Thought Babble

Czechia – Still Velvet 30 Years Later?

In November 2019, thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Czechs commemorated the events of the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia of 1989. Three-hundred-thousand protestors gathered at the Letna Plain in Prague to remind themselves of the revolutionary times thirty years ago and reflect on the values and ideas of the revolution in the current context. The next day, hundreds of smaller cities, towns and villages all around the country joined the protest too.

For several reasons, the heritage of the Velvet Revolution might look ugly today. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has not managed to disperse the suspicion that before 1989, he cooperated with the communist secret service StB, and on top of that, his government is closely working with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), which is still around 30 years later. The recently re-elected Czech president Miloš Zeman has not only been usurping power at the expense of the government and not respecting the Czech constitution, but he has also promoted pro-Russian narratives and Chinese interests in Czechia and the EU.

A legitimate question is, therefore, to ask what remained of the Velvet ideals and pathos of the 1990s represented most significantly by the Czech(oslovak) president Vaclav Havel and his truth and love concept, with which he approached public affairs and international order. A solid answer to this has been provided by Czech civil society, most prominently represented by a movement called A Million Moments for Democracy (Milion chvilek pro demokracii) that has brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets all around the country and pushed back against authoritarian tendencies and the rise of illiberalism in the Czechia.

The civic group was finally able to formulate a positive message for the future of Czechia and at the same time clearly articulate its demands to Andrej Babiš, to the political opposition sitting in the parliament and to define their vision of rules of the political game in Czechia. This is important because so far, the movement has mostly protested against violations of basic rules and procedures, including the division of power within the state, or pushed back against conflicts of interest and wrongdoings of the government. Even if they remain minimalistic in terms of content, to keep the masses on board, it is an important first step to envisioning the future of Czechia. Since then, more than 200 thousand of people have found their own “moments for democracy” and signed the petition calling for the credibility of politicians, promotion of responsible citizenship and living in a pleasant and decent country with a sustainable environment.

In this regard, the Million Momements does not come out of nowhere. Czech civil society has in the past pushed for important changes in public policy, including when the Reconstruction of the State, a coalition of anti-corruption and pro-transparency NGOs, successfully pushed for a radical review of transparency and the political climate in Czechia. Concretely, the group of NGOs managed to lobby politicians to create a transparency register of state enterprises and institutions, introduce a set of measures increasing the transparency of political and party financing, and to enforce more scrutiny over the decision-making process in the Czech parliament and banning anonymous shareholding.

What will be particularly important in the future is the pressure on opposition parties to cooperate with each other more closely and prevent future fragmentation of the opposition against Andrej Babiš. One reason for that is that the Czech voting system primarily benefits bigger political parties when translating the number of votes into seats in the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Parliament. This is a heritage of the early 2000s when the then two big ruling parties (social democrats and ODS) wanted to prevent their rivals from entering the political game by introducing additional restrictive limits. This, unfortunately, survived until 2019 and meant that the winner party ANO needed twice fewer votes for getting a seat in the Czech Parliament than TOP09, which was the last party that crossed the 5% threshold. The pressure from civil society even led some politicians to think about establishing a Civic Forum (Občanské forum) 2.0, modelled on the united front against communists in 1989. Even if the idea did not get much traction among the Czech political class, it is one of the concrete examples of how history comes back to the current political reality of Czechia thirty years later.

To sum up, despite the fact that the government is most likely to stay in power for the foreseeable future and Andrej Babiš will likely refuse the new set of demands, this is an important sign that after 30 years, Czech civil society has really come into adulthood and has maturely made a decision not to tolerate mismanagement, societal ignorance and abuse of power by politicians. This is a positive message to all of those who are ready to defend democracy and the rule of law in the Czech Republic. The important battle for the future of liberal democracy in Czechia is still ahead of us and it is good to know that besides the still fragmented political opposition, Andrej Babiš has another sizeable opponent to reckon with.

Pavel Havlíček
Pavel Havlicek is Research Fellow of AMO Research Center. His research focus is on Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia and the Eastern Partnership. He also deals with questions of strategic communication and disinformation. Pavel Havlíček is a graduate of the two-year-long Erasmus Mundus International Master in Russian, Central and East European Studies hosted by the University of Glasgow and the EU Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In 2015, he finished his Bachelor’s degree at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague. In 2013, he spent his Erasmus study exchange at the University of Kent, United Kingdom. In 2014, he did a study internship at the Faculty of International Relations of St Petersburg State University in Russia. He had several internships in both public and private sectors, e.g. the European Parliament, Ministry of Transport of the Czech Republic, Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the NGO People in Need or the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) in Brussels. Since June 2019, he has been working on a research project aimed at the EU support to the civil society sector as part of the Rethink.CEE Fellowship of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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