Babis’s government, she saw the protests as part of a fight for an independent judiciary, in the context of the Prime Minister’s replacement of the Justice Minister with his ally Marie Benesova at a crucial moment in the police investigation.

Martina, holding a placard in protest.

Darek, a young IT engineer who had travelled from Brno for the protest, agreed that this decision had been a turning point: “I’m not really political active normally. But this mess with the exchanging of the Justice Minister… before that I had paid no attention I guess, but as soon as that one hit, I just thought, ‘well, I’m not going to tolerate this..’ and started coming to the demonstrations. I guess this is the overwhelming majority of people. They just need a prod to get up and start doing something.”

Roman attending the march with his son, Kuba.

In fact the vast majority of people who spoke to Brno Daily said they were not politically active, but had been spurred into action by recent events. One such protester, Adela, said: “We are normal people! But if not we, who else? And if not now, when? I was here in 1989, and I was in Wenceslas Square every day. And I could never imagine being in this situation 30 years later. I am very sad about it.” Roman, a Prague resident attending the march with his son Kuba, agreed: “Sometimes enough really is enough. I definitely understand what democracy means from the election point of view, but on the other hand, if you find out that the people you elected are misbehaving, you need to react against it, and somehow show that you are not going to wait another four years.”

Henry and Veronika, holding a sign which says: “I am not indifferent to the climate in 2050, nor to Andrej Babis’s conflict of interest”.

But it was not simply political considerations that had brought people to Letná; many of those present, especially the younger participants, were carrying placards expressing concern about the environmental impact of Babis’s government’s policies, as well as the agricultural methods of his businesses. Veronika, a young graphic designer attending with her British boyfriend, Henry, was holding a sign reading “Neni mi jedno Klima v roce 2050, ani stret zajmu Andreje Babise” [“I am not indifferent to the climate in 2050, nor to Andrej Babis’s conflict of interest”]. She expressed concern at how Babis was using EU subsidies, and how his agricultural practices were adversely affecting the environment, and saw the two issues as linked: “It goes hand in hand because I think we can’t fight environmental change effectively without democratic government, and without people who care about the environment. If we have a Prime Minister whose prime interest is to gain money for himself and destroys his own land, it means the Czech Republic will never participate in actions against climate change, and I would like to change that.”

Veronika’s sign was a reference to comments made by Babis when he refused to sign a European environmental treaty last week. Other people we spoke to in Letná also mentioned these comments, including another Veronika, a teacher: “There was a decision in the European Parliament about the future of the human climate, and it was Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland who blocked it. And Babis said that he doesn’t want to make decisions now that will influence the situation in 2050, because he believes that 2050 is far away, but we believe it is almost now, so we don’t agree with the new laws being blocked just because he doesn’t believe in the future.” Sona, the stork-holder, shared her concern: “Yesterday he refused to sign the environmental treaty, and he just does everything for profit, he doesn’t care about the people, about the environment, about our reputation.”

Other protesters saw even more at stake. Marcel Rychly, a nuclear physicist, was participating in the event with friends from one of the apartments overlooking the front of the crowd, most of which were emblazoned with large banners carrying Czech flags, anti-Babis messages, or quotes from former president Vaclav Havel. Rychly said that in his opinion Sunday’s protest was closely linked to the events of 1989: “We are fighting against the same problem as 35 years ago; we would like to establish a democracy, which is now very depressed here. This event shows that the whole nation is unified in protest against totalitarianism. In 1989 it was the fight against the communist party and the people were suppressed in all their rights. Nowadays it is very similar, that we are not able to express our own opinions, that Babis has taken power and the whole nation is in his hands, and the voice of the people is ignored.” 

So what were the protesters hoping to see happen? The organising group, One Million Moments For Democracy, lists the resignation of Babis and Benesova as key demands, but most of those we spoke to, while generally optimistic, were more restrained. As Roman put it: “I hope that more people will start to think about the situation. Not just whether they can feed their stomachs, but about what the future will be like for our kids.” Veronika, the teacher, agreed: “I’m not sure we can really hope for the Prime Minister to resign, but I hope for a change in people’s thinking, in people’s attitudes. I see many young people and I hope this is the new generation that wants things to be different, that wants things to happen. I believe there is a change because young people see that it’s influencing their future, so they believe the time to protest is now.”

Jiri and his wife at the protest.

Jiri, a Brno resident attending the protest with his wife and children, holding an EU flag, also stopped short of saying he expected Babis’s resignation: “The most important thing is that we are here. You can see how many people are here, they are here because they want to say something, this is part of democracy. I want a good life, with my family, and in my country, and if something is wrong, I have to be there. That’s it.” Martina said she would like Babis to resign but was not expecting it: “Right now, no. I hope, maybe in the autumn, something bigger will happen. But we are here because we hope something will change, maybe something smaller, maybe the resignation of [Justice Minister] Benesova, so this will be something like a first step.”

Marcel Rychly, the nuclear physicist, struck a slightly more defiant tone, while echoing the words of many of the speakers on the stage that any change, if it came, would be more of a longer process than a quick victory: “If we were not hopeful, we would not be here today, so we definitely are hopeful, and we hope that change in society will come. It’s going to be a long process, we realise that, and we think it will come to a successful end. That he will have to resign, we hope so, and that we again have a democratic system here, not what’s going on now today. It’s one step forward, and we look forward to the bigger step that is going to happen in November 2019.”

The organisers of the event say that for now their point is made; the demonstrations will ease off for the summer to return in autumn, with a large-scale event in Letná planned for 17th November, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. However, for all the talk of unity, optimism, and democracy, Babis’s ANO are still riding high in opinion polls, far ahead of any other party, and have been quick to push back, accusing the protesters themselves of undermining democracy by attempting to remove an elected government. At the event, speaker after speaker stressed their strength of patriotic feeling and love for the Czech Republic and for democracy, with the event culminating in a rousing rendition of the national anthem, “Kde Domov Muj?” [Where is my home?]. However, it is clear that especially outside the main cities, the Czech Republic, like many countries around Europe, is going through a political battle between two conflicting visions of what it means to be Czech, and what it means to be democratic. 

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