This year the Czech Republic is celebrating many special anniversaries. Yet despite the importance of commemorating a hundred years since the Czechs gained independence, the 50 years since the 1968 invasion and more, there is and always has been one anniversary that overshadows the others in terms of political statement – November 17th.
Although the origins of commemorating the 17th of November go back to 1939, when the Nazi’s closed Czech universities, today the immediate connection that most Czechs make with this date is that of the communist crackdown on protesters in 1989.
The date has become symbolic for the rise of the public against their political masters and while remembrance of the 1989 and 1939 events always plays a major role, the celebrations tend to also become a window into the dissatisfaction of at least some part of the Czech population with current events. Especially for those citizens who feel that the changes they or their predecessors achieved in the Velvet Revolution are in danger.
In fact, when we approach the anniversary from this perspective, a remarkable history of what were the publicly controversial political themes after 1989 opens up to us and provides a perspective on how the ideals of humanism, truth and democracy have been viewed by protesters invoking the heritage of the Velvet Revolution since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In this feature, we will trace some of the more memorable demonstrations and ask some of their organisers why they decided to do them and how they perceive the importance of the 17th of November as a day for political protest.
Perhaps the first notable protest took place ten years after the Velvet Revolution in 1999. A year earlier, the two largest parties in the state – the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats - made an agreement known as the ‘Opposition treaty’, which was criticised by many journalists and politicians who blamed it for a rise in corruption. Some claim that it was even responsible for the loss of faith in elections and the permanent withdrawal of some voters from state elections.
In 1999 a group of people came out with a challenge to the political establishment called “Děkujeme, odejděte” (Thank you, now leave) and on the 17th of November the core of its programme was summed up to a packed Wenceslas Square by one of its leaders, Martin Mejstřík.
“The greatest responsibility for this crisis is carried by the leadership of the opposition treaty parties. The Social Democrats and Civic Democrats led by Miloš Zeman and Václav Klaus. We call on all citizens of the Czech Republic to use their public engagement in order to get politicians to respect public opinion and place the interests of state above those of political parties.”
These were powerful words and attracted many important figures at the time, including president Václav Havel. After assembling around 100,000 thousand signatures it even seemed that the movement might develop into a serious political platform. Ultimately, however, both political leaders held on to their office and the movement did not achieve a significant impact. Yet for many, Děkujeme, odejděte has become the symbol of the growing disillusionment with politics that occurred during the 1990s.
Seven years later, another memorable clash between the government and a large group of the public started unfolding. This time, it revolved around the intention to enable the United States to build a radar station in the Czech Republic which was part of the US’s national missile defence programme. The campaign stretched for a period of three years and, in the Velvet Revolution celebrations of 2008, involved a march on the seat of the government at the Strakova Academy in Prague.
Both Mirek Topolánek, who was prime minister at the time, as well as the protesters themselves, claimed the November anniversary as their own.
While the former said the opponents of the radar did not know the value of freedom, which would not have been won without the help of those who are currently NATO allies, the anti-radar movement said that the 17th of November was a day connected with democracy and the fight for human rights, which they believed their cause stood for.
The movement’s spokesman Jan Tamáš, even held a hunger strike aimed at getting the government to call for a referendum about the radar base.
Arguing that humanism and direct-democracy are interlinked in an interview with Radio Prague in 2007, he dismissed arguments that referendums could lead to rash decisions, something that remains a hot topic today.
“I think if people were really given this tool to decide, they would begin thinking wisely about the decisions that they make, especially if they would see that those decisions had a direct impact on their lives, and on the lives of their children and their grandchildren."
Ultimately, the base construction was called off after the newly elected president Obama decided that the United States would not go ahead with the construction. Although this was not directly caused by the movement, Ne základnám was declared the most successful civic movement in the Czech Republic by the highly regarded Czech magazine Respekt.
While the anti-radar protesters marched through Prague in November 2008, signs began appearing that the world financial crisis had started to really hit the Czech Republic, as the Czech Statistical Agency announced that year-on-year industrial production had fallen by 17.4 %. The government that assumed power in 2010 started a series of austerity measures.
