What will drive the Czechs Into the streets?

It is often said that Czechs tend to be loafers who do not rush into open protest. We have simply never been a nation of protesters, rebels or revolutionaries. However, that may be changing. More and more Czechs take part in anti-Roma rallies, which are beginning to shift from the periphery into the big cities. This multilayered conflict is gaining momentum.

Foto: Creative Commons/ dkantoro

The dislike for demonstrations and active, collective expression of one’s political views is the bane of civic associations, political parties and unions, who must expend enormous effort to drive their followers and sympathizers into streets. They quietly envy their colleagues in France and even those in Germany, whose national character is a bit more similar to ours.

It takes a very serious event, conflict or injustice to drive Czechs into the streets to demonstrate for something or against somebody. Throughout Czech history, only a few such instances can be found: the foundation of the state in October 1918, the eve of its endangering by the Munich Treaty in September 1938, the funeral of Jan Palach in January 1969 and the Velvet Revolution of November 1989.

In post-communist times, the Czech Republic has not been swept by massive demonstrations that would change the course of history. Somewhat significant protests were seen during the so-called “television war” and the “Thank you, now leave” appeal, when disputes over the newly appointed director of Czech Public Broadcasting resulted in a sit-in strike in the news room. Occupy Praguestreet and the Czech Spring rallies both faded soon. Union protests, although progressively more and more professionally organized, tend to end up as one-off events, being linked to a wide variety of anti-government movements and associations.

Crumbled and passive

What can explain this passivity? It is either that Czechs are so peaceful that they enter into action only as a last resort, or that nothing sufficiently grave has appeared so far and Czechs are still enjoying relative prosperity.

An ancient Czech legend has it that a mythical army dwells in Blaník Mountain and when the Czechs are at their worst it will come to their rescue. No one has seen the Blaník knights so far, and there are just two explanations: either they do not exist, or all that the Czech lands have experienced since their birth in the tenth century is nothing compared to what is still in store for the Czechs.

It was rather rare to see intellectuals and students join forces with workers in the anti-regime protests that took place between 1948 and 1989. These worlds tended to stay apart, and it was in the utmost interest of the Czechoslovak Communist Party to maintain this separation and keep these social groups away from each other. However, whenever the union succeeded, the regime crumbled.

The present social cleavages are along several axes – Prague versus the others, big cities versus small towns and urban versus countryside. Apart from the traditional animosities between a periphery and capital common in any country, there is a great difference in what the inhabitants of these places understand as material comfort, how they perceive politics and its priorities, who they view as the embodiment of authority, etc.

The middle class – the Prague middle class, to be precise – was reluctant to join the union protests against the now resigned right-wing government of Petr Nečas, even though it would be hit just as hard by the government’s “reforms” and the economic crisis. The middle class has stopped being sympathetic with low-income groups and has begun trying to prevent its own degradation instead. In the recent article The ominous silence of elites in the A2 weekly, Jaroslav Fiala and Lukáš Rychetský warn that Czechs are replacing the lost interclass solidarity with ethnic communion, defining themselves against other ethnic groups and searching for surrogate culprits for their problems.

Ethnicity matters

Nationality or ethnicity, unlike politics, can bring Czechs to the streets. During the nineteenth century, when demonstrations and public speeches were common, practically the entirety of public life played out against the backdrop of the Czech-German national conflict that continued into the First Republic. However, the Czech Germans were made to “disappear” from the Czech territories in 1945, and ever since, the Czech nation has been almost 100 percent homogeneous. The demonstrations linked to the separation of Czechoslovakia may be considered more political-national than purely national-ethnic. Moreover, they were more frequent in Slovakia than in Bohemia and Moravia.

Yet what unfailingly drives the Czechs into the streets is the conflict between the “whites” and the Roma. According to a recent poll of the Public Opinion Research Center (Centrum pro výzkum veřejného mínění), 87% of the population perceives relations between the Roma and the non-Roma majority as bad. In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that the frequency of racially charged unrest has significantly increased on both sides over the past two years.

The battlefields are typically smaller towns in northern or northwestern Bohemia. (It would surely be fitting to ponder the fact that similar rallies and racial intolerance are more frequently found in “uprooted” areas, i.e. domains that are still trying to come to terms with the departure of their traditional inhabitants, the Germans). However, this is not necessarily a rule; the latest clashes took place in České Budějovice, in the ever-prosperous southern Bohemian region.

