Time for a New Liberation?

Demonstrators at a rally demanding the resignation of Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš, Prague, June 23, 2019
Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images
Demonstrators at a rally demanding the resignation of Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš, Prague, June 23, 2019

Prague, July 2019. I’m sitting with Ivan Havel in a cozy alcove of the Austro-Hungarian–themed Monarchie restaurant when Monika Pajerová arrives. A student leader in the Velvet Revolution and still bubbling with energy thirty years later, blond, bespectacled Monika takes a smartphone out of her handbag and scans the barcode on my bottle of mineral water. The phone buzzes and displays a green-ink caricature of Andrej Babiš, the agribusiness oligarch and former secret police informer who is now the Czech prime minister. Beneath his frowning face are the words “Bez Andreje” (loosely translatable as “does not contain Andrej”), indicating that this bottled water is not a product of any of his companies. “It’s all right,” says Monika, “you can drink it!”

A week earlier there had been a huge demonstration calling for Babiš’s resignation at the Letná park, the scene of the Velvet Revolution’s largest rally in November 1989. Some of the slogans (“Truth will prevail over lies,” “Resign!”), the high-flown civic sentiments, and quite a few of the people in the crowd were the same as thirty years earlier. But this one featured a rapper and a YouTube star, and it was led by a new generation of students in their twenties. Whereas then we shivered under freezing snow, now they baked in blazing sunshine.

Sporting a jaunty straw hat against the sun, one of the protest organizers, bearded theology student Benjamin Roll, declared:

We’re not making a revolution. We embrace the legacy and values of 1989 and want to further them by actively striving for a better future. But the situation is different. Now we are warning against change. We are warning against the course of change in our country under Babiš and [president Miloš] Zeman. We are warning against the taming of justice and the media, and the usurpation of power by a few oligarchs. We are warning against democracy being stealthily stolen away from us.

In front of him there was something of which in 1989 Václav Havel could only dream: a sea of citizens enthusiastically waving the yellow-and-blue flag of the European Union, to which the Czech Republic now belongs.

Stirring stuff. But why was mass protest still, or again, felt to be necessary? Why, thirty years to the day after the semi-free Polish election on June 4, 1989, which started the chain reaction of liberation from communism, was I standing in a crowd of middle-aged demonstrators who were chanting “Lech Wałęsa! Lech Wałęsa!,” while the now portly and white-haired hero of Solidarność stood on a stage in the old town quarter of Gdańsk? Why did the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, feel…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.