These led to a protest organised on the 17th of November 2011 by the left wing citizens' initiative ‘ProAlt’, on Wenceslas Square.
Pavel Novák was one of the ProAlt members and later became its spokesman. He explains why the protest was called.
“It is the international day of students and the government wanted to introduce tuition fees. Furthermore, the 17th November has great symbolic value, because the socialist, bureaucratic regime ended that day and we wanted to show that we gained some freedoms but some people lost some other freedoms, because poor people, the have-nots, lost some substantial freedoms then and the government wanted to take away more through the austerity process.”
“We wanted to protest against the government. Ideally to overthrow it although that was a bit unrealistic, but also to show the government that there are a lot of people against them and that there are also other freedoms rather than just the formal ones.”
The demonstration was relatively small, attended by 2,000 members of the public. However, it included important representatives of the left wing movement such as Slavoj Žižek, as well as many representatives from the unions and universities. Eventually the movement led to a demonstration in April the following year, which brought around 100,000 people to Wenceslas Square.
While the government ultimately did not change its policy, Mr. Novák believes that the movement did achieve success in the long-term, as a further protest in April 2012 brought together tens of thousands of protesters.
“I think we were not successful at the time of the protest itself. However, the movement has been partially successful because it has involved many kinds of people ranging from anarchists, Trotskyists, communists, Christians, social democrats, greens, etc. Many kinds of people have been in ProAlt. Which was actually also the reason why ProAlt ended once that government ended, because it was too heterogeneous. But ultimately we wanted the government to fall and it did. Maybe our protests helped. Especially the one with the unions where there were almost a 100,000 people.”
One of the most symbolic protests was the so called ‘Red card for Zeman’, which took place in 2014, the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Martin Přikryl, who organised the event, explains how it came about.
“It was a whimsical thing. I just saw what the president did. It was a couple of things at the time and I wanted to change my words into actions, so I did a Facebook event just to remind myself that I promised to do something. Quite quickly it grew to a membership that needed management. I found out that there are thousands of people who want to come with me and tell something to the president.
“Then someone on Facebook came up with the idea that it is time to show the president the yellow card. I am not a soccer fan and wouldn’t have come up with it myself, but I liked it. I felt however, that it should be a red card because in my view it had already been enough. What I liked about it and what I saw as my number one task was to keep it simple - just red cards and no other signs. I wanted to do more of a happening than a political demonstration. And I think it succeeded because it was simple and visually attractive."
So it was a political statement rather than a protest?
“I would say so. I just really wanted to say that there are people who do not agree with what Miloš Zeman is doing, were he is leading our country and our political culture.”
Looking back would you say it was successful?
“Depends how you judge it. I would say it was. My aim was to show that there are thousands of people who do not agree with the president and we succeeded both on a national and international basis with pictures of red cards broadcast in the media. However, in terms of succeeding in removing Miloš Zeman from the castle, he is still there. So he is winning.”
The red card movement was not the only thing to reach the spotlight of international media that year. During the unveiling of a commemorative plaque attended by Miloš Zeman and other central European heads state, the Czech president was booed by a surrounding crowd, some of whose members also threw eggs.
A year later further controversy followed, after the space around Prague’s Albertov, commonly visited by students on occasion of the anniversary, was blocked-off by the police during an event attended by the president, who spoke in defence of free speech and was joined on the podium by a number of extremist leaders.
Amid the clashes in recent years, some have questioned the use of the 17th of November as a form of political demonstration, pointing instead towards the remembrance the original 17th of November 1989 and the detachment of those who were not present yet make political points today. This view is illustrated in a statement given by Castle spokesman Jiří Ovčáček ahead of the anniversary in 2017.
“The president will quietly remember the events of the 17th of November as an active member of the 1989 events and I remind you that shortly before those events took place he was thrown out of work for the third time by the communists due to his views. That means the president will not take part in any campaign. He will not abuse this anniversary like some others, who use it for political rhetoric and the attendance of certain events, which take place during these occasions.”
Speaking after the release of a report on his son by a team of investigative journalists from Seznam.tv, earlier this week, which has resulted in calls for his resignation, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš also suggested that there were malicious intentions to abuse the 17th of November for political gain.
