Wenceslas Square

Protests tap into common grievances

Holešov Appeal group draws support from young and old alike as thousands protest

Virtually ignored by much of the Czech-language press, a group calling themselves the Holešov Appeal burst onto the scene as thousands of protesters took to the streets in major cities March 15.

“It is part of what some of us have been saying for a long time,” political analyst Jiří Pehe said. “People are frustrated, and unfortunately the government is not paying much attention. They keep introducing reforms that they are not explaining.”

In a show of force, thousands gathered on Wenceslas Square March 15. While police estimated the crowd at 2,500 people, it appeared to be at least twice as big. Marchers proceeded to shut down a major highway as the crowd passed over the Nusle Bridge en route to the Czech Television headquarters in Pankrác. Perhaps most unique in the group is its ability to appeal to disparate parts of society while tapping into commonly held frustrations.

“I fundamentally disagree with almost everything the government does,” said an 80-year-old pensioner from Prague who gave his name as Mr. Veselý. “This government is a disgrace. Everything this country had has been continuously robbed over the past 20 years, and now we have nothing. I learned about this demonstration through the Internet, since there is nothing on TV these days.”

A similar march in Brno drew 4,000 people, and 1,500 people turned out in Ostrava. Protests also took place in Hradec Králové and elsewhere.

“We can see with our own eyes how corruption is being swept under the carpet, and they are laughing in our faces,” said Jana Poláčková, a 36-year-old economist at the demonstration. “Nobody is ever punished. When politicians leave government, they leave with unbelievable properties. We know everything they have is stolen.”

Media coverage

Amid calls of “Demise” (“Resign”) directed at the government, media generally, and state-owned broadcaster Czech Television in particular, came under intense criticism. Among protesters there was a commonly held belief that the media would underreport the turnout at the protest, if they would report it at all. Indeed, none of the major daily newspapers had the protest on its front page the following day.

“There is a serious disconnect between the street and what the media report,” Pehe said. “The media in the Czech Republic has been dominated by right-wingers. They are not very well disposed to protests and tend to downplay them. It wasn’t a coincidence the crowd marched to Czech Television.”

While traditional media outlets did not anticipate the turnout March 15, the loosely affiliated leadership of the Holešov Appeal was able to communicate with people via social networking, paper flyers and even vans with loudspeakers that announced the protests in housing estates. The movement seems to have particularly strong roots in south Moravia and draws on both young people and pensioners who fear their benefits are being cut.

“In the beginning, we simply addressed people by e-mail, summarizing our goals,” said Slávek Popelka, a communist-era dissident and a Holešov Appeal organizer. “I am experienced in this for ages, so I had a contact list in my computer with thousands of e-mail addresses.”

“The demonstrations were organized with minimal resources of 200,000 Kč for the whole campaign, but most of the country now knows about us,” he added.

But such a loose amalgamation of protesters faces the common problem of turning opposition into action.

“The movement articulates what it doesn’t want,” Pehe said.

What do protesters want?

What Popelka said they do want is the resignation of Prime Minister Petr Nečas and President Václav Klaus, as well as changes to the electoral system.

“We need new elections, but under new conditions,” Popelka said. “We need to eliminate the 5 percent threshold [for parties] to reach Parliament, and we need more room for independent personalities. We also need more women in politics. We have more than 50 percent women in the country, and there is no reason for them to be eliminated from leading this country.”

It is clear the Holešov Appeal has tapped into certain undercurrents of anger, especially with social benefits cuts and tax rises, and the group is now coordinating on future demonstrations with other civil society groups and trade unions.

“The price of everything is rising, and the government does not care about ordinary people, only about themselves,” said Jana Janovská, another demonstrator at the Prague protest.

“The VAT is increasing, but the only thing the politicians care about is their salaries, not young mothers with children or pensioners; they don’t give a damn about them. They don’t care what happens to the disabled; they withdrew all funding for them. I’m not sure if we weren’t better off under communism.”

A second protest was staged on Wenceslas Square March 16. It drew about one-third as many people, and Popelka sought to distance the Holešov Appeal from that event, which was organized by taxi driver Zdeněk Ponert.

“We excluded him from our movement since he attempted to spark violence in front of Czech Television,” Popelka said. “That is not our way. We want to reach our goals peacefully. We want no violence or anarchy. We want peaceful change.”

While Nečas has not yet commented publicly on the protests, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek reacted with hostility on a Czech Television talk show March 18, drawing comparisons between the protest movement and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

“I am afraid the recent demonstration and its speaker’s appearance on television amounted to an attack on the system as such,” Kalousek said. “Once, a house painter in Germany spoke of a similar new, just order.”

More protests planned

Popelka said another “wave” of protests is slated for April 15, and the group is now collecting “10,000 Kč per day” in donations through their website. On March 26, the Holešov Appeal is calling on all supporters to wear symbolic buttons calling for the government’s resignation.

Trade unions have announced their own protests for April 21. Other civil society groups organized a separate protest March 19, and as unions mobilize their constituents, there remains a possibility opposition groups may see themselves overlap.

“I see a similarity with being a [communist-era] dissident,” Popelka said. “We have bare hands again. Against us are those who stole billions, and we are trying to do something about it, and I believe it will work out. They are in the tens of thousands, but we are in the millions. The proportion of force seems to be in their favor, but it is not.”

– Markéta Hulpachová contributed to this report.

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