Cost of living protesters clash with police; austerity measures cause discontent
Austerity measures unveiled
On 11th May 2023, the Czech government unveiled an austerity package that will raise taxes for individuals and companies, introduce layoffs and lower wages in the public sector, and increase prices on goods. The five ruling coalition parties unanimously approved the package, aiming to save 94 billion CZK (around EUR 4 billion) in 2023, and “turn around the negative trend established by previous populist governments”. In order to cut costs further, the government also presented plans for a radical overhaul of the pension system, which is set to raise the retirement age and curb pension hikes. The Czech Republic is currently facing high inflation, drug shortages and high energy prices, which sparked protests in 2022 calling for sanctions against Russia to be dropped.
Czechia sanctions Russian bishop
In April 2023, Czechia used its “Magnitsky Act” for the first time since passing it the previous year to sanction Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has publicly blessed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kirill, whose civil name is Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundayev, is now banned from entering the Czech Republic or from accessing any of his assets or funds in the country. The act is modelled after a United States policy authorising sanctions against those deemed to be involved in gross human rights violations or significant corruption, and allows Prague to sanction individuals the EU has not. The move is seen as an indirect reprimand of Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had objected to the bishop’s inclusion in the European Commission’s sixth sanctions package in 2022.
Government should “spare no effort” to address Roma inequality
Following her five-day visit to the Czech Republic in February 2023, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights noted the government should be doing much more to ensure equality for Romani people and people with disabilities. The Commissioner found that Roma, one of the largest minorities in Europe, are continually discriminated against in Czech society, despite some positive developments over the past two decades. Specifically, Romani children still lack equal access to education, Romani-Ukrainians encounter discrimination when applying for asylum, and Romani women who were victims of forced sterilisation have not been provided with an effective compensation mechanism.
Civil society group fined for not registering as a “third party”
In March 2023, the organisation A Million Moments for Democracy was fined 40,000 CZK (around EUR 1600) by the Czech authority that oversees political movements and parties, for failing to register as a “third party” while leading a presidential election campaign. The organisation disputes the authority’s reasoning, stating their campaign was simply advocating for a democratic candidate as president, which is integral to their mission. The association has paid the fine but continues to fight the decision in court.
Cost of living protesters clash with police, attempt to tear down Ukrainian flag
On 16th April 2023, thousands of people gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest the rising cost of living in the Czech Republic. Held under the slogan “Czechia Against Poverty”, this protest was the second in a series after one on 11th March 2023. The demonstrations followed the centre-right ruling coalition’s 1st March 2023 decision to pass a bill capping pension increases at half the usual rate due this June and tightening requirements for early retirement. In order to push the bill through against the opposition’s desires, the government called a state of legislative emergency, which allowed the amendments to be adopted in a shortened process. President Petr Pavel signed the bill into law on 16th March 2023, citing the public finance deficit as a justification.
The protesters’ demands included calls for Prime Minister Petr Fiala to resign, as well as for Czechia to end its support for Ukraine and implement a more generous welfare policy. Speakers at the protest described financial aid to Ukraine in its defence against Russia as “robbing pensioners to pay for weapons.” Czechia recently pledged to provide between 25 to 29 million EUR in military aid to Kyiv and has been a major per capita donor to Ukraine since the start of the invasion. Protest attendees also circulated a petition calling for the country to resign from NATO. Critics have described the protests as pro-Russian and accused protest leaders of disseminating Kremlin narratives. The organisers, the non-parliamentary political party PRO, deny the accusation.
During the 11th March 2023 rally, protesters clashed with police when they attempted to tear down a Ukrainian flag from a pole on top of Prague’s iconic National Museum. According to Balkan Insight, twenty people were arrested and three police officers were injured.
Thousands of people are rallying again in the Czech capital to protest high inflation and demand the government’s resignation. It was the second such rally at Prague’s Wenceslas Square after one on March 11 organized by a new political party known as PRO. https://t.co/kqz6WtX1iC— The Associated Press (@AP) April 16, 2023
Backlash against university professor over participation in protest
On 24th May 2023, the Ethics Committee at Prague’s University of Economics and Business (VŠE) ruled that Miroslav Ševčík, who is the dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University, violated the university’s code of ethics. Ševčík came under fire due to his participation in the cost of living protest, which many view as pro-Russian, and being implicated in the effort to remove the Ukrainian flag from the National Museum on 11th March 2023. Previously, on 5th April 2023, the Academic Senate of the Faculty decided to prevent Ševčík’s removal, despite students organising a protest calling for his resignation.
