As the leisurely spirit brought on by summer tapers off, the prospect of a grim winter is filling the vacuum. A citizenry, groaning under towering inflation and spiraling energy bills, is now hitting the streets in protest; blaming their leaders, they demand a rapid change of course.
A first major indication that malcontent is brewing within Europe is the ‘Czechia First’ demonstration that occurred in Prague.
Last Saturday, an estimated 70,000 (out of a total population of almost 11 million) passed through the Czech capital. Brought together through a rare alliance of populist right parties ‘Freedom’ and the ‘Direct Democratic Party’ (which both demand a NATO as well as an EU exit) and leftist political groups including the Communist party, they demanded military neutrality for Czechia and that gas contracts be renegotiated with Russia.
The demonstrators also criticized the EU’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reach climate neutrality, as per UN diktat.
The participants, who gathered at Wenceslas Square in the city center, included some carrying signs decrying the government’s continued commitment to Ukraine in the form of sanctions on Russia. The slogan “this is not our war” was shouted regularly. Ever since Russia’s invasion in February, the Czech Republic has given financial and military aid to Ukraine, and has taken in large swathes of Ukrainian refugees.
“The aim of our demonstration is to demand change, mainly in solving the issue of energy prices, especially electricity and gas, which will destroy our economy this autumn,” event co-organizer Jiri Havel, a former vice prime minister of the Czech Republic, told iDNES.cz.
According to police, the demonstration remained peaceful, and presented no “serious problems.”
Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who leads the center-right, five-party coalition which only the day before had survived a no-confidence vote amid opposition claims that inflation and energy prices were insufficiently handled, is blaming pro-Russian forces.
“It is clear that Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns repeatedly appear on our territory and that someone is simply succumbing to them,” Fiala said, noting that these are “close to extreme positions and against the interests of the Czech Republic.”
Martin Kuba (ODS, ECR), governor of the South Bohemian region, and part of Fiala’s coalition, however, advised reflection. Czechia’s political class, he said, should “look at what is driving people” to such protests. Speaking to CNN Prima News, he warned that “if the government ignores it, there may be a problem.”
Earlier, the government had promised to commit a total of 177 billion koruna (€7.25 billion) in state aid to alleviate the economic pressure on its citizenry, making up 3% of the country’s economic output. That package would include pension increases, pay hikes for state workers and 66 billion koruna in energy subsidies.
Yet this might not prove enough, as Czech inflation rises to its highest level since 1993; it is currently among the steepest in the entire eurozone, and expected to peak around 20% in the coming months.
The Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, has called for an emergency meeting this Friday at which the bloc’s energy ministers will attempt to blunt the severity of an energy crisis which, according to risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft, could bring about major social unrest coming winter.
While some variance in grievances is observable, anti-government demonstrations are popping up all across Europe; two occurred in Germany’s Cologne and France’s Paris over the week-end.
Under leftist party Die Linke’s prompting, on Monday protesters in Berlin and Leipzig held the first in a series of planned ‘Monday protests.’ They call for negotiations with Russia, so that its gas will flow into the country once more.
Last Sunday, thousands of Dutch marched through their capital of Amsterdam in protest against their government’s Agenda 2030-inspired policies. Carrying inverted Dutch flags (a symbol of the Dutch farmers’ protest against the reduction of nitrogen) they oppose the government’s handling of immigration, COVID, as well as the energy crisis.
After a video out of Naples went viral, Italians across the country have since taken to collective burnings of their energy bills.
A recent poll conducted by YouGov arrived at the conclusion that the sense of grievance among Europeans is so high that social unrest might become an unpleasant reality in the near future. Should one take statements such as those by Czechia’s Petr Fiala at face value, all who participate in such demonstrations could soon be deemed ‘proxies of Russia.’ After that, that frightening leap to ‘enemies of the state’ beckons. All too easy a temptation for any political class under real stress, as history sadly teaches.