100,000 Czechs in Prague: What did they say about NATO, Brussels and sanctions against Russia?

100,000 Czechs in Prague: What did they say about NATO, Brussels and sanctions against Russia?

On September 3, around 100,000 Czechs staged a massive demonstration in the central square of Prague. Two of the organizers were the Communist Party of Czech Republic and the Party for Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD). The demonstration brought together traditional left and right wing parties chanting “Withdraw from NATO”, “No to Brussels’ slave government” and “No to sanctions against Russia”. The trigger for the demonstration was the skyrocketing energy prices as a result of the sanctions against Russia.

We asked Czech military historian Lubomir Rybensky about the background of the demonstration in Prague, Czech relations with NATO and the European Union (EU), the demands of the people and possible future developments.

On September 3, a large demonstration took place in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. According to police figures, 70,000 people participated. Can you tell us about the motives for the demonstration?

First of all, let me note this: As you mentioned, the figure of 70,000 is the figure given by the police. They are trying to underestimate the number of participants. For example, the figure of 100,000 is a psychological threshold for the massiveness of a protest. According to independent media organizations, over 100,000 people participated in the demonstration. Wenceslas Square, where the demonstration took place, is a very big square and it connects large streets. All those streets were full of people.

An economy-focused demonstration

The demonstration was mainly focused on the economy. Because of the sanctions against Russia, energy prices have increased enormously. Let me explain this briefly. At the moment, the Czech Republic is transporting gas from the Netherlands. But there are two problems. This gas is not enough for the country and it is more expensive. Most of the gas coming into the Czech Republic still is supplied by Russia, just like for some other European countries. But there are intermediary countries and routes in between. Czech money goes to LNG, which is very expensive, and to intermediaries.

Increasing energy prices

A common complaint of all those who participated in the demonstration was the rise in energy prices. The increase affects people’s lives in many ways. First of all, it affects the bills that households are paying for heating. And this increase, as I said, is extraordinary. Compared to 10 months ago, the bill a household is spending for heating has increased 10 times. Secondly, the increase in energy prices means an increase in prices in all areas of life that operate with energy – with consequences for almost every aspect of life. Thirdly, many businesses and industrial organizations that could not cope with the increase went bankrupt or shut down. Bakeries, glass factories and steel industrial organizations. The shutdown of these organizations not only puts the country’s economy in difficulty but also increases unemployment.

‘Česká republika na 1. místě’ (Czech Republic in 1st Place)

Who organized the demonstration?

There is a broad spectrum calling for the demonstration. In terms of parties, the Communist Party of the Czech Republic and the Party for Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) were the main organizers. Apart from the parties, many intellectuals and public opinion leaders also called for the demonstration. Miroslav Sevchik is one of them. He is dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Economics in Prague. He is one of the country’s most respected economists and is currently harshly critical of the government for its sanctions against Russia.

The demonstration was called “Czech Republic in 1st Place” (Česká republika na 1. místě). This naming indicates the basis of the demonstration. Parties, intellectuals and people of different views, right-wing and left-wing ideologies came together. “Czech Republic at the First Place” means opposing the policies that NATO and the EU want from the Czech Republic. It means that the Czech Republic should implement policies that are for the Czech Republic.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said that the protesters were “communists” and “Russophiles”. Yes, there were communists, there was the Communist Party, but there were tens of thousands of people who were not communists also in the demonstration. As for “Russophiles”, if refusing to pursue a policy hostile to Russia and continuing to import gas directly from Russia is “Russophiles”, then yes, it was a Russophiles demonstration.

You mentioned the economic motives for the demonstration. On the political dimension, there seem to be two themes. One is the Czech Republic’s relations with NATO and the EU, and the other is the criticism against the government. We can start with the first one.

NATO’s expansion and the war

The background to the demonstration is the war in Ukraine. The reason for the war in Ukraine is that NATO wants to expand eastwards, towards the Russian border. There would be no war if NATO did not expand. NATO promised in the early 1990s that it would not do that, but it has not kept its promises. A significant part of the Czech population is aware of NATO’s role in the war.