Unions protest austerity measures, pension cuts
In protest at the planned austerity package, the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions declared a strike alert on 15th May 2023. The unions say the proposed measures place an unfair burden on pensioners, employees and families. After a meeting with union leaders, Prime Minister Petr Fiala said he will not water down his austerity package despite the threat of a strike, denouncing their actions as “irresponsible” in the face of the country’s growing deficit. Alongside the austerity package, the government unveiled a new pension system on 11th May 2023 that foresees changes to the way the retirement age, now capped at 65, is calculated. Earlier, on 29th March 2023, hundreds of trade unionists protested in Prague against the government’s plans to increase the pension age to 68, as well as the EU’s proposed “Euro 7” standard for vehicle emissions, which some warn would result in higher car prices and loss of manufacturing jobs. The protest was organised by KOVO, Czechia’s largest union.
Academics and school workers demand better pay
In April 2023, Czech academics working in the arts, humanities and social sciences presented a petition with 4,000 signatures to the Ministry of Education, demanding better wages and more research funding. This follows a nationwide demonstration called the “Hour of Truth Initiative” which took place on 28th March 2023, also known as Czechia’s Teachers’ Day, aiming to highlight what some call “the chronic underfunding of the humanities.” That same day, the Czech and Moravian Trade Union of Workers in Education called for a salary increase for school employees to 130 percent of the country's average gross wage. The union expressed concerns that the government may prioritise budget cuts over the proposed raise, leading to an exodus of young teachers from the education sector. While the ruling coalition intends to raise salaries for teachers only, the union demands the same percentage increase for all employees in the education sector and has threatened a strike if those demands are not met. A number of trade unions, including the Medical Union, have also demanded at least a 5% increase in public sector salaries in 2023 in view of the high inflation.
Protest in Prague against energy poverty
On 15th April 2023, approximately 200 people assembled in Prague's city centre to protest against energy poverty and unaffordable housing. The protesters demanded the introduction of rent caps, the implementation of a socially-oriented energy tariff to aid vulnerable communities, and increased support for low-income households in obtaining building insulation. During the event, speakers criticised energy companies, which continue to amass profits while many struggle to cover their energy expenses. The protest was led by a number of environmental and social organisations and initiatives, including Greenpeace, the Rainbow Movement, Fridays for Future, and the Platform for Social Housing, as the culmination of their collaborative campaign titled "Energy for the People." No altercations were reported.
Anti-abortion protest clashes with counter-protesters
On 15th April 2023, around 1,500 anti-abortion protesters gathered for a march in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, led by the Catholic organisation Movement for Life. Police intervened when several dozen counter-protesters who support the right to abortion attempted to obstruct the demonstration.
Environmental activists call for speed limits in Prague
On 10th March 2023, activists marched down a Prague highway demanding the city administration reduce the speed limit to 30 km/h. The protest was one in a series of marches organised by the Last Generation Initiative, arguing for measures already implemented in European capitals like Paris and Brussels, which they claim increase safety and reduce harmful emissions. Following talks with the activists on 16th March 2023, Prague’s mayor, Bohuslav Svoboda, stated that speed limits would be decided on by individual districts, but that City Hall would propose creating a new commissioner position to address traffic issues at the city level.
Thousands rally for Ukraine on war anniversary
On 26th February 2023, a rally and concert were held in Prague, attracting a crowd of thousands who gathered to express their support for Ukraine on the anniversary of the Russian invasion. The rally featured prominent speakers, including newly elected president Petr Pavel. Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees who have sought shelter in Czechia took part in the event, as well as a number of Russians who oppose the war. The rally was organised by the Ukrainian Embassy, civic associations A Million Moments for Democracy, Memory of the Nation and the Gift for Putin initiative.
Activists demand expropriation of Russian oligarch’s property
On 17th May 2023, activists from the Kaputin group rallied in Prague to demand the expropriation and sale of an apartment building belonging to the family of Boris Obnosov, a prominent Russian arms manufacturer. The protesters called for profits from the sale to be used to support Ukraine and urged the Czech government to consistently impose sanctions on oligarchs associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Je nehorázné, že rodina vydělávající na teroristických raketách může v Praze nerušeně podnikat a užívat si.— Kaputin! (@Kaputin_Off) May 17, 2023
Chceme, aby policie konala, aby politici konali a aby majetky pocházející z teroristické činnosti byly zabaveny a poslány Ukrajině jako válečná reparace."
📷 Kyslik pic.twitter.com/EehH9HkFq1
Media commissioner fired
On 15th February 2023, the coalition government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala fired Michal Klíma, media commissioner at the head of Fiala’s long-announced charge against disinformation. Political analysts suspect that powerful oligarchs who own major media outlets in Czechia may have toppled the government’s plan to strengthen media independence. With Klíma’s firing, the media commissioner position has now been dissolved, despite its introduction being a major campaign promise of Fiala’s.
Czechia and others call on Facebook to act against disinformation
In March 2023, Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s office released a letter demanding major tech companies act to fight the spread of disinformation on their platforms. In addition to Fiala, the letter was signed by leaders of seven other Central and Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It calls for social media platforms, including Facebook, to reject payments from sanctioned individuals and to alter their algorithms to prioritise accuracy over engagement. The governments claim “foreign information manipulation and interference” is being used to weaken their democracies and “derail Moldova’s and Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.” Since the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022, Czechia has charged 67 people for speech deemed to be endorsing Russian aggression, primarily on social media.
