Czechs mark 26 years of freedom and democracy

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK

People around the country marked the 26th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution amid heightened security on Tuesday. Overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in Paris and the migrant crisis in Europe the anniversary of the country’s return to democracy and European values took on new meaning in light of present day attitudes to migrants.

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK
The need to defend European values and the country’s policy towards migrants were prominently featured in speeches by the country’s top officials. Speaking at a memorial event honouring Czech students victims of a 1939 crack-down by the Nazis, Mr. Sobotka warned against the threat of radicalization of society, saying that fear of terrorists must not be turned against refugees. We must not be consumed by fear, we must defend our democratic and liberal values, including equality and tolerance, the prime minister said. At the same time the head of government said it was not possible to dismiss the fears of Czech citizens which needed to be answered with practical solutions to the current crisis, including the EU becoming more decisive and ensuring security on Schengen’s outer borders.

Laying a wreath at Prague’s Národní Trída, where the communist police brutally cracked down on a student demonstration 26 years ago, the prime minister warned against abusing the liberties acquired.

“We should enjoy the right of freedom of speech which we did not have 26 years ago, but we must refrain from abusing it to spread hatred and xenophobia, to spread views that lead to the suppression of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK
While the majority of politicians warned against hijacking the anniversary, many of the gatherings in Prague were anti-and pro- migrant rallies. While the pro-migrant demonstration called by the group Welcome refugees met at Namestí Miru, opponents of Islam gathered at Albertov, from where the student demonstration set off in 1989, in expectation of an appearance by President Miloš Zeman, who is known to be a radical critic of Islam and has repeatedly warned that Islamic migrants pose a threat to the country. While a year ago today Zeman’s opponents whistles and pelted him with eggs today the president was met with chants of “long live Zeman” his presence and his words giving weight to the anti- migrant camp. He said that after two occupations, the country should be free to make its own choices, rejected manipulation of the public by the media and assured the crowd that they were neither xenophobes nor racists.

Twenty-six years after the country re-embraced democracy there are calls from all sides for the country to defend democracy and European values. However there is little agreement on how this should be done. While some say the way forward is through openness and tolerance others say Europe must close its doors to the threat of Islam in order to preserve its values and identity. A poll indicating that 69 percent of Czechs are now wary of foreigners and consider many of them to be a problem suggests that Vaclav Havel’s spiritual legacy is under considerable strain.