14/17N Day in the Czech Republic

With a certain distance, it is now possible to evaluate the participation of Czechs in Europe-wide actions against the advancing policy of cuts and the limitation of democracy. Two views are possible.

The first would contend that in this connection a number of events have taken place, even if on a different date: 17 November, a day that is significant in Czech history in two ways. It recalls a show of opposition by students and the whole of Czech society to German occupation in 1939 and subsequent anti-student Nazi repression, which the international community responded to during World War II by the declaration of International Students’ Day in London on 16 November 1941. At the same time, the Czech Republic on that day remembers the anniversary of the so-called “Velvet Revolution”, when the actions of Prague students sparked anti-regime demonstrations that culminated in the fall of the Czechoslovak communist system in 1989. And it was just through turning out on the streets on that day that our citizens linked up with the European leftist campaign.

The second view is most likely far more precise. In general, Czech society, and I dare say societies in many other so-called post-communist countries, do not by and large feel that it is integrated into a European society of citizens. People have no need of Europe-wide solidarity. They still have the impression that in a united Europe their state and citizens are regarded as second class by many in the West. Many meet with a lack of understanding from Western Europeans with regard to their long-complicated and little-improving situation. Therefore the reaction of people from the East to Europe-wide appeals is on the whole tepid; they do not regard them as a solution to their problems.

Getting back to our Czech reality, the biggest demonstration, with a turnout of 20,000, was seen in Prague. Demonstrations with markedly smaller attendance and political impact were held in several other regional centres. The gatherings were directed against the government and the current establishment. At the same time, they represented not only a rejection of the government’s cost-saving measures, budget consolidation (the reduction of debt to a level below 3% of GDP) and reforms (of the pension system, health care, the labour market, continuing privatisation of the public sector, etc.), but also an expression of disagreement (supported by two-thirds of the population) with unprecedented church restitution. This concerns a transfer of property that will turn the church into the largest landowner and commits the state to paying the church billions of that so-called restitution over decades. A not inconsiderable share of the frustration of the majority of the population stems from “unconquerable” corruption and the inability or aversion of the governing elite to do anything about the problem. In Czech society – across all elements, classes and social groups – there is a growing sense of injustice and of the favouring of certain social groups to the detriment of the majority, including via the deprivation of democratic instruments. An ever-growing feeling prevails that it has already been decided who will pay for the so-called reforms and who is immune.

Political parties (of the Left), such as the Social Democrats and the Communists, did not officially take part in the Prague demonstration, which was organised by an association of various (mainly leftist) civic groups in conjunction with the unions, though they did support it. In his address, the chairman of the unions said that there was no mood among society and the unions for a general strike, because people are concerned about their jobs and social security. It is also because the classic strike movement does not have a strong appeal among the masses. The adversary today is not employers, or “capitalists”. Indeed, that class is frequently just as frustrated with the country’s social and political situation. Large companies, which also represent the core for the unions, treat their employees relatively well. The oppressed are the public services and their employees – not only those in education, health care, the social services and the civil service, but also fire and police officers. However, their political power is incomparably weaker. And many, with justification, expect that political activities could well lead to their dismissal under the “streamlining” of the state.

Following regional elections in October, regional “governments” were created. Twelve of a total of 14 regions will be headed by Social Democrats. In 10 regions the radical Left, represented by candidates of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, will share in power in various forms. It will not be a simple situation, because the neo-liberal government cannot be expected to be accommodating to the orange-red regions. On the contrary, every mistake made by the Left will be welcomed by the governing elite and the Right. At the beginning of November, the government succeeded in stabilising its position in parliament when it managed to agree on strange deals with several “rebel” MPs from its own ranks, ensuring a majority of one or two votes with which to push through its plans. It has, for now, headed off early elections and the almost certain accession of the Left on the state-wide level.

The entire complicated domestic political situation was reflected in events marking 17 November. There was, therefore, little room for a European outlook and European solidarity. That is not a good thing and it needs to change. But it will require change on both sides. In so-called post-communist countries, citizens need to be persuaded that their problems are best solved in a united left-wing Europe. Meanwhile, “traditional” Western Europeans need to be convinced that their continent is much larger than they think, and that even in the part “far to the East” there are brothers and sisters who share with them a home that they need to take care of in unison.