As you know, NATO and EU countries are imposing sanctions on Russia. The people participating in the demonstration are asking: Why are we obeying NATO and the EU and not buying gas directly from Russia and so getting poorer? At the same time, the Czech government is providing financial and arms aid to Ukraine, which is a burden on the country’s budget. The Czech people want to support the refugees from Ukraine and indeed they do. But why are we taking sides in this war by arming Ukraine? This is the question.

The highlights of speeches in the demonstration

A lectern was set up at the demonstration and speeches were made there. The following points were emphasized:

1) The current government is not behaving like the government of the Czech Republic, but like the government of Ukraine.

2) This war is between Russia and NATO. By siding with NATO and being hostile to Russia, the Czech Republic is not gaining, but rather losing.

3) The Czech Republic should not be governed by Brussels. “Our government is a slave of Brussels,” said Miroslav Sevcik, the economist I mentioned earlier.

This is a good reflection of the views of a significant part of Czechs.

You said that the demonstration asked the question “Why are we being harmed by siding with NATO?”. Can you explain the relationship between the Czech Republic and NATO? What is NATO really costing the Czech Republic?

In 1999, The Czech Republic did not join NATO as a result of a referendum. The government decided and said “we are joining” and we did. So we cannot say that the joining NATO was a public choice.

The impact of NATO on Czech military and economy

I do research in the field of military history and I will give a few examples from that. Before joining NATO, the Czech Republic was producing one of the most effective aircraft in the world, the L-39, on its own. After joining NATO, the production of a plane called L-159 started. Although the Czech Republic produces the aircraft, the radar and engine are of US origin. Now Czech Republic wants to sell these planes to other countries but cannot. Why? The US says ‘the plane has my radar and engine and you are not allowed to’.

From 1918, from the time of its founding as an independent state, to 1990 Czech Republic was always among the top five countries in the world in terms of arms exports. This was one of the reasons why the Nazi armies invaded Czechoslovakia. After joining NATO, the Czech Republic lost its infrastructure in this area. It has been attempted to subordinate the Czech defense structure to NATO, and to some extent, this has succeeded.

Of course, the Czech Republic’s self-sufficiency suffered not only in the military but also in the economic sphere. Czech Republic was one of the world’s leading countries in the production of automobiles and locomotives. For example, the truck manufacturer company Tatra was a major company doing business all over the world. The US purchased this company and completely destroyed it.

Apart from that, Czech soldiers served under NATO in Afghanistan and Iraq. What are Czechs doing in Afghanistan? What are they doing in Iraq? Not only me, but also many Czechs are questioning this.

For the Czech Republic, historical memory also plays a role. In World War 2, when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the whole of Europe, France, Britain and the US, remained silent. This is why there is a widespread reluctance to ensure the country’s defense by joining an alliance. In the Russia-NATO confrontation, this reluctance fosters a neutral stance, not an alignment with NATO. Of course, as reflected in the demonstration, there are also those clearly in favor of withdrawing from NATO, notably the Communist Party and the SPD, which are among the organizers of the demonstration.

You said that the speeches at the demonstration emphasized that “Czech Republic should not be governed by Brussels”. Could you elaborate on this? Is the Czech Republic governed from Brussels?

Czech Republic and Brussels: A government more Catholic than the Pope

The Czech government is more catholic than the pope when it comes to Brussels.

Let me explain the near-term reason for this emphasis in the speeches. During the Soviet period, two atomic power plants were built in the Czech Republic. These are very powerful plants. They produce more electricity than the Czech Republic needs. What would you expect in a normal case? A country would consume what it needs and then export the excess. But this is not the case. The Czech Republic is selling all the electricity it generates from these plants and then repurchasing it. The problem is, of course, that it purchases more expensive than it sells. The European Energy Exchange, based in Leipzig, sets the prices in this market. Two steel mills in the Ostrava region of the country have recently closed because of high electricity prices. In other words, Brussels is making the Czech Republic do things that are against the Czech Republic itself.

