PRAGUE—An estimated 50,000 protesters rallied in Prague’s iconic Wenceslas Square in mid-May—the center of 1989’s Velvet Revolution and the earlier anti-communist revolt in 1968—amid rising fears that the Czech Republic could follow neighboring Hungary and Poland in sliding toward authoritarian rule. The mass protest marked a fourth week of growing demonstrations, kicked off by the surprise announcement on April 18 that an ally of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis would take over as the justice minister, just a day after Czech police had recommended that Babis be prosecuted for fraud.
The protesters worry that the previous justice minister, Jan Knezinek, was pushed out as the high-profile investigation into corruption allegations against Babis had wrapped up.
Protest leaders insist that the appointment of Marie Benesova as justice minister is a clear threat to judicial independence. She has previously expressed support for Babis’ claim that the investigation is a plot by his opponents among the “political elite.” Benesova is also a longtime confidante to President Milos Zeman, an outspoken populist suspected to have struck a power-sharing pact with Babis in order to extend his own influence.
Babis is accused of fraud over the mishandling of a 2 million euro ($2.2 million) subsidy from the European Union. Investigators also recommended charges against Babis’ wife and children, as well as senior officials from his populist Ano party, which the billionaire industrialist, who is worth an estimated $3.3 billion, established in 2011.
Liberal Czechs have raised the alarm, already wary of Babis’ growing political power on top of his economic might. “Frustration has been deepening, and I think people now understand this is a serious attack on democracy,” says Mikulas Minar, one of the student founders of the NGO organizing the protests, known as A Million Moments for Democracy, or Milion Chvilek. The group says it will continue to call people onto the streets until Benesova is dismissed. It is also demanding that the government guarantee that Pavel Zeman, the supreme state prosecutor currently deciding whether to lay criminal charges against Babis, will keep his job.
The protesters are not alone in worrying that Benesova could derail the case against the prime minister. The Czech union of judges has demanded an explanation for the unexpected resignation of Knezinek, and expressed concern over judicial independence and the rule of law.
While it didn’t stop him from becoming prime minister in 2017, the corruption allegations against Babis have handicapped his desire for more political power. His apparent attempt to quash the charges now threatens the Czech Republic’s democratic norms.
Babis denies the conclusions of both the Czech police and the EU’s anti-corruption agency, known as OLAF, that he hid the ownership of a farm and convention center, called Capi hnizdo, or Stork’s Nest, in order to tap into a 2 million euro small business grant from the EU.
As the new justice minister, Benesova now controls the state prosecution service. She insists she is no threat to the case. But given her close ties to Zeman, protesters suspect otherwise. And other scandals abound. Citing Babis’ conflicts of interest, Brussels has halted subsidy payouts to the conglomerate he founded, Agrofert Group, which has sucked up 230 million euros in EU funding since Ano first entered the government as a junior coalition partner in 2014. Babis technically transferred ownership of Agrofert to a trust to avoid conflicts of interest. Last year, his son, Andrej Babis Jr., claimed his father had him kidnapped in order to prevent him speaking to police about the Stork’s Nest case.
Although Ano’s support remains intact despite the scandals, Babis is trapped. Ano took 30 percent of the vote in 2017 as it added anti-migrant rhetoric to its original promises to destroy a political establishment rife with corruption. But the refusal of mainstream political parties to work alongside Ano, due to the potential criminal charges against Babis, left the billionaire heading a minority coalition that depends on informal support from the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party, or SPD, and the Communist Party, or KSCM.
The fact that the Czech judicial system is under threat is particularly worrying, given recent trends around Central Europe.
It also left Babis somewhat beholden to Zeman, who unlike some other presidents in Central Europe, seeks to be more than a figurehead. He has essentially carved out his own foreign policy agenda that is at odds with the government’s official pro-Western position, since it openly favors Russia and China. Domestically, the president must sign off on legislation and government appointments, but Zeman is also widely suspected of operating behind the scenes, apparently cutting a backroom deal with Babis that included orchestrating the support he needed from the far right and the communists to form his minority government. As the pressure has grown on Babis, the SPD and KSCM have been key in keeping opposition efforts to topple the coalition at bay. Last November, Babis narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament.
Babis has been defiant in the face of the growing demonstrations. His spokeswoman insisted to WPR that as the democratically elected prime minister, he has the right to make any Cabinet appointment. Yet as Babis’ position weakens, Zeman’s leverage grows, leading to concern over who is really calling the shots in Prague. That could be one of the protests’ unintended consequences: strengthening Zeman at Babis’ expense.
“At this point, there’s been no impact on support for Ano,” says Jiri Pehe, a political analyst who was an adviser to former President Vaclav Havel. “But if the protests continue to grow, we may well see it.”
Protest leaders insist it’s a necessary risk. “Zeman has nothing to lose,” says Benjamin Roll, another organizer of Milion Chvilek. “Babis is the weakest link in the chain, and that’s why it’s important to keep pressure on him.”
His colleague, Minar, says that the demonstrations will continue while their demands go unmet. But he claims that they have already achieved the main aim: “To let the government know it’s being watched.”
The fact that the judicial system is under threat is particularly worrying, given recent trends around Central Europe. The nationalist and populist governments in Hungary and Poland have both clashed with the EU over democratic norms and the rule of law, with judicial purges—or what those governments call reforms to the judicial system—front and center.
“Hungary and Poland show that the destruction of democracy starts with attacks on the judiciary,” says Minar. “The judiciary and media are the most vulnerable public institutions of democracy.”
Babis started his assault on Czech private media early in his political career, when he was a member of parliament and later finance minister, and bought up major newspapers and radio stations. So far, though, he has resisted calls from his extremist partners to nationalize public radio and television.
Babis’ slower progress in seizing such levers of power is the result of a political system that prevents the dominance of a single party, a safety catch lacking in Hungary and Poland. Czech institutions are also stronger than most in the region, which offer a better defense of democracy, says Pehe.
Babis’ widely recognized conflicts of interest may also, perversely, be of help. Agrofert holds assets across the European Union and is the biggest recipient of EU funding in the Czech Republic. “He can’t risk being seen as a potential dictator like Hungary’s Viktor Orban,” says Pehe. “He needs to be seen as pro-Western because of his business interests.”
But Benesova’s appointment is a clear warning to remain vigilant, Minar insists. “We’re wary of heading down the same path as Hungary and Poland. We want to do our best to prevent that, before it’s too late.”