World / Politics

Czech protesters pressure Babis on anniversary of 1989 Velvet Revolution

AP, AFP-JIJI

About a quarter of a million Czechs gathered Saturday on the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which brought an end to decades of communist rule, to give Prime Minister Andrej Babis an ultimatum: Sell your business or quit your job.

Protesters from across the Czech Republic attended the demonstration, the second massive protest opposing Babis at Letna Park, the scene of massive gatherings in 1989 that greatly contributed to the fall of communism.

Police estimated some 250,000 people attended the demonstration.

The demonstrators see the populist billionaire and pro-Russian President Milos Zeman, his ally, as threats to democracy. They have given Babis a deadline of Dec. 31 to get rid of his business and media empire or resign.

“We won’t give up until you’re gone,” said Mikulas Minar, a student who put his studies on hold to lead a group called Million Moments for Democracy, which organizes the demonstrations against Babis.

Babis was required to transfer ownership of his businesses, which include a conglomerate of 250 companies and two major newspapers, to two trust funds in February 2017.

But his critics, including Transparency International, say he still maintains control. A preliminary European Union report leaked to media concluded the same, saying Babis is in a position to influence the EU subsidies companies receive.

Babis denies wrongdoing and says there is no reason for him to resign. “It’s great that people can express their view and nobody persecutes and attacks them,” Babis said.

Over 250,000 were at the previous rally at the same place in June, which was considered the biggest anti-government protest since the end of communism.

“Resign, resign,” the crowd chanted Saturday, facing a banner on the big stage that read, “We want healthy democracy.”

Babis also faces allegations that he collaborated with Czechoslovakia’s secret police before 1989, and has been criticized for his government’s power-sharing deal he signed July 10 last year that gave the Communist Party a role in governing for the first time since the Velvet Revolution.

On Nov. 17, 1989, police brutally crushed a march by students, sparking a student strike and the creation of an opposition movement that then negotiated the Communist Party’s departure from politics.

In late December of that year, Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia, which went on to peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The neighbors joined NATO and the EU, with Bratislava also joining the eurozone in 2009.

The communists are not part of the minority coalition government of Babis’ centrist ANO movement and the left-leaning Social Democrats but enabled the government’s creation by supporting it in a confidence vote.

Babis’ movement won the parliamentary election in October 2017, but his first minority government lost a vote of confidence in January 2018 and had to resign. Zeman asked him to form a government again.

“I’m here because I consider Babis and Zeman an evil,” said Zbynek Fiedler, who traveled 350 kilometers from the eastern city of Ostrava with friends. “They destroy our society,” the 68-year-old pensioner said.

The organizers are set to announce a new wave of protests on Jan. 7 if Babis does not meet their demands.