Jan Charvát: Many of today’s protesters first took to streets during Covid

With prices rising fast – and a vocal minority against the country’s support for Ukraine – some are concerned that tensions in Czech society could intensify this winter. A large “Czech Republic first” demonstration on Prague’s Wenceslas Square early last month fanned those fears, though a subsequent protest drew smaller numbers to the streets. What can we expect in this regard in the coming months? That’s just one of the questions I put to Charles University extremism expert Jan Charvát when we spoke last week.

What led you to this whole field of extremism? How did you get into it in the first place?

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“I have to say there were a couple of reasons.

“I am a child of the ‘90s. For me an interest in politics was very natural – and especially questions of, let’s say, freedom and the limits of freedom.

“The second reason was an interest in subcultures.

“And the third one: Well, my younger brother was beaten up in the ‘90s by a gang of skinheads.

“I think that was the last push which made me the one who started studying what these people are, what are they doing, why are they doing it.

“And when I started with the issue of extremism, it was a very marginal question in the Czech Republic. Today it’s completely different.”

When you mentioned the ‘90s, my first thought was skinheads. I was here in the ‘90s and I remember you would see a little group of skinheads in every small town you would go to; often they were quite young. What happened to all the skinheads? Where are they now?

“‘Where have all these bootboys gone?’

“The skinhead subculture in the Czech Republic started in the late ‘80s.

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“That was even before the band Orlík, but the influence of this band, with Daniel Landa, in the early ‘90s was definitely one of the main reasons for the boom of the skinhead movement.

“Most of the skinheads in the Czech Republic, even in the ‘80s, were somehow tied with racism, and probably with the far right.

“All of these groups started in 1993, like the Patriotic Front and Bohemia Hammer skinheads, created one part of the far right in the Czech Republic.

“During the ‘90s you could be involved in the politics, and then you would go for the Republican Party of Miroslav Sládek.

“Or you could be involved in the violence, let’s say, or the image, and you would go for the skinheads.

“But in 1998 the Republicans fell out of the Parliament. And from that moment until, let’s say, 2013 we see that the main structures of the far right in the Czech Republic were made up of skinhead or ex-skinhead groups.

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“But this ends in around 2013 with the last group that came from this skinhead milieu, the Autonomous Nationalists, who wanted to change their approach.

“They said, We don’t want to be a subculture any more.

“The roots of this group are in Germany, and it was the same situation.

“The German Autonomous Nationalists said, You know what, we are National Socialists, we are racists, but we see that the young people, the young generation is not involved in skinhead subculture – you don’t want to be a skinhead, you don’t want to shave your head, you don’t want to have army boots, it’s nonsense, let’s do it in a more progressive way.

“So in 2013 when the Autonomous Nationalist project collapsed, all the organisational structures of the far-right subculture came to an end.

“After 2015 the shape of the Czech far right started to be very similar to the shape of the far right in the West.”

“That doesn’t mean that the racist skinheads disappeared. But there are very few of them and they are completely marginal, if you are talking about the far right.

“So after 2015, when we see the rise of these, let’s say, anti-Islamist groups the positon and the shape of the Czech far right started to be very similar to the shape of the far right in the West.”

If we can jump forward to the present. You’re an expert on extremism in Czechia. Given the circumstances – the energy prices, very high inflation in general, the war in Ukraine – what have you been seeing recently, what kind of trends?

“I see mobilization. It’s mobilization which is verbally against the government.

“But the thing which is not on the front place of the mobilization, let’s say, but I believe is the main idea, is stopping support for Ukraine.

“I don’t like these terms when people are talking about the pro-Russian scene or pro-Russian cockroaches or anything like that.

“In this mobilization I probably won’t be surprised if we find out in the future that there really was the touch of Russia.”

“I believe that a lot of these people who are seen as part of the pro-Russian scene are doing what they are doing because they believe, really, and they are not paid in any way by the Russians.

“But in this mobilization I probably won’t be surprised if we find out in the future that there really was the touch of Russia.

“Because in these demonstrations that we saw during the last month the aggression, the ability of many, very different groups to cooperate – all these things are a bit different from the past.

“So it seems there is some external factor, and I believe that it could be, probably, the influence of Russia.”

Prime Minister Petr Fiala was criticised for saying that the demonstration on Wenceslas Square early last month was organised by a “Russian fifth column”. Many critics said that he was ignoring the frustration of ordinary Czechs who are feeling price pressures. Was he right to do what he did?

“If you are talking about what he said exactly, he was right.

Petr Fiala | Photo: archive of the Office of Czech Government

“Because we can call the people who organised that event pro-Russians.

“The problem was that what he said could be very easily rebranded to say, Mr. Fiala is speaking about all the people who came there. This is a mistake.

“I was at the second demonstration and it was mentioned many times: Mr. Fiala is talking about all of you, saying all of you are pro-Russians.

“And when we talked with these people I think that almost everyone said, We are not pro-Russians, we are not any cockroaches, we are humans – we are just nationalists or patriots.”

Should the so-called “voice of Václávak [Wenceslas Sq.]” be listened to? Do these people deserve all the attention they’re getting, if it’s 70,000 people or 20,000 people or whatever? Do they deserve the amount of attention they have been getting?