Government to raise licence fees for TV and radio
In a bid to further strengthen public finances, the government announced its proposal for an increase in radio and TV license fees on 19th May 2023. Around three million Czech citizens own a radio or TV licence, respectively, and will now have to pay 15 CZK (or EUR 0.63) more per month in fees for each. Per the proposal, around 600,000 people who access public media content on their smartphones and tablets would also need to pay for a licence. Despite widespread discontent around rising living costs in Czechia, press freedom advocates support this move as an opportunity for greater independence and financial security for public media, resulting in higher-quality output.
At the same time, Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s cabinet unveiled a plan to raise VAT on newspapers from ten to 21%. EU Commissioner Vera Jourova warned against the increase, as governments in other parts of Europe have moved to slash VAT rates on print media in an attempt to fight misinformation. Fiala has dismissed these concerns, stating in an interview that people can access information online and through public broadcasters, “so there is no threat of disaster”. Analysts have noted that this tax hike would most impact the oligarchs who have bought up Czech newspapers in recent years.
Media ownership legislation delayed
In mid-May 2023, the Czech lower house once again postponed their discussion on a proposal to strengthen the ban on politicians’ media ownership, with the debate now scheduled for mid-June. According to media reports, this was due to obstruction from the opposition ANO party, which requested a recess until the end of the session. The party's leader, Andrej Babiš, holds a substantial stake in the media market, and as such is directly impacted by the proposed amendments. The bill under consideration aims to clarify the existing legislation that prohibits public officials from owning or publishing media. Namely, the ban would now apply to the ultimate owner of the outlet, preventing politicians from circumventing the rules by hiding their assets in trust funds, as Babiš has reportedly done. In a survey released on 24th April 2023 by The Committee for Editorial Independence, Czech respondents stated they view media owners and business interests as the primary threat to press freedom.
Restrictions on TikTok use
In mid-March 2023, following a warning by the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NÚKIB), Czech ministries, state agencies and private businesses introduced restrictions on their employees' use of the Chinese social media app TikTok during working hours. Additionally, the Office of the Government has terminated its TikTok account. NÚKIB has expressed concerns about the national security risks associated with the app, echoing similar warnings issued in the United States last year.
EU fines Czechia for not implementing whistle-blower protections
In March 2023, the Czech Republic was issued a 54 million CZK fine (around EUR 288 million) by the European Commission for delaying the implementation of EU rules to protect whistle-blowers who speak out on corruption and other illegal activities. The Directive on the protection of people reporting breaches of European Union law came into effect in December 2019, and member states were given a two-year deadline to pass national legislation bringing their countries’ legal frameworks up to EU standards. Apart from Czechia, the Commission has also taken action against Germany, Estonia, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, Hungary and Poland for not complying with the directive.
New Czech President demands stronger stance on LGBTQI+ lawsuit
President Petr Pavel was sworn into office as the Czech Republic’s fourth president on 9th March 2023, and quickly got to work on his pro-Western agenda. At a Brussels press conference on 21st April 2023, Pavel pressed the Czech government to join 15 other EU states in supporting the EU Commission’s lawsuit against Hungary’s anti-LGBTQI+ laws. Pavel also demanded the government take steps to adopt the Istanbul Convention against domestic violence, something it wants to delay for a year — even though Czechia signed the treaty in 2016, the cabinet has yet to send it to the parliament for ratification. Commentators are concerned these and other recent statements from Pavel have revealed rifts within the centre-right coalition that helped unseat populist billionaire Andrej Babiš as Prime Minister.
Draft law aims to end sterilisation requirement for gender transition
At a press conference on 30th March 2023, ahead of the International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV), the Justice Ministry announced a draft law that would remove the obligation for trans people to undergo surgery in order to legally change their gender. The Czech Republic is one of the few EU countries to still require the total surgical removal of sexual glands as a precondition for changing one’s gender identifier in official registries, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights declaring this to be a violation of the right to private life. If this new law is passed by parliament, a personal statement and medical recommendation will be sufficient for trans people in the country to legally transition.
🇨🇿 Czech lawmakers have launched a proposal to remove the sterilisation requirement for legal gender transition.— Openly 🏳️🌈 (@Openly) May 5, 2023
🏳️⚧️ The Czech Republic is one of the few EU countries to continue to require a sterilisation procedure before a trans person can legally change their gender. pic.twitter.com/2AJle4Lg7z
Evangelical Church moves to bless same-sex unions
In May 2023, The Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, announced its pastors can now bless same-sex unions. Since the church is divided on the matter, the decision has been left up to individual ministers. The Evangelical Church is the second in the Czech Republic to approve same-sex unions, after the Old Catholic Church (not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church) did so in 2022.