Fury over cost of living and involvement in Ukraine is spilling onto the streets
Yesterday afternoon, tens of thousands of Czechs gathered in Prague calling for the resignation of the government and a “180-degree turn” in the country’s foreign policy.
An earlier anti-government demonstration attended by 70,000 people at the start of September shocked the region, and yesterday’s protest saw Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square fill up again. Protestors want the country to get out of the war in Ukraine, citing government policy as the main cause of a looming economic crash.
Like last time, this protest will almost certainly be portrayed by the media as overtly “pro-Russian”. But the reality is more complex — and perhaps even more troubling for the West.
The predominant feeling expressed by people I spoke to at the protest was frustration: frustration at a government which they feel is putting international interests above their own, and frustration about the disdain with which politicians and the media treat their concerns. “We just want the government to go, because they don’t work for us and they don’t know what they’re doing,” said one man. “We want a government that cares about us.”
Indeed, for the first hour or so Ukraine was hardly mentioned. Speakers mostly focused on the cost-of-living crisis, with one listing price increases for potatoes, eggs and other everyday items. Nonetheless, the war was ever present through a group of pro-Ukraine counter-demonstrators standing at the top of the square.
And if there was one overriding concern, it was not support for Russia, but loathing for the western international order. Many flags and placards called for exit from the EU and NATO; others included calls to “stop censorship” and “stop green poverty.” One attendee said the goal is for the Czech Republic “to leave NATO and stop serving American interests.”
When the war in Ukraine was mentioned, it was usually with vaguely neutral calls for peace. One speaker chanted “peace and love” while releasing a dove into the cold autumn air.
But there was also anger. These protestors have been described by the Czech prime minister as members of a Russian “fifth column”, and it’s claimed that known pro-Russia figures were present at their previous demonstration. An organiser told the crowd that they are being called “pro-Russian cockroaches,” saying “we’re not cockroaches, we’re people, we’re Czechs”. He called for the Czech Republic to “have friends in both the West and the East” — although, given proposals including a referendum on buying cheap gas from Russia, friendship with Ukraine is clearly not a priority.
The difficulty in assessing the protest lies in the impossibility of separating scepticism of the West — a feature present in large parts of Czech society before the war — from specific attitudes to Ukraine and Russia. The protest encompassed various demographics — young and old, city-based and rural — and it clearly attracted people with a wide range of political views (one speaker shouted that the EU “supports fascists” and that “whoever supports fascists is a fascist”) too.
But the protests also raise vital questions. Is popular discontent over the cost-of-living crisis being cynically weaponised by pro-Russia forces? And is it inherently “pro-Russia” to call for peace? The Czech establishment would likely answer “yes” to both questions. But such simplistic portrayals will only further alienate disenchanted groups who, trapped by international circumstances beyond their control, long for a retreat into national self-interest.