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The rise of the anti-Havels

Nov 21,2015 - Last updated at Nov 21,2015

November 17 is an important date in the Czech Republic. It is a national holiday marking the start of the 1989 “Velvet Revolution”, which ended — smoothly and non-violently — more than four decades of hardline communist rule and soon propelled the country’s best-known proponent of human rights, the playwright Václav Havel, to the presidency.

This year’s commemoration was an insult to the revolution’s legacy.

To mark the anniversary, it is customary for the Czech president to speak at public gatherings.

Last year’s commemoration did not go well for President Miloš Zeman, who took office in 2013 after having earlier served as prime minister.

Zeman was pelted with eggs during his address, apparently in protest of his shifting statements on Russian activities in Ukraine.

Since then, he has also become notorious for episodes of public inebriation, for his opposition to gay rights, and for denying the role of human activities in causing climate change.

This year, Zeman seems to have found a way to elicit a more positive reaction.

Known for his opposition to the Czech Republic’s acceptance of refugees from the conflicts in the Middle East, he spoke at a rally organised — and held on the site where the Velvet Revolution began — by an anti-Muslim group called the “Bloc Against Islam”.

So far as anyone knows, refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are not trying to settle in the Czech Republic, and the number of asylum seekers from those countries is under a hundred.

No matter: Zeman took the opportunity to shore up his popularity by appealing to racist and xenophobic sentiments, telling several thousand listeners (separated by police from a large counter-demonstration) that they were not extremists.

Unfortunately, Zeman is not the only Central European leader attempting to exploit ethnic nationalism and antagonism towards minorities, which has become the dominant ideology in the region.

Neighbouring Slovakia, which was part of Czechoslovakia at the time of the Velvet Revolution, initially said it would accept just 200 Syrian refugees, and that all of them would have to be Christians.

Polish officials proposed a similar religious test.

Most international attention to those espousing such views has focused on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the razor-wire fences he has erected to prevent the refugees from reaching Germany, Sweden and a small number of other countries of Europe where they can anticipate a better reception.

Yet Zeman’s role — and that played by, for example, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico — suggests that Orbán stands out mainly for being the most visible, the most articulate, and perhaps the most effective public advocate of “illiberalism”, the term Orbán himself uses to characterise his xenophobia and disdain for universal human rights.

That is why these developments have been particularly dispiriting to many long-time proponents of such rights.

For us, the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 seemed to be among the greatest achievements for our cause. And to a large extent, that remains true: Czechs, Slovaks, Poles  and Hungarians — all citizens of the European Union — enjoy a degree of freedom unimaginable under communist rule.

Nonetheless, much that has happened in the last quarter-century has made it clear that we were excessively optimistic, and perhaps naïve, about the changes that would take place.

One example of the general public attitude towards rights is the continuing and even deepening mistreatment of the Roma minority, which has been particularly evident in the Czech Republic.

Havel’s stand for human rights — whether on behalf of unpopular minorities such as the Roma or unpopular former minorities such as the three million Sudeten Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II — helped to ensure that he was more celebrated internationally than at home.

Today, the Czech Republic’s reputation is suffering as a result.

Like it or not, the symbol of the country today is the demagogue Zeman, not the democrat Havel.


The writer, president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations, is a founder of Human Rights Watch. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

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