14 September 2022
The politically sleepy summer ended abruptly on Saturday (4 September), with a large anti-government on Wenceslas Square in the center of the capital Prague. The underlying theme of the demonstration, which counted some 70 thousand participants, were increasing prices and the current government’s inability to solve them’ protesters called for for the government's resignation and early elections. However, the list of demands presented by organizers from the initiative "Czech Republic First" (Česká Republika na 1. místě) was broader. The manifesto published on their website included a grab bag of demands including lowering prices of gas by direct contracts with suppliers – namely Russia – and "liberation from submission" to the EU, WHO and UN along with military neutrality. The most controversial demand was the termination of the "planned dilution of the nation", which in practice means preventing Ukrainian refugees from staying on Czech territory.
The blatant amplification of Russian propaganda talking points is not the only suspicious thing about the demonstration organizers. It is not at all clear either who financed the event's organization or what the institutional background of the brand-new "Czech Republic First" is. A deeper look into its financial background is even more warranted since one of its leaders, Ladislav Vrabel, an entrepreneur in the restaurant industry, has significant debts and his source of income is unclear. Despite its untransparent background, the initiative managed to attract – at least rhetorical – support from various anti-establishment figures: politicians of fringe political parties, editors of conspiracy websites and anti-EU activists. While the list of its supporters published on the website might seem impressive, it is worth noting that in the past, any attempts to coordinate Czech movements on the extreme ends of the political spectrum failed due to personal antipathies.
However, the focus on dubious organizers tells only part of the story since the context, which allowed an obscure and unknown organization to fill the main Prague square with demonstrators, is important. Similar to other European countries, Czech citizens are facing a deteriorating economic situation manifested by increasing prices of goods, interannual inflation rates reached 17% in June – and energy. Sixty percent of public survey respondents claimed that increasing prices are one of their main concerns, and the number of people who are endangered by falling into poverty due to lack of savings rose to 32%. This dire situation unsurprisingly is reflected in wavering government support, which fell to 30% in the June opinion poll.
To make matters even worse, society is polarized by the indiscriminate opposition campaign. The leader of the populist ANO party, Andrej Babiš, spent the summer in his caravan driving around the whole country and organizing rallies for his supporters in the run-up to the municipal election slated for the second half of September, or maybe even with an eye to Presidential elections to be held at the beginning of next year in which he might run. For its part, the government is unable to find a suitable counterstrategy and continues a series of communication failures. For instance, the first reaction of Prime Minister Petr Fiala to the above-described demonstration was the dismissal of its organizers as pro-Russian activists acting against the Czech national interest. While on the analytical level, there is certainly ground for this conclusion, in terms of political communication, such a statement is a flop since it makes the government appear disinterested and removed from the problems faced by ordinary citizens, which only fuels further frustration.
These frustrations will likely fuel further protests this Fall. "Czech Republic First" already stated that it wanted to organize demonstrations all over the country on the 28 September national holiday then launch coercive actions such as strikes to undermine the stability of the government. Labour unions also announced that they would organize an anti-government demonstration at the beginning of October and signalled that they are also considering a general strike. And on top of that, it is possible to expect that the Fall will be full of candidate rallies preparing for the Presidential elections who are likely to take advantage of the climate critical to the government. Consequently, it is likely that headlines about a Wenceslas Square brimming with protesters will feature again in the near future.