Last weekend, on 16 November 2019, dissatisfied citizens gathered for large-scale demonstrations all over the Czech Republic, demanding the resignation of the sitting Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a billionaire involved in multiple corruption scandals. The biggest demonstration took place in Prague, where about 300 000 people took to the streets. As a part of the Forum Solidarity Group’s mission, the Russian activists Evgenia Kulakova (St. Petersburg Memorial) and Miroslav Mishinov (Movement of Сonscientious Objectors to Military Service, St. Petersburg) came to observe how the Czech citizens exercise their right to peaceful assembly. Read Evgenia and Miroslav’s account on how the biggest protest in the Czech Republic since the Velvet Revolution unfolded.
Regardless of its declared anti-government agenda, the demonstration in the Czech capital outwardly resembled a city celebration or a concert – with big screens and quality sound, people coming with their families and groups of friends, with their pets. A huge amount of people walked around with Czech flags, others had brought their own homemade posters. The police was practically invisible; no one was regulating the enormous flows of people, which were independently spreading out according to sectors that had been announced on beforehand.
The programme was carefully planned, and the demonstration programme was strictly following the timing announced in the beginning. The speeches were accompanied by slides on screens, and there was a sign-language interpretation. Everyone was carefully listening to the speakers, actively reacting to emotional points and jokes and singing along. After the demonstration was over, many did not leave, but stayed with their groups to drink a beer together or simply to chat. With the loud music that was turned on after the demonstration, it looked more like a city Saturday party.
According to the organisers, the demonstration in Prague gathered around 300 000 people, while in total, the Czechs went to the streets in thirty countries and sixty-three cities. The demonstration was timed to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, and that date resonated in all speeches. A participant from those days – Václav Malý, now bishop of Prague, was the first to speak. Like most of the other participants of the demonstration, Malý cited the words of Václav Havel. Over the course of two hours, politicians, representatives of the regions, farmers, activists and former dissidents spoke in front of the protesters. The Musician Jaroslav Hutka closed the event – in 1989, directly after the Velvet Revolution, he returned to the Czech Republic from his forced exile. The protesters sang along to the same song that Hutka had sung back then, thirty years ago. Many were lighting candles.
For an observer from Russia, the first thing that surprises you on such a demonstration is primarily the lack of strengthened police control: there were no special vehicles, no fighters in uniforms. Only single groups of walking patrol police officers who were not paying any special attention to protesters. Taking into account the topic of the protest– demanding the resignation of the Czech Republic’s sitting Prime Minister, who is blamed for corruption – if was difficult not to think of the Russian protests “Don’t Call Him ‘Dimon’”, to which there were openly harsh reactions from the side of the police.
In Russia, if a group of people want to go to a demonstration and express their protest, it seems that the police deliberately perceives such people as criminals: significant forces are flocking to the places where the events are taking place – fighters from OMON (the Special Purpose Mobile Unit), detention vehicles, policemen and personnel from the National Guard armed with helms, body armour and batons. Often that whole machinery of state violence is set in motion, as was the case with the “Don’t Call Him ‘Dimon’” demonstration. During the protests in Prague, there were neither attempts to hinder citizens from gathering, nor any arrests or violence. And it is then no wonder that the demonstration went by peacefully; people gathered in an orderly fashion, expressed their opinion and left the place just as organised as they came.
Miroslav Mishinov is a human rights activist as well as a coordinator of the Movement of conscientious objectors to military service.
Evgenia Kulakova is an activist of the Saint Petersburg branch of Memorial, a coordinator of the Saint Petersburg group of the “Last Address” project as well as a participant of “Rupression”, a campaign in support of anarchist political prisoners.