In recent months, we have seen anti-government protests growing in both frequency and size in the Czech Republic. What is it that draws increasing numbers of people to these demonstrations? Is this a new phenomenon, or are the crowds composed exclusively of individuals who had been radicalized in earlier periods? Why is it that they are taking to the streets now, and not a year – or five years – ago? Is there even such a thing as a tradition of radical anti-government resistance in the Czech Republic?
In early September 2022, the Czech public was taken by surprise when a large demonstration took place at Prague’s central Wenceslas Square. Police estimated that up to 70,000 attended this protest, organized by people whose names were mostly unfamiliar until then. The target was government policy, specifically with regard to growing prices, which had soared due to the increase in energy costs. Many other topics were brought up at the demonstration, however, criticizing the government’s steps in a range of areas. The protest was followed by other events similar in timbre, which occurred with some frequency until the end of the year and which organizers claim should continue in 2023 as well. While none of the subsequent demonstrations managed to attract quite as many participants as the first one, the warning this sent to the government and the general public was quite unambiguous.
What, then, was the real nature of these events last autumn? To answer this question, we must look all the way back to the early 1990s and examine the emergence of radical movements in Czech politics.
The formation of extreme political forces
The fall of communism in 1989 opened the doors to many new forms of political engagement, including those on the fringes of the spectrum. It seemed that most of Czech society was happy with the direction the country took after 1989. The economic transformation and our society’s transition from communist totalitarianism to liberal democracy resonated in the media, and the majority of Czech citizens appeared to have accepted it. On close examination, however, it becomes clear that this was never completely true. This is a reality that was consistently overlooked for a number of historical reasons. Election results show this clearly: from the very moment democratic Czechoslovakia (and after its division, the Czech Republic) emerged, the Communist Party was always represented in the Parliament, usually gaining between 10-12 % of the vote and sometimes even more – in 2002, the communists got a full 18 % of the votes. Until 1998, Miroslav Sládek’s Republican Party was also represented in the Parliament, winning 6 % and 8 % of the votes in the 1992 and 1996 elections, respectively. Together, these two extreme political parties had the support of around 20 % of all voters. In this case, then, the term “extreme” means “far from the mainstream” in terms of their political views, but not in terms of the level of support they won.
We can, therefore, say that throughout the 1990s, at least 20 % of the population disagreed with the direction in which the country was heading and rejected the political transition, at least in this specific form. This situation changed in 1998, when Sládek’s Republicans failed to make the cutoff, falling out of Parliament, though the Communist Party’s support was still stable. At that point, the far right disappeared from Czech electoral politics, as if confirming the notion that the majority really did accept the country’s political transition to liberal democracy. From today’s point of view, however, it seems that at that moment, a segment of the population lost the only political party they could identify with and use to express their dissatisfaction with the current regime as such.
Extremism around the skinhead subculture
Did this development mean the elimination of radical currents from Czech politics? The simple answer is no. Unlike in Western Europe, the core of the Czech extreme right in this period started to form around the skinhead subculture, which for the next almost 15 years played a key role on the far right, as well as being the main antisystem force overall. This, on the one hand, introduced open admiration of Nazism and crude violence into the public arena, while on the other hand closing that space to many “ordinary” people with dissenting attitudes who opposed either open Nazism, physical violence, or both. At the same time, the Interior Ministry’s and police’s anti-radicalization efforts focused on the groups which had emerged from the subculture, practically equating radicalism and extremism with the skinhead subculture. Organizations which parted with the skinhead image, on the other hand, were often overlooked by the police, especially if they refrained from using physical and verbal violence.
This situation lasted until around 2013, when the last of the organizations originating from the skinhead scene (National Resistance, Autonomous Nationalists) fell apart. That same year marked the founding of Tomio Okamura’s “Dawn of Direct Democracy” (Úsvit přímé demokracie Tomia Okamury), a far-right populist party which entered Parliament after the 2013 elections. The following year, we see the emergence of anti-Islam movements, and “Dawn” itself becomes an anti-Islam party.
