Communism or Populism? Protests and Politics in Czechia

One generation after the miraculous Velvet Revolution brought down totalitarianism, Central Europe is still dealing with its legacy – and seeking to preserve the spark of the Prague Spring

Although it’s nearly 30 years since the end of Communism in then Czechoslovakia, the ghosts of that era are still haunting politics in today’s Czechia. “The Velvet Revolution that brought an end to the Communist era was entirely violence free, which was amazing,” Prague-based architect Tereza Kovanicová told me, as she gazed over the red roofs of the old town of Prague, “but it also meant that there was no clear line drawn between past and future. So the former Communists stayed around here.”

The new Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has broken a post-Velvet Revolution taboo by engaging the support of 15 Communist Party MPs as, almost 6 months after elections won by his ANO party, he seeks a majority for his government. It’s suggested that flirtation led to the ill-fated proposed appointment of Zdeněk Ondráček, a Communist-era riot squad officer, to head the Czech parliament’s police watchdog.

“He was in a unit that beat up students on November 17, 1989,” explained Kovanicová, “some of the students were just 14 years old!” In March, thousands of Czechs took to the streets of major cities in protest; at least 10,000 people turned out at Wenceslas Square, evoking memories of the Velvet Revolution. The appointment was withdrawn, but anti-government protests have continued intermittently this spring.

An Ex-Agent in Power

Journalist Eva Hanáková, whom I met at her river-side office, was at one of the demonstrations. She has been particularly irked by revelations, during an on-going court case, suggesting that Babiš himself agreed to act as an informer for Communist Czechoslovakia’s secret police after a wine-bar tryst in 1982. “I do not want a sort of person who was an ex-agent to be my prime minister,” Hanáková fumed. The journalists avowedly pro-western and told me she was concerned by the seemingly chummy relations between Czech President Miloš Zeman and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. As she bluntly put it: “We don’t want to be under the elbow of Russia.”

Much of the anger many still feel about the Russia-dominated Communist era, comes from the Czech sense that a bright future was robbed by the machinations of history. “Before the Second World War, we were one of the leading economies in the world,” Tereza Kovanicová said, “But during Communist times, there was no incentive to do good work.” Adding insult to injury, relatively economically advanced Czechoslovakia became a cash cow for the lesser developed Soviet bloc nations. “Basically,” said Kovanicová, “we were dragged down.”

The catch-up has begun. The Czech Republic is now among the fastest growing economies in the EU, but Kovanicová says the damage runs deeper than money alone. “Our mentality was damaged. We were made to control what we said in public and do what we were told and just mold in without ever doing anything extraordinary.” The country was also robbed of its dynamic class of “change-makers” because the innovators and free-thinkers were the first to flee the oppressive and repressive culture of group-think.

The Prague Spring, 50 Years Onwards

Kovanicová was just a child when the Communists were still in power and described it to me as a “schizophrenic” period. “Part of you knows what you are meant to say in public and part of you knows what really happened. You switch on and off without even realizing you are doing that – I even still find myself doing that so many years after the Velvet Revolution.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, an attempt by Communist reformer Alexander Dubček to create “socialism with a human face” that was brutally ended by the occupation of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968. “Most people don’t actually know anything about the Prague Spring,” denounced Kovanicová. “We never learn anything about it at school unless your schoolteacher is really dedicated and enthusiastic about history.”

For Kovanicová, the Prague Spring was, initially, a period of transformative positivity. “Things were getting so much better; people were so full of hope and they were trying to bring in changes.” Even the mostly nonviolent resistance to invasion was inspiring. Czechoslovaks misdirected and confounded foreign troops and formed human blockades in front of tanks; a courageous defiance that perhaps paved the way for the bloodless Velvet Revolution two decades later.

Does that spirit of brave Czech protest still exist? “Yes,” said Kovanicová, mentioning as an example the anarchic work of David Černý “When I think it died out, I always see something.”

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