Czechs Back their Civil Society in the Spirit of 1989
A week after Germany commemorated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Czech Republic marks that of its Velvet Revolution. Thousands of Czechs are expected to gather this weekend for the largest protests since 1989, prompted by outrage over corruption and the lack of accountability of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. The demonstrations of recent months will culminate with 250,000 people gathering on Saturday in Prague and 167 smaller protests in almost every town.
The protests were sparked by the leak in May 2019 of two European Commission audits that revealed Babiš had channeled EU subsidies to Agrofert—the farming, chemicals, food, and media conglomerate owned by members of his family and confidantes of his. The prime minister is also accused in the audits of fraudulently obtaining €2 million in EU grants for a development owned by Agrofert. He denies the allegations.
Czech citizens are setting an example of engagement in public life despite smear campaigns by some political groups and attempts by Babiš to depict the protests and civil society organizations as fake movements sponsored from abroad. They are doing so not only by taking to the streets but also through their broad support for and donations to various civic groups. This is notable in the support for Milion Chvilek pro demokracii (A Million Moments for Democracy, MMD), which plays a leading role in organizing the protests.
"Babiš’s government has attempted to mimic Hungary’s push to curtail civic activity."
MMD, which describes itself as an association of citizens, started its campaign against Babiš earlier, however. In late 2017, after he assumed office, it published a manifesto demanding urgent action from him to protect the rule of law, freedom of speech, and other fundamental liberties. The manifesto demanded that Babiš prove he really cared about democracy, given that his Ano party positioned itself as right-wing populist and activists were suspicious that the new prime minister was going to undermine democratic freedoms. He ignored that initiative, but it is much harder for him to ignore 250,000 people taking to the streets in Prague, and thousands more in Brno, Ostrava, and other cities to demand his resignation.
Civil Society Accused
In recent years right-wing groups have accused the country’s civil society organizations of representing interests that wanted to harm the state. In the run-up to the October 2017 elections, many politicians and parties, including ANO, also insinuated that they were linked to mysterious foreign forces and acted against the country’s interests.
Babiš’s government has attempted to mimic Hungary’s push to curtail civic activity. Last year it proposed a CZK 3 billion (€11 million) cut in state support to civil society organizations, those focusing on social services and sports excepted. This would have left limited resources for advocacy groups, anti-corruption groups, and watchdog organizations. However, civil society managed to unite and work with the other parties in parliament to block this.
In May, Justice Minister Marie Benešova raised the question of who might stand behind the protesters and asked if they were financed from abroad. Babiš also started questioning the legitimacy of MMD and the protest movement. In a television interview in August, he said the protesters were paid by his political opponents.
According to MMD, however, the statement by the justice minister only led to a drastic increase in donations to the group. According to MMD’s data, the number of donations increased fivefold in May, from an average of 190 per month to 1,036, and then to 6,411 in June. It is likely that the release of the EU’s audits also fueled this increase, but people made explicit reference to Benešova’s statement in messages accompanying their donations—such as “We are all Soros. Keep up!” and “I just wanted to experience being a millionaire at least once in my life. Like Soros. And it feels good.”
A Resilient Legacy
The different accusations against civil society organizations may have contributed to a relatively low opinion of the civic sector in the Czech Republic. According to one survey, citizens’ trust in civil society organizations fell to 31 percent in 2017, compared to 39 in 2016. However, unlike in, say, Hungary or Romania, they also seem less receptive to propaganda depicting NGOs as agents of foreign influence. Czech’s level of trust in civil society organizations remains higher than in Hungary and Poland.
Several factors explain this. First, the political landscape is not dominated by any one political force. Babiš’s ANO managed to form only a minority government and the opposition is able to mobilize and cooperate effectively with civil society groups. Second, in the 1990s the Czech Republic designed strong institutions such as independent courts, functioning public consultative bodies, and well-protected media freedom—all of which protect civic space and democracy. And, last but not least, Czech society still has a vivid memory of the Velvet Revolution and its leaders, which are a reference point for current political developments. The ideas of the dissident and later president Václav Havel, who argued that a vibrant civil society was crucial for democracy, still influence public opinion.
"Many of those giving to MMD refer to Havel or just write “1989” to explain the reason for their donation."
Engagement with the civic sector is reflected in citizens willingness to give money to civil society organizations. According to the think tank Nadace Via, private donations (from physical and legal entities) to NGOs have been rising steadily, reaching CZK 8 billion (€310 million) in 2016, the highest level since 1989.
MMD’s funds stand at around €250,000, a sum many organizations are unable to reach even with the help of big donors. Its support base seems to consist of ordinary people. During the last year only five of its individual donations were larger than €1,000 and only 6 percent exceeded €200. The average donation was CZK 1,000 (€50)—an affordable contribution in a country where the average monthly income is €1,300. There were also many donations of CZK 50-100. Some contributions are made on a monthly basis. There is thus seemingly genuine popular support for MMD.
The spirit of the Velvet Revolution seems still to be alive among those giving money to civil society. Many of those giving to MMD refer to Havel or just write “1989” to explain the reason for their donation. Others transfer the symbolic sum of CZK 1,989. Thus, the living memory of 1989 may be an antidote against populist and authoritarian trends for many Czechs. The recent protests are also not the first occurrence of Czechs engaging in civic action against perceived undemocratic government actions in the spirit of the 1989 revolution. In 1998, mass protests were organized by the civic movement Děkuji odejít (Thank you, go away) to the government’s attempts to pass a bad electoral law.
The Czech Republic’s example of popular engagement in civic activism is encouraging at a time when civil society organizations in Central Europe are striving to find ways of engaging with the citizens on whom they depend in their fightback against populist governments. It could become an inspiration for neighboring countries to start building grassroots movements and involve the broader public in the fight for democratic freedoms.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.