70,000 Czechs take to the streets against government, EU and NATO

Around 70,000 demonstrators demand new gas deal with Russia and end to sanctions over war in Ukraine

The Czech Republic is facing an autumn of discontent after an estimated 70,000 demonstrators gathered in Prague to protest at soaring energy bills and demand an end to sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

Far-right and extreme-left elements coalesced at a “Czech Republic First” rally to call for a new agreement with Moscow over gas supplies and a halt to the sending of arms to Ukraine, while urging the centre-right government of the prime minister, Petr Fiala, to resign.

The demonstration in Wenceslas Square – historically a site of mass dissent in the Czech capital, Prague – appeared to spell an end to a relatively placid period of domestic politics since Fiala took office last December.

His five-party coalition had on Friday survived a parliamentary confidence vote, triggered by the opposition, which accuses the government of being unable to deal with rising domestic fuel bills and bring under control an inflation rate that has surged to 18%, among the highest in the EU.

The rally, part-organised by the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) and the rump Communist party that once ruled the former Czechoslovakia, featured calls for military neutrality and complaints over the arrival of Ukrainian refugees. About 400,000 have been granted residence in the Czech Republic since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Alongside banners bearing slogans such as “The best for Ukrainians and two jumpers for us”, Zuzana Majerová Zahradníková of the hard-right, anti-EU Trikolora party told protesters: “Fiala’s government may be Ukrainian, it may be Brussels, but it is definitely not Czech.”

Some demonstrators wore T-shirts praising the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, while others carried banners voicing anti-EU and anti-Nato sentiment. The Czech Republic has been among the western alliance’s staunchest supporters of Ukraine.

Organisers have vowed to stage further rallies, with another planned for the symbolic date of 28 September, Czech state day, unless the government resigns by 25 September.

Fiala, the leader of the Civic Democratic party (ODS) and a former politics professor, dismissed the demonstration as extremist and fuelled by Russian propaganda.

He said: “The protest on Wenceslas Square was called by forces that are pro-Russian, are close to extreme positions and are against the interests of the Czech Republic. It is clear that Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns are present on our territory and some people simply listen to them.”

However, non-opposition voices have cautioned against the potentially calamitous consequences of the looming winter energy crisis, which Fiala is due to discuss with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, when he visits Prague on Monday.

The justice minister, Pavel Blažek – a member of the prime minister’s party – warned last week of the risk of riots and the fall of the government in the absence of an urgent solution. “If the energy crisis is not resolved, the political system of this country is at risk,” he said.

Boris Cvek, a Czech commentator writing on the Britské Listy website, pointed to the number of people present. “When I read in the morning that there were 5,000 there, I waved my hand, thinking that there would be no more. By the afternoon, it was 70,000. That blew my mind,” he said.

“The agenda is suspiciously reminiscent of Donald Trump’s agenda. When we see how this man can threaten the very essence of even an old and experienced democracy such as the American one, it certainly should not leave us in peace.”

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