“Both of these demonstrations are a signal.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“It’s a signal for the government, and not just for the government – also for the media, for the liberal part of society – that there are people who are not satisfied with the situation in the Czech Republic and they are here and they will stay here, we have somehow to work with them.

“And I believe that we didn’t do this in the past.

“I believe that the government is getting these signals, but we will see in the future what they will do.”

Practically what can government do to combat this kind of radicalization? Or is it already a kind of lost fight?

“I think that for the people who came to Wenceslas Square, it is a lost fight – they don’t believe the government any more.

“But I also believe that there are a lot of people who are not on the streets but are in a very similar situation as the people who came.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“I mean, how many people lost their voices during the elections? There were one million votes [for parties who failed to make the cut-off] ‘under the table’.

“And not all of them voted for extreme parties. The Social Democrats are not extremists.

“So we know that there are a lot of people who are angry.

“And I believe that what we need to do is to calm these people down – or at least try it.

“Because if there is 10,000, 20,000, 70,000 people on Václavák, it’s not very good, but it’s not trouble.

“But if there will be half a million people, it will be a problem.”

How are the opposition parties in parliament responding to the situation? For example, at the first demonstration, the big one on Václavák at the beginning of September, no opposition parties were represented. But at the second one, when there were also demonstrations in other cities, Okamura spoke in Ostrava.

“When we were talking to people on Wenceslas Sq, most of them told us they voted for Okamura, but they don’t believe him.”

“It’s a little a bit difficult situation for Freedom and Direct Democracy and Tomio Okamura, because on one hand he sees angry people – and he works with angry people.

“He needs angry people, because they normally vote for him.

“When we were talking to people on Wenceslas Square, most of them told us that they voted for Okamura, but they don’t believe him. They don’t believe that he thinks the same way as them.”

So they think he’s like a fake radical?

“Yes, fake is probably the best word.

“So they will vote for him, if there will be no-one else.

“If there will be a new party, a new group – the PRO of Mr. [Jindřich] Rajchl is at least trying to capitalise on these demonstrations – it will be probably be a problem for Tomio Okamura.

Tomio Okamura | Photo: Luboš Vedral,  Czech Radio

“On one hand, he wants to attract all the people on the streets, let’s say, but on the other hand he needs to somehow push the organisers away.

“And this is what we saw when he made his own demonstration at Ostrava.

“Even for Freedom and Direct Democracy that’s a little bit of a problem, because the whole sense of these demonstrations is really very pro-Russian.

“And Okamura doesn’t want to… you know, if you are a populist leader, it’s difficult for you if you have to choose one position.

“You want to be able to make a little dance between the terms, so to be definitely tied with the pro-Russian scene is not a good way for him.

“That’s the reason why he made his own demonstration. But he used the same iconography. If you see the website, you believe that all these demonstrations are from the same organisers.”

That’s what I thought – I thought it was the same.

“Yes, because it looks like that.

“So this is seen by the organisers of the first and the second demonstration as back-stabbing from Okamura.”

What about the main opposition party, ANO?

“For ANO, I think we see that even Andrej Babiš sees these people as ones vote who should for him, especially during the presidential elections.

Andrej Babiš | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“I believe we see from the summer that Babiš is targeting these people and is talking for them.

“He’s talking about our support for Ukraine, which should be less – because ‘we need to feed our own people’.

“So again, it’s a very similar position to Tomio Okamura.

“Well, there is a difference: Andrej Babiš knows that he is not depending on these people – but he wants to work with them, for the presidential election.”

It feels like today things are going to get worse before they get better in terms of prices and many other things. What kind of winter can we expect, do you think, in Czechia in terms of radicalisation, or even violence?

“Yes, ‘Winter is coming’.

“On one hand it’s difficult to say what we really will see.

“But generally I believe that people will be angrier, there will probably be more demonstrations.

“But there are a lot of things which could happen.

“One thing is the prices, and I believe that prices will still be high, or rising.

“The second thing is Covid. We don’t know what will happen with the Covid pandemic.

“If it comes again, again we will see the demonstrations. A lot of people – not all of them, but a majority – told us that they started to go to demonstrations during Covid, so it means they were mobilised or radicalised during the Covid pandemic.

“The third moment is the war in Ukraine. Right now it seems that Ukraine is… maybe not winning, but definitely in a better position than the Russians, though it could change, of course.

“So all together I think there are a lot of moments which could increase the anger.”

I have one final question. I’m curious, what do you feel as a citizen if you are on Wenceslas Square and you see people wearing Putin T-shirts?

Photo: Valery Tenevoy,  Unsplash

“Well, I think there are two kinds of people who wear these kinds of T-shirts.

“One kind are those who feel themselves weak and they see Putin as a strong man and they hope that they get some strength from him.

“And the second are the ones who want to provoke you. It’s a provocation.”

They’re trolls.

“Yes, that’s a better word right now – they are trolling you.

“Because they know that you hate him or you fear him.”

But what’s your personal feeling when you see them?

“I don’t like it.”

Me neither!

“[Laughs] Well, the people I saw with these T-shirts remind me of the skinheads from the ‘90s.

“It’s a very similar way to work with a T-shirt.

“T-shirts with Adolf Hitler, T-shirts with Rudolf Hess or any white power band are very similar in the way they look to  these T-shirts with Vladimir Putin.”