The transformation of the extremist scene
What caused this transformation? There are several distinct reasons for it. We have already touched upon the first one: the emergence of a new political party, acceptable to a much wider segment of the public with more or less antisystem views, who did not resonate with open neo-Nazism, refusing to be associated with it. The somewhat similar political parties which had existed in the past were always connected to openly extremist groups. “Dawn”, as well as its spinoff named “Freedom and Direct Democracy” (Svoboda a přímá demokracie), emphasized populism over radicalism, verbally distanced itself from racism and antisemitism, and invoked the tradition of nationalism as well as a combination of conservative and social agendas.
The second turning point was the transformation of the global far right, which occurred after the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center. Following the shift in the international situation, far-right movements went through a certain reformatting of their axioms, which enabled them to legitimize their views and transform their public image in a way that was more acceptable to the public. Open racism and antisemitism were replaced with anti-Islamism, nationalism with Euroscepticism, and calls for authoritarian, even totalitarian forms of government receded in favor of calls for “direct democracy”. Far-right movements which failed to undergo this rebranding were gradually sidelined and replaced by groups which managed to adjust their image to the new environment.
The third key fact is that in the last 15 years, the Czech Republic, and Europe as a whole, has suffered several different, relatively deep crises, all of which have contributed to the erosion of pro-democratic attitudes. The first of these was the “Great Depression” of 2008. In the Czech context, this meant a new synergy between extreme right groups and the skinhead subculture, which culminated in several attempted pogroms in North Bohemia, a region long known for the tensions between its majority population and the Roma minority. This crisis was smoothly followed by the 2009 Greek crisis, followed in 2014 by the Ukraine crisis. In 2015, the migration crisis hit all of Europe in a dramatic way, strongly accelerating the boom of anti-Islam groups as well as the disinformation scene. The proliferation of disinformation and the extent of its power were fully revealed in the 2016 Brexit referendum and in Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election later that year. In 2018, the Yellow Vests movement empowered radical antisystem protests in France as well as in Europe at large. In 2019, massive protests in Hong Kong followed, only to be overshadowed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic towards the end of the year; the pandemic hit Europe in full force in 2020. Before we could recover from it, the Russian invasion of Ukraine came in February 2022 and continues to this day. Some of these events were international in character, others were more local, but all of them added to the erosion of faith in democracy and its values.
A new era of radicalization in the Czech Republic
The three circumstances described above resulted in a new situation, one quite different from what the Czech Republic had known so far. The worldwide transformation of the far right after September 11 gave more power to far-right (or originally far-right) political parties, gradually legitimizing their views: Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, became a legitimate part of French politics, as did Matteo Salvini’s Lega (formerly Lega Nord) in Italy. Moreover, the 2015 migration crisis brought forward completely new political subjects – ones not connected with neo-Nazi groups and led by different types of figures than the earlier extremist parties, such as Martin Konvička, a university professor.