The story is usually the same: the trigger is some criminal act which sets off an emotional response and neighbors’ retaliation, and then the conflict rolls through the entire city like a snowball. Other frustrations and animosities melt into it, and media attention is guaranteed. Like moth to a flame, it attracts extremist organizations which transfer the energy to their squads so that they can “settle” the problem with the culprits and “protect” the good citizens. This in turn provokes a reaction from their ideological adversaries, and a regular battlefield opens up.

The radicals, often the type that have been previously repeatedly sentenced for manifestations of Nazism and thus are quite accustomed to an occasional blow from the police, purposely search out clashes with the police or directly with Roma, while bystanders encourage them and express sympathy. They exploit the local conflict for the sake of their own visibility and reinforcement of the collective consciousness.

The government responds by hastily bolstering the security apparatus, and the conflict escalates until the mounting energy is discharged in a bloody skirmish. Afterwards, life returns to its usual routine and the animosity fuelled by poverty, lack of prospects and racial prejudices on both sides retreats for (just) a while. This is how the anti-Roma rallies ran in Nový Bydžov, where several hundred extremists, including members of the Workers’ Party of Social Justice (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti), came to protest a criminal act. Racially charged clashes have also taken place in Nový Bor, Rumburk and the entire Šluknov region.

A little town in the North

Most recently, at the end of May 2013, the little northern Bohemian town of Duchcov experienced a brutal assault on a young couple. The fact that this was a “white” couple and the aggressors were Roma shifted the case into the already familiar scenario.

The situation was further complicated by the incompetent approach of a city police officer who had observed the entire scene via the municipal safety monitoring system but, instead of immediately rushing off to the rescue of the attacked couple, dialed other policemen with a request to intervene.

This police mistake served only to reinforce the sense of helplessness and vulnerability which became the driving force of the demonstrations and the escalation of racial intolerance in all its dangerous forms: bullying of children in the streets, self-arming, group skirmishes and organised raids on residential areas.

Some associate the increasing frequency of these clashes with the worsening economic situation, closures of businesses and growing unemployment. “Force them to work” is a commonly heard theme. Yet how can you manage this when there simply is no work without crossing that thin line to setting up labor camps, like we did during the so-called Second Republic of 1938–1939? These circumstances decrease the prospects for Roma, whose rate of long-term unemployment is traditionally high, and at the same time intensify the sense of dissatisfaction among the still employed majority.

People seek a way to vent the kind of frustration that may be observed at big unions’ conventions, and they look for it among those within their reach. Latent racism – since very few openly admit to being racist – that would otherwise be ventilated “just” in verbal form rises to the surface through “legitimate” criticism of welfare abuse and unemployment.

The real culprit is difficult to find and thus it is easiest to blame anyone at hand – for instance, the neighbor without a job receiving benefits. Long-term unemployment is a stress factor on its own and, coupled with a sense of vulnerability arising from the apparent absence of security in your immediate vicinity, is something that makes you willing to take to the streets.

Parasites with matches

An important role in these conflicts is played by the media, who try to abide by the journalistic ethical code and – in line with Western standards – not stress ethnic origin in their description of criminal cases. This, however, exposes them to massive pressure from the silent majority – or rather, the commenting majority at the bottom of online articles.

This vox populi accuses the media, residing in stinking rich Prague and not having a clue about the real problems of the ordinary man, of embellishing reality, taking sides with the Roma, and “reverse racism”. The tabloids especially tend to respond to this appeal for “objectivity” and bravely “calling a spade a spade”, but quality papers, in their efforts to keep readership, are also increasingly following this trend.

Fiala and Rychetský therefore warn about the mainstreaming of racist opinions and the danger of creeping fascism. As the reputable media attempt to reflect popular opinion in order to save their print run and survive, so do the politicians from traditional parties. For example, in an interview for the Czech Position website, extremism expert Michal Mareš drew attention to the former Communist Party member and current representative of the Severočeši.cz movement Senator Jaroslav Doubrava, who, in his statements on how to resolve the situation, does not differ much from the extremists.

Mareš believes that there is a new phenomenon emerging – a gradual strengthening of the “majority consensus for radical solutions”. Politicians frequently act as accelerators, making matters worse. The rudest of them blame the Roma community for all the injustice and evil faced by society. The new ones that need to gain points fast, such as Senator Tomio Okamura’s “Dawn”, radicalise verbally and endorse categorical solutions that win them public support. According to Mareš, “the politicians from the established parties are failing utterly”. They either ignore the problem, broadly speak against neo-Nazis, or pass general judgments and make de facto racist statements.

Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.