Another example is the European Greendeal. As a result of the accords within the scope of the agreement, every workplace has to get a permit from Brussels for the amount of emissions it generates. You pay money to Brussels per unit of emission. Brussels neutralizes your emissions by planting trees with this money. Many businesses have closed down because of their payments to Brussels. Of course production should be environmentally friendly. But why should the Czech Republic accept accords that cause significant damage to the economy at Brussels’ behest?

We talked about the NATO and EU dimensions. Of course, while talking about these, we also covered some points where the demonstration stood against the government. If you wish, I would like to elaborate a little bit more on this now. How do you make sense of such a strong opposition to the government?

In addition to all these backgrounds and reasons I mentioned, we should determine that the demonstration was directed against the government. This was the common feeling of the protesters.

Dependence on NATO and the EU

The government’s dependence on NATO and the EU is now reflected on the public in the form of increasing energy prices. So this is the area where the reaction is taking place. NATO’s war and sanctions are boosting gas prices; dependence on the European Energy Exchange is causing the Czech Republic to repurchase its own electricity more expensively; the restrictions of Brussels’ European Green Deal put obstacles in the way of production. However, it would not be accurate to claim that the link between the former and the latter has been fully established in all parts of the society. In some quarters consciousness is stronger, while in others purely economic problems have triggered mobilization.

First of all, the government has done nothing against rising energy prices. The representatives of the government only told people to “use less gas” and “put on thicker coats”. They did not formulate any kind of policy.

The Communist Party won 50.7 percent of the vote in the debate

There is a striking example of how discredited the government has become since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. About two weeks ago there was a debate on a television program about the economic problems and the war in Ukraine. The participants in the discussion were: Vit Rakusan, Minister of the Interior; Markéta Pekarová Adamová, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and leader of the Tradition Responsibility Prosperity Party (TOP); Michal Šmarda, leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party; Marian Jurecka, leader of the Christian-Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party KDU-ČSL; Robert Schlachta, leader of the Prisaha movement; and Kateřina Konečná, leader of the Czech Communist Party.

In the debate, Kateřina Konečná, leader of the Communist Party of the Czech Republic, argued that Russia should not be sanctioned and that the Czech Republic should import gas directly from Russia. She also blamed NATO for the war and said that the Czech Republic should not supply arms to Ukraine. At the end of the debate, she was by far the winner of the popular vote via SMS, with 50.7 percent of the vote. The Interior Minister received only 7.1 percent. This result is quite normal, because the government has no other answer to the economic problems than to say “put on thicker coats”.

The day after the debate, CNN chose not to show the 50.7 percent of the vote that Kateřina Konečná, the leader of the Czech Communist Party, received by cropping the picture of the screen.

The end of ‘Put on Thicker Coats’ policy

What have been the impacts of the demonstration and what can come next?

This demonstration was very very important. If there had been no demonstration, the government would have continued on its way, turning a blind eye to the problems. Their only policy was “we will fight Putin to the end”. 

This is how Czech politics works in general. The government does not pay attention to what the people say, but then there comes a huge outcry from the people and the government is forced to change its policy. This demonstration will lead to such a change, or at least keep the possibility of such a change open.

After the demonstration, government officials announced two new plans. First, in addition to the gas pipeline from the Netherlands, which I have already said is not enough for the country, they said they would build another pipeline from one station each in Poland and Lithuania. But this will take months or even years to be operational. So it is not something that will have an effect on the coming period. The second plan is to fix a maximum price for gas and electricity for this winter. This second plan is, of course, better than nothing. We will see if it works. But as long as the Czech Republic does not purchase gas directly from Russia, prices will remain high.

Şafak Erdem

Şafak Erdem was born in Istanbul in 1993. He completed primary and secondary school in Istanbul, then studied philosophy and sociology as an undergraduate at Boğaziçi University. He is currently doing a master's degree in philosophy.

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September 2023