“The timing of this campaign, with the report released while I am abroad and ahead of the 17th of November, when activists are calling each other together to form a chain in order to prevent me from being able to honour the memory of those people who played a part in securing our freedom and democracy, is of course part of the script seeking to destroy me and remove me from politics.”
I asked Mr. Přikryl whether the case of current affairs protests overshadowing the anniversary celebrations are justified, or whether the 17th of November should be remembered as any other anniversary.
“I believe these celebration days are either alive or dead. World War One or World War Two, I feel those are dead celebration days. We all know that we are celebrating something that was truly remarkable, but they have no ties to the present. Fortunately, yet also unfortunately, this day [November 17th] has living ties to the present, because we are still fighting.
“It is a living celebration of the freedom of speech. It was not so for twenty years, because once we reached freedom in 1989, we were all happy and we all took it for granted. Suddenly it is not obvious anymore and we have to go into the streets and have to speak our mind again. So I think it is good we have a day when it is appropriate to go out and speak our mind.”
So you are not worried that because there are always protests, every year, although obviously political reasons for them may exist, that it gets a bit diluted? That some people just think ‘Oh, yeah, it is the 17th of November again and people are protesting.’
“When we see the results of the elections there are many people that are super happy with the state as we have it now. And they see the people who go out to protest as basically fools, problem makers, or something like that. These are signs of a divided society, a divided country. Yes, we are divided as much as Britain or America is, but I don’t think that just because the majority thinks it is not necessary it should stop. I believe it is.”
Mr. Novák says that in a split society, it is all the more important to speak out.
“I think that there is a split in the society and to protest is perhaps a way to show it, not the other way round. Both parties need to speak. That is politics. We need to speak to each other and make our point. Whether we are on the side of Babiš, Zeman, Kalousek, the anarchists or any another side, we need to speak publicly, so I think the protests are a good thing. They introduce things into the public debate. And on this very political date it is important to state what you want.”
Jan Gregar is one of the organisers of the Festival of Freedom, which commemorates the anniversary with various events across the country and this year it is focusing on reducing societal polarisation. He believes that although today’s events do not reach the depth of November 1989, gathering together is important in showing the strength of civil society.
“Obviously November 1989 at Národní třída, when the people were stopped by the police and some were beaten, that was a much more impactful moment than what we are experiencing now. But in the interests of future development we need to remember this. Always repeat it, showing the strength of civil society and that we can gather together at important moments. To remember all of this and support these values.
“This year we have a special topic. It is a focus on discussion. It is related to the current polarisation because we want to show that we should listen to each other when we are discussing something. This cultivated discussion should start in society and politics. Solving the problems of everyday life as well as the big issues will be much easier, because we will not perceive each other as enemies but friends in a discussion. That is the main message for the present.”
Speaking of uniting, do you have any events, which you thought would be perfect for doing that? Not on a grand scale, but in terms of your festival?
“The culture and the music. Music is the best language with no words. It connects people. After all that has happened in the Czech Republic in the past 29 years lots of people lost their faith in democracy, in the values of freedom and in politics. For example, until the opposition treaty in 1998, we had quite a big turnout and then we lost a huge amount of voters [voter turnout went down by 16 percent], who never came back.
“So we have to show people that these days and celebrations are important and that they can connect it with good feelings. That they can enjoy themselves. I believe this is how you build a nation. Not around prejudices, nationalism or blood, rather on common values, on what we share. “
Mr. Gregar confessed he was a little worried about whether the recently announced protest, calling for the prime minister’s resignation, will throw some wrenches into the festival’s plans for uniting society. Instead, he urges others to focus on larger issues such as global warming and water scarcity.
Yet whether it is because of the prime minister, global warming, immigration or labour rights, one thing seems certain, political activism on the 17th of November is alive and kicking, still able to draw thousands into the streets. Mr Přikryl explains this relatively unique way of celebrating a national holiday.
“I would say there are countries where they protest every day, there are also those where they do not protest and those where protesting is not allowed. Then, there is the Czech Republic and we protest on the 17th of November because it is a protest day. That’s how I feel about it. It is a day dedicated to go out and speak.”
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