2012: A Turbulent Year for The Czech Masses

Like other Eastern European countries, the Czech Republic had the illusion that with the opening of the market in 1989 and entering into the EU it would eventually be able to enjoy living standards matching the countries of Western Europe. These illusions have been shaken in the last few years. The consequences of this have been shown in the recent period and will inevitably continue to express themselves.

The Czech Republic is heavily dependent on exports to other European countries in particular Germany. The automobile industry alone represents one quarter of the whole manufacturing output, with 80 out of 100 cars produced destined for export. The crisis hitting the Eurozone was therefore bound to have a negative effect on the Czech economy, which spent the whole of 2012 in recession with the GDP shrinking by 1.3% in the last quarter alone. 

The government dealt with this by “clinging to austerity like a drowning man clinging to a log” (Financial Times, October 2012). The state followed its European neighbours' tactics of attacking the livelihoods of  working class people by announcing $3billion worth of cuts. This started off with the simple raising of income tax and VAT. Later in the year regressive pension reforms and a planned liquidation of the already limited public healthcare was pushed forward in parliament. Salt was poured on this wound when the motion was carried by a vote cast by one MP who had been heavily involved in recent scandals. 

Endemic corruption exposed

Public confidence in the Establishment has been severely eroded following an exposure of corruption, which became a recurring theme throughout 2012. In March, the Ex-Mayor of Prague, Pavel Bem, was revealed to have had an extensive undeclared contact with an influential lobbyist, Roman Janoušek, who throughout this time had a high degree of influence on the city council. In April, the Czech Defence Minister, Alexandr Vondra, was publicly linked to an overpriced public contract with the technology company ProMoPro. So far 10 people have been arrested in this case. The Central Bohemia Governor, David Rath, was found to be taking bribes from a construction company over the rebuilding of a Chateau. Two separate prosecutions were made against powerful politicians in relation to fraud and the suspicious purchase of military transport vehicles and tanks. To top it off there was a short period of prohibition on spirits throughout the country after a bout of methanol poisoning deaths. Reports released have shown this to be down to negligence by the authorities.

In addition, there were also lots of low profile scandals and lobbying. Popular, sharp witted journalist Erik Best has described the Czech Republic as being run by five families (by families he's referring to the godfather but is really talking about five companies). 

It must be said, however, that this corruption was not a rarity before 2012. In fact, it has been major characteristic of Czech politics since the Velvet Revolution. Corruption was of course a big factor before the revolution although of a different nature. When the economy was more stable and the standards of living were improving, a certain degree of corruption could be tolerated by most of the people. However, in present conditions, this has become more and more questionable. 

These events haven't gone unnoticed by the Czech people despite the delusions of the government and the ruling class. They have shown that they will not tolerate this forever. The Czech people have endured a great deal throughout the last century which is shown in their cultural characteristics through their traditional easy going natures and sense of humour and are able to endure a lot, but like all human beings they have a breaking point. 

In April, 100,000 workers pensioners and students took to Wenceslas Square in Prague to demonstrate against corruption and the austerity policies imposed by the government. This was the biggest protest in the Czech Republic since the protests leading up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and had worldwide coverage. Under the slogan "Stop Vlade" (Stop the Government) the ČMKOS (the Czech Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions) took the lead in a very significant show of unity. 

The November 17 “Stop Vlade!” Demonstration

On the 17th of November, I attended the second big demonstration of the year in Wenceslas Square, Prague. This date is significant in the Czech calendar as it is the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. This demonstration was mainly organised by ČMKOS but also had involvement from various student and campaign groups and again adopted the slogan "Stop Vlade!" (Stop the Government). While the organisers’ claim of 20,000 demonstrators may have been a bit too generous, it shows the police figure of 700 to be a gross underestimate. This was proof of how desperate, bitter and frankly stupid the bourgeois media can act when wanting to undermine these protests. 

It wasn't as big as the previous protest but this demonstration represented a significant chapter in the on-going story of Czech mass radicalisation. The protest was against corruption and austerity and was sparked off by the recent exposure of a series of scandals and an extremely regressive reform cutting back on health care and pensions being pushed through parliament. The fact that this motion was won by one vote cast by an MP who was heavily involved in the scandals further heated up the general mood of anger. The demo also served as a solidarity gesture for the strikes going on throughout Europe on the 14th of November. 

The number of national flags present on Wenceslas Square revealed a different mood to similar demonstrations in the UK. In the UK large numbers of national flags tend to only be seen at football matches, royal celebrations and at fascist demonstrations. However, numerous flags are a common occurrence at progressive political demonstrations in the Czech Republic and in fact official demonstrations often end with the national anthem. This is understandable in a relatively new country which in the last century has been subject to brutal occupations. However, nationalism was by no means the only element on this protest. 

