It would be hardly possible to find someone in the Czech Republic who would not be aware of the movement Million Moments for Democracy. Thousands of people took the streets of cities across the country and protest against the PM Andrej Babis. On Sunday 23th, the organizers called all the supports to gather at Letna which is an open space capable to absorb many more people than the historical centre of Prague where the previous protests were called. However, the escalated situation is not a consequence of the latest events, it is rather an outcome of the last years.
Andrej Babis is the most controversial figure of the Czech political scene. He entered the political life in 2012 with the protest movement ANO 2011. Shortly afterwards, he managed to gain the confidence of the voters with the help of a typical populist slogans ‘we aren’t like politicians, we work hard’ or ‘we never stop fighting corruption’. In the legislative elections 2013, ANO received only 2% fewer votes than Social Democrats – the leading party at that time and ANO became a coalition party. Babis was appointed as a Minister of Finance and Deputy PM. Since the founding, ANO has been shaped as a prototype of a one-man party with one stream of opinions and no efforts to challenge the position of its founder.
The controversy surrounding his person was striking and the opposition parties and journalists seek to discredit his position. Firstly, he is the second richest man in the country. His business empire Agrofert – consisting of more than 230 companies, rises question regarding conflict of interests. Moreover, Agrofert owns two of the largest Czech newspapers. Secondly, he was accused of being a former secret agent of the State Security Policy from the Czechoslovakian communist era. Obviously, he denied the accusation and sued National Memory Institution in Slovakia for defamation. His alleged cooperation with communist police caused a wave of agitation as the Czechs are highly emotional towards this topic. The secret agents reported on ‘anti-state’ activities and arrested persons were often imprisoned.
To put the whole case in a nutshell, Babis had been under investigation by both OLAF (European Anti-Fraud Office) and the Czech Police due to unlawful receiving of subsidies (meant for small business) from the EU in the case called ‘Stork nest’. Another case concerned allegation that he avoided paying taxes as CEO of Agrofert or allegedly tax cuts through issued bonds. He was unseated in May 2017 after a month-long coalition crisis. Police have requested already twice to lift his parliamentary immunity, the Lower House did so, and he was accused of a crime of alleged fraud. Followingly, OLAF’s report confirmed a violation of European and national law. However, due to his re-election in 2017, he gained immunity again and as expected, he became a new PM. The result was a victory for ANO 2011 which received almost 30% of votes even though voters knew about all the cases surrounding him. Babis is a proficient rhetorician who is more than capable to confuse his voters by pointing at political plots against him and purpose prosecution. The Stork Nest project was removed from the funding programme, Babis transferred ownership of the company to trust funds controlled by his family, and although the case is dated back to 2016, there is no final verdict and the plot has been expanded by other findings. In April 2019, Police suggested him to stand trial in this fraud case. Recently, the government has received preliminary findings of an audit by the European Commission claiming that he is in a conflict of interest and that is highly possible that the Czech Republic will have to return subsidies. Babis labelled this information as an attack against Czech interests and assured voters that this scenario will not happen. The audit is expected to be accomplished late this year.
Take a moment and have a dialogue with us, Mr Babis
As mentioned above, the scandals have not disrupted his position, however, it does not mean there is no opposition movement. Million Moments for Democracyhave managed to mobilize masses of the Czechs who are not unconcerned about the current political situation. Establishing of the Movement is closely linked to two important dates in the Czech history – November 11th (closing of the Czech Universities in 1939 as an impact of Nazi oppression and more importantly, the Velvet Revolution in 1989) and February 25th (the Communist coup d’état in 1948).
Babis published a kind ‘agreement with voters’ before elections in which promised to follow several principles if ANO wins. The text starting with ‘I have an urgent message for you, please take a moment of your time’ and with respect to his words, the Movement appealed to him to take a moment as well and to open a social dialogue – and Million Moments of Democracyemerged. Ten points were suggested to start with, including transparency of his business, respect of the rule of law, steps against the accumulation of power or media freedom. Unfortunately, the message of November 11th was not answered even though the organizers tried to contact him two more times. The struggles continued in February 2018 with a slogan ‘we don’t want to have a prosecuted PM’. The message highlighted a fact that a prosecuted PM creates a bad reputation for the whole country, and he should be immediately replaced by another member of ANO until the case is closed.
On one hand, Babis successfully ignored the Movement, on the other hand, organizers managed to extend membership base. Also due to other scandals surrounding him – coalition supported by the Communist party, control of the public media and last but not least, the appointment of the new Justice Minister who is supposed to interfere in his case. The public protests became something regular on the Czech streets and albeit Prague played a crucial role at the beginning, the protests have been spread all over the country. During the last weeks, more than 300 cities and villages were involved, and it is giving a sign of a broad dissatisfaction of the Czechs. The last protest on Wenceslas Square counted more than 120 000 people and so the organizers decided to call another protest on Sunday, 23rd June to give an opportunity to non-Prague citizens to join.
The largest anti-regime protest since the fall of Communism
And as foreseen, the protests culminated with 250 000 people gathering at Letna and calling for demission and independent justice. Several artists joined the stage with organizers and urged protestants not to ease up and continue to pursue given objectives. Other protests were announced to take place during summer with special notice to November when even larger protests are expected.
Last but not least, the whole case is giving a negative precedent for the future of the country if a prosecuted PM is not willing to resign. What will happen next? What can be acceptable for the high officials? To summarise, the Czech Republic completes a diverse picture of democratic struggles within Europe and the situation seems to be rather escalating than soothing. Especially with reference to the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the end of communist rule in November.