One other important phenomenon emerged from the migration crisis: the rise of disinformation. At first the anti-Islam movement focused on circulating negatively- charged information about Islam and some of its problematic aspects; over time, the Czech disinformation scene started picking up various, often completely fake narratives from Western Europe. A major part of the current disinformation scene originated there. Its establishment was helped substantially by the absence of public denouncements or challenges to the fake narratives – on the contrary, most of the established political parties actually adopted this anti-immigration and often even expressly anti-Islam rhetoric. President Miloš Zeman himself supported Martin Konvička in 2015 when they appeared onstage together during a public event on November 17 (Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day), thus giving the anti-Islam and disinformation narratives further legitimacy. The anti-Islam movement as such disintegrated on its own around 2017, but most of the websites and online groups which were central to it remained active and eventually started propagating new information. The unifying theme was their utter distrust in established political parties, an aversion towards the European Union, and increasing hatred of Western European liberalism and liberal democracy in general. More impactful than most of the newly-established websites was the transformation of Parlamentní listy, a tabloid portal that is not (despite its name) connected to the Czech Parliament, into a platform that gives room to many individuals from the anti-Islam and disinformation scene. Over time, Parlamentní listy became a prominent promoter of these narratives, the reach and importance of which was incomparably larger than most of the other disinformation portals. Betting on the fact that the Czech Republic, a post-communist country, harbors a very deep animosity towards any kind of attempt to limit freedom of expression even if it concerns disinformation websites, Parlamentní listy became disinformation’s flagship.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
This scene underwent another deep transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which dramatically increased receptiveness towards disinformation in some segments of the population, whether regarding the nature of the pandemic as such or the government’s response to it. At the same time, some groups which until then had been separate, distinct and unsynchronized began to connect and intertwine: namely the so-called disinformation scene (which had in the meantime swallowed most of the remnants of the far right) and the groups collectively referred to as “anti-vax”, i.e., opponents of vaccination who are often distrustful of western medicine as a whole. Global conspiracy theories, which are characteristic of the far right, started to seep through the disinformation world and merge with anti-vax narratives claiming that vaccination impacts the human body. A substantial portion of the population – those most heavily impacted by pandemic restrictions – was mobilized: underprivileged groups, as well as workers from specific industries such as hospitality, were especially deeply hit by these measures, and their frustration was manifested in the dramatic increase in the reach of many disinformation groups and organizations. Some of these people left the world of disinformation after the end of the COVID-19 restrictions, but some stayed, fully adopting its main narrative frameworks. Their criticism was aimed at western science, but also increasingly at European-style liberal democracy, turning sometimes more and sometimes less openly to the authoritarian figure of Vladimir Putin as its counterpoint and taking conservative, Orthodox, anti-LGBT Russia as a model in some sense.
The war in Ukraine
Just as COVID-19 was winding down towards the end of 2021, early in 2022 another very dramatic crisis hit Europe: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This stunned the disinformation world into several weeks of complete silence – partly because most of Czech society’s reaction was so overwhelmingly pro-Ukrainian. After the initial shock, however, the world of disinformation rolled out a gradually-intensifying, strictly pro-Russian narrative around the conflict, unleashing a wide repertoire of attacks against the European Union, individual European governments, the USA and NATO. The deteriorating economic situation, continuing inflation, and the war-induced rise in energy costs all played into the hands of the burgeoning disinformation scene. We can only speculate on the extent to which Russia has contributed directly to the current polarization and radicalization of Czech society; there are no exact ways to measure its impact. It is clear, however, that it is Russia who most benefits from this situation. At the same time, this degree of radicalization would not have been possible without certain key moments in our own history or without the discontent prevalent in part of the population, which has its roots as far back as the 1990s and was exacerbated first by the growing pressure from the anti-Islam movement, starting in 2001, and then by the worsening economic (and political) situation since 2008.
Overlooking dissatisfied citizens and their economic hardships leads to radicalization
If our goal is to decipher the past few months’ events in the Czech Republic and figure out where the anti-government protestors are coming from, we can say one thing with certainty: the current situation is the result of several missteps from the past. Firstly, it was a mistake to overlook discontented citizens in the 1990s, seeing as they constituted around 20 % of all voters. Second, there was the public acceptance of disinformation during the migration crisis, the legitimization of disinformation on the part of established political parties, and society’s resulting inability to shield itself from disinformation narratives. The third problem was the government’s failure to attend to the rapidly declining economic situation for part of the population during the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, there was the government’s weak communication with the public during the fall of 2022, when it failed to calm citizens worried about the steep hike in energy costs. Each of these mistakes has a specific meaning and impact. Put together, however, they all led to a swelling of the dissatisfied group of citizens who distrust the political system to such an extent that it leaves them wanting to overturn it completely. These people have been disinformation’s target audience for pragmatic reasons (such as ad revenues corresponding to reader numbers, which bring profits to the websites’ owners) as well as geo-strategic ones, since a large part of the Czech disinformation scene is heavily pro-Russian. From this perspective, it does not matter much whether these disinformation activities are directly commissioned by Russia or rather based on their propagators’ own interpretation of the world – either way, the result is the increasing polarization and radicalization to which the political mainstream has yet to adequately respond.