There was an impressive 3D mobile art piece resembling the famous Pyramid of the Capitalist System showing manual labourers, mothers with prams, disabled people, immigrants and children holding up a platform which had a big pile of gold, suited men and a big sack with a dollar sign on with legs and a masked head. This was admired by protesters who took photos of one another pretending to hold up the platform.

Representatives from a wide range of trade unions and single issue campaign groups (mainly anti- austerity and corruption issues) and Mladí sociální demokraté (Young Social Democrats, the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party, ČSSD) were there with stalls. At the top of Wenceslas Square on the City Hall steps there were public speakers who spoke throughout the protest with the occasional cheer and applause from the audience. Those I noticed were ČMKOS (Bohemian and Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions) representatives. Later in the protest a group of around 20 or 30 youths showed up, draped in and waving red flags with hammer and sickles and pictures of Che Guevara. On these flags was written "KSM" (Komunistický svaz mládeže - Communist Youth Union).

The protest fizzled out and the public speakers were replaced by music. One of the songs, Thomas Klus's ”Pánu bohu do oken", a recent and popular tragi-comic political protest song about a man asking god why he is allowing common people to be at the mercy of these corrupt politicians. This is one of several songs which have made it into Czech popular culture. Radio Praha did a New Year's special music programme  with the title of Corruption, scandal and protests - a year in musical disgruntlement on political protest songs of 2012 

Another significant event of 2012 was the October senate elections where the Communist Party (KSCM) came second in the first round, a fact that reflects the growing discontent towards the present state of affairs. This was a huge jump from the equivalent elections of 2010 when they came 8th. In real terms it has made gains of 34,000 votes in two years and had also jumped in the ranks due to the low turnout at the election.  However, these results showed that new people were looking towards this party. Since 1989 it always had a very solid but ageing electorate with the vast majority of their voters saying they had always voted for them. These results showed new and younger additions to this electorate. 

This news was greeted by very negative reactions, to the point of hysteria, by the mainstream media. The anti-communist propaganda wishes to take advantage of the understandable rejection of the Stalinist regime by the Czech masses. Anti-communist feelings, however, have been and are used by the press and the capitalists to dampen militant attitudes. In recent election campaigns posters naming and shaming politicians who used to be in the Communist Party were displayed. A small "anti-communist" hunger strike was even organised at a university.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this propaganda will not for long prevent the Czech workers and youth from seriously challenging the corrupt profiteers who have ruled the country over the last two decades and from questioning the ability of the capitalist system to deliver a decent future for the vast majority of the Czech people.

New controversial measures

At the end of 2012 a ruling was approved by parliament to give churches back $3.7billion worth of property. This property is currently in the hands of the state and was taken from the churches during the so-called "communist" regime. On top of this, another $2.9billion will be paid to them over the next 30 years for property which was taken but no longer exists. At a time when huge cuts are being made this was a highly unpopular move. The Czech Republic has one of the least religious populations in the world. The most popular religion is Roman Catholicism which in the 2011 census around 10.3% of the population supported. The Roman Catholic Church is by far the biggest beneficiary of this move.

Vaclav Klaus had utter disrespect for the intelligence of the Czech people when he said that it won’t affect them or their services. We must ask Mr Klaus where exactly this money will come from. In a time of savage cuts and the liquidation of health services for people who need it most, these cuts in effect literally kill people. They will kill people regardless of their faith.

2013 started with a New Year amnesty declared by president Vaclav Klaus releasing more than 7,400 prisoners. This was a very unpopular move with recent polls showing that 80% disagreed with it and even a significant 20% thinking the president had done this in order to help out criminals he was acquainted with.

However, this will be of no concern to Vaclav Klaus as he has only one month left in office. A businessman involved in $1.5billion worth of fraud, another rich businessman convicted of dangerous driving, far right extremists convicted of hate crimes and corrupt judges will all be let out according to the niche specifications of this amnesty. The opposing ČSSD initiated a vote of no confidence which the government survived. Later on the youth wing of the ČSSD organised a public demonstration against the amnesty.

Another big event to start the New Year is the presidential election. It should be noted that at this time the two candidates who have made it past the first round are not from the main political parties. The winner of the first round, left leaning Miloš Zeman, is from a split of the ČSSD (Social Democrats) and the second is from the right wing, TOP09's Karel Schwarzenberg, which is originally a split from the more traditional conservative ODS. This is a reflection of the lack of confidence towards main stream parties.

Like other Eastern European countries, the Czech Republic had the illusion that with the opening of the market in 1989 and entering into the EU it would eventually be able to enjoy living standards matching the countries of Western Europe. These illusions have been shaken in the last few years. The consequences of this have been shown in the recent period and will inevitably continue to express themselves.

Ross Walker, Praha Marxiste