On 7 December 2014, a banner with the words “Here resides Putin’s puppet” crowned the highest point of the President’s Administration in Prague – St. Vitus Cathedral. The arrow pointed to the office of Miloš Zeman, the Czech President that has recently been a reason for many protests. Though this protest is not just about Zeman, but also Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is to come to Prague in January 2015 to the celebration of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was Zeman who invited him. “We think it is inadmissible. Zeman demonstrates such pro-Russian and pro-Putin behavious that we feel that our President is a puppet of Putin,” Otakar van Gemund, translator and activist , told Euromaidan Press. “Zeman has started to shamelessly support Putin by putting into question very reliable evidence from NATO that Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine, by publicly saying that he rather believes Lavrov than NATO, that the war in Ukraine is a civil war, that the best way forward for Ukraine would be finlandisation etc.”
According to Mr. van Gemund, Zeman has caused dissatisfaction not only with his policy regarding Ukraine: “Another thing we consider very dangerous is that in defiance of the Czech constitution he is in essence having his own foreign policy. The constitution says that the president, though directly voted in office by the people, is a representative figure, since the government is responsible before the parliament. We want Zeman to step down, which he probably will not do, and we certainly want him to revoke his invitation of Putin in January.”
It is very dangerous if politicians in the West support Putin and his authoritarian policies – it can lead to the disintegration of the EU and NATO and as a consequence to the end of freedom and democracy in the West. If we are not strong and united in our support for Ukraine, western democratic principles, and each and every member of NATO, Putin will continue moving westward and take what he can get his hands on.
Activist groups that share this vision have formed a coalition called Kaputin. Its participants include the groups Prague Maidan, oMEN, and Pointless Waiting.
“We set up Kaputin by the end of May this year because we could no longer bear watching from the sidelines how Ukraine is being occupied, invaded, subjected to war, terror and bloodshed and the West is doing nothing. We wanted to draw the attention of the public to this grave and dangerous situation and ignite a discussion ij Czech society and beyond. At the time this was almost a taboo issue. People seemed paralised either by fear or sheer unwillingness to realise the gravity of the situation. Now at least it is part of the political discourse,” explains Otakar.
At first Kaputin started by organizing demonstrations in front of the Russian embassy or the French embassy, protesting against the Mistral deal. Soon the activists found that this was not effective, as it hardly triggered any reaction. They searched for more original ways to attract attention of the public and the media. One example of actions is the Prague Maidan. This community has set up a permanent weekend protest that will continue every weekend until Crimea is returned to its rightful owner. It organizes petitions and events with guests from Ukraine, Russia and Czech intellectual and cultural circles. Right now they are gathering signatures for Zeman to resign. 10 000 are needed; right now they have half.
Another group, oMEN, has taken to exposing the naked truth, similar to its namesake, the famous women’s group FEMEN. Exposing the naked truth takes considerable stamina in the Prague winter – on December 10 the day temperature was a chilly 3°C. oMEN is a direct action group that for example disrupted a press conference by the Czech prime minister Sobotka by showing the flags of NATO and the EU and bearing male chests with political messages. The deliberately provocative actions draw lots of media attention, and they aren’t favored by the police. Watch the video here.
Pointess waiting is yet another ingenious way of peacefully expressing an opinion: each Thursday, a group of Ukrainian, Czech, Russian, and Dutch protesters pointlessly wait for “victims of Putin’s Russia” at the Prague Airport holding placards displaying their names: Anna Politkovskaya, Flight MH17, Pussy Riot, Natalya Khusainovna Estemirova, Ekaterina Khomenko, Nadezhda Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, Volodymyr Rybak, Reshat Ametov, Eston Kohver, and Oleksiy and Iryna Tyshchuk. The protest is dedicated to an impending ban of the Memorial human rights organization in Russia.
Other remarkable and creative protests have marked the Czech Republic’s political life in recent months.
On 17 November 2014, tens of thousands of Czechs took to the streets of Prague as they showed Zeman the red card on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution of 1989. They demanded Zeman’s resignation:
“Mr. Miloš Zeman,Even though you received the confidence of a majority of the electorate and promised to unite the land, do this with respect and exemplify the appropriate responsibility, you have betrayed your function and do not represent the citizens of this country at the level appropriate to the office.Your errors have accumulated and are serious. You are doing a bad job.You are not living up to your promise, your office is not representing what it should, you are not safeguarding our statehood, you are not taking care to nurture our moral values, and you do not protect our nation’s honor. Last but not least, you do not unite but rather divide the nation.Therefore, we have decided to reject you and to do so publicly.Please consider your actions and tender your resignation.
Public opinion surveys have revealed that Zeman´s popularity is going down, and that 67% of Czechs view Putin negatively and very worried by the present international situation.
Even earlier, the Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev shamed Zeman for his words about Crimea from billboards on the streets of Prague (this was actually a Euromaidan Press graphic that got avidly shared in internet until it got printed in Prague):
Translation: “I was imprisoned for 3 years after publicly opposing the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. And today, the Czech president asks me to accept the Russian annexation of Crimea...” Mustafa Dzhemilev, a soviet dissident and Crimean Tatar leader renowned for his human rights activity, was arrested six times for his anti-Soviet activities, including public criticism of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. After Russia illegally annexed Crimea following a sham referendum, Zeman had said in an interview to the Czech radio that the EU should accept the fact that Crimea is now part of Russia. The Soviet invasion of 1968 isn’t the only historical parallel that can be drawn with regard to the annexation of Crimea. The Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, among other politicians, has compared the Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula to Hitler’s invasion of Sudetenland, a part of former Czechoslovakia, in 1938.
Zeman’s support for Putin has raised concerns for consequences of allying with a state that is too often compared to Hitler’s Germany that go way beyond Ukraine: “It is very dangerous if politicians in the West support Putin and his authoritarian policies – moreover, Zeman is also supporting the Chinese dictatorship – it can lead to the disintegration of the EU and NATO and as a consequence to the end of freedom and democracy in the West. If we are not strong and united in our support for Ukraine, western democratic principles, and each and every member of NATO, Putin will continue moving westward and take what he can get his hands on. Moreover, it will be an impetus for antidemocratic movements and parties from both the extreme left and the extreme right to bury democracy,” Mr. van Gemund commented to Euromaidan Press.