Protesters speak out against Communists
Demonstrations honoring Palach reveal political tensions in regions
Posted: January 23, 2013
In Prague, the Jan. 19 protest took place on Wenceslas Square, where activists set up a mock gallows to symbolize the show trials and executions of the communist era.
Around 200 anti-communist protesters gathered in the cold on Prague's Wenceslas Square Jan. 19, marking the end of a weeklong series of demonstrations against the presence of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) and its members in regional assemblies across the country.
Led by the umbrella group Without Communism, the event in the capital was the last stop of a tour that had visited Olomouc, Ústí nad Labem, Karlovy Vary, České Budĕjovice and Zlín earlier in the week. There, the protesters sometimes numbered fewer than 50, as the recent flurries of snow kept many people at home.
Organizers said they wanted to show the dangers of communist ideology and are demanding KSČM politicians step down from their roles immediately. However, others have criticized the campaigners, accusing them of not respecting democratic principles.
Under the eerie backdrop of gallows and a solitary prison cell, used to symbolize communist-era show trials and executions, speakers including former dissident Petr Placák and musician Zbyněk Horváth took to a makeshift stage to rail against the modern-day KSČM. The events were the brainchild of Petr Marek, who brought together civic associations and student groups via Facebook.
"Nowadays, people are distrustful of Czech society," he said. "They're tired after 23 years of democracy. That always produces the best conditions for extremists to come to power, like Adolf Hitler did in Germany in 1933. We're not exactly there yet, but we're heading down that path, so it's time to wake people up."
While the conservative government endured heavy losses in last October's regional elections amid anger over austerity measures and corruption, the KSČM enjoyed 20.4 percent support, gaining a total of 68 seats in the country's 13 regional assemblies.
The party won in Karlovy Vary and Ústí nad Labem - where Oldřich Bubeníček became the first Communist governor since the 1989 revolution - and formed coalitions with the Social Democrats (ČSSD) in most other regions. Marek, though, says this doesn't give the party a mandate to govern.
"Nearly 80 percent of people voted for democratic parties, not for the Communists," he said. "Democratic parties could have made coalitions between themselves; there were many possibilities. But the Social Democrats, who should be blamed for this, took the Communists straight into power. We're opposing that."
The demonstrations coincided with the anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, a student who set himself alight in protest at the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, when Russian tanks rolled in to clamp down on the rising tide of liberalism in the country. Having suffered serious burns to his body Jan. 16, 1969, the 21-year-old succumbed to his injuries three days later.
Despite the freezing conditions over the weekend, a hardy crowd slowly formed in front of the St. Wenceslas statue, near to where Palach committed his desperate act 44 years ago. They held derogatory banners and placards targeted at former Soviet dictators Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, cheering loudly at the close of every speech. Some of the crowd also gave their backing to presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg.
"We like freedom; we don't like the Communists," said student Miroslav Potapov, while another student, Ivana Kostelecká, wearing a "Karel for president" badge, added, "We should remember where we've come from and learn from the past. Young people should never forget what the Communists really mean. Even though they changed the name of the party, they still have the same values, and they're not democratic."
But not everyone was satisfied with the demonstration. Pensioner Marie Krulišová, who has been protesting against communism since the Prague Spring, said she was disappointed at those people who didn't bother turning up. As her interview concluded, a group of three boys tried to disrupt the event by shouting "Long live socialism" and waving a red flag adorned with the hammer and sickle.
"There's no need for their protests," said one of the boys, Adam Šlenka. "They're demonstrating against communist ideals, which we're able to defend. They say we're mass murderers, and that we want power. This is a capitalist lie."
Although the gatecrashers were largely ignored, their appearance underlined the tensions that exist in many of the country's regions. Since the middle of December, dozens of students in south Bohemia have participated in hunger strikes to express their disapproval at the appointment of KSČM politician Vítĕzslava Baborová as the assembly's chairwoman for education. Her counterpart in Karlovy Vary, former soldier and border guard Václav Sloup, has also faced calls to resign.
Neither Baborová - who is currently on long-term sick leave - nor Sloup could be reached for comment, but KSČM MP Pavel Hojda said the pair had every right to carry out their responsibilities (which include appointing principals and overseeing school budgets), telling The Prague Post they should only be dismissed if they are found to be incompetent. He also hit out at those who label his party extremist.
"People are never able to provide any proof to support such statements," Hojda said. "In my opinion, the student protests have been provoked not only by teachers but by activists, too. They cannot cope with the crushing defeat of the right in the regional elections and are abusing students for their own anti-democratic goals."
In response to these claims, Šimon Heller, who is coordinating the student movement in south Bohemia, said the aim wasn't to challenge the results of the vote but rather to highlight the "insensitive and immoral" decision by ČSSD Governor Jiří Zimola to ally with the KSČM. He added the chain hunger strikes would continue, playing down concerns over the health of participants.
"The hunger strikes last for a day, which means we aren't starving for extremely long periods of time like Mahatma Gandhi did," Heller said. "We don't have any other choice than to use these methods, as Zimola was absolutely unresponsive to our previous protests."
Zimola, however, says a hunger strike is an "extreme instrument" that should only occur in cases where state sovereignty and human rights are threatened. This is not such a scenario, he added. So far, talks between the two sides have faltered, with Heller claiming the ČSSD politician is merely paying lip service to the process while Zimola has complained the students keep changing their demands.
"I met them several times in an attempt to listen to and dispel their fears, as well as to get them to cooperate," the governor said. "I invited the students to review our practices and ensure we comply with the legal standards of our school system. I'm sad they didn't accept the hand that was offered to them."
Evoking a 1995 party resolution that prohibits the ČSSD from dealing with extremist parties including the Communists, the students have asked Zimola to tear up the coalition agreement. The governor, though, says he is satisfied with the present situation, suggesting the focus should be elsewhere.
"It's a pity they don't address the actions of successive right-wing governments that are responsible for robbing this country blind with the same level of intensity," he said. "That's what really affects the lives of Czech citizens, and the ČSSD's past resolution is proving to be nothing but a scourge on social democracy."
But others believe the anti-communist demonstrations don't draw attention away from current political problems because the two are inextricably linked. After addressing protesters in Prague, Ondřej Závodský, who works closely with Karel Janeček's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said the graft scandals plaguing the country are symptomatic of communism.
"They aren't separate issues," he added. "On the contrary, it's a beast with two heads."
- Monika Ticháčková contributed to this report.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at
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