CZECH PROTEST GROUP FIGHTS DICTATORS WITH PAPIER-MACHE MONSTERS

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the kick that launched Kaputin, whose ‘applied art’ adorn protests against the world’s dictators and their Central European enablers.

Grotesque, crude and clearly insulting, the puppets are designed to grab attention and burst despotic bubbles. Meanwhile, Central European populists serving Moscow and Beijing’s interests, like Czech President Milos Zeman and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, metamorphosise into giant slugs eating the lettuce leaf of democracy.

During other actions, the Olympic rings transformed into nooses are wheeled to the front door of the Czech parliament to mark the beginning of the Chinese winter games in February. Outside the German embassy, a piece of pipe is noisily destroyed to protest Berlin’s cooperation with Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas project.

The ultimate aim, says van Gemund – speaking just ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February – is to defend against dictatorships that are “trying to destroy Western democracy”.

“If we don’t react, they will destroy us,” he states. “It’s an existential issue.”

The papier-mâché figure of Chinese President Xi Jinping wheeled through the streets of Prague on the way to the next protest. Photo: Kaputin

Prophets of doom

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the kick that launched Kaputin. The group now boasts a core of around 20 activists, but can call on up to 120 depending on its needs.

“I was horrified by the lack of reaction,” the 53-year-old half-Czech, half-Dutch van Gemund says of the Russian land grab. “The West just didn’t realise the danger.”

Better late than never, the full-scale onslaught on Ukraine so raised the alarm that the activist group has been able to take a “holiday” for a few weeks.

“There was no reason for us to protest Putin’s aggression this time,” van Gemund shrugs as he hoovers up coffee and cola during a lunch break at a Prague café in mid-May. “Everyone else was already out on the streets in Prague and throwing paint on the Russian embassy.”

In the new geopolitical reality that Putin’s war has unleashed, complaints have been heard from some in Central and Eastern Europe that their warnings regarding Russia’s bloody imperial ambitions were for too long ignored.

Although somewhat reticent, Van Gemund – who works as a translator when he’s not taunting the world’s despots – admits when pushed that the war somewhat vindicates his 20 years of activism.

“People tell me they thought I was hysterical, but it turns out we were right,” he smiles sadly. “Of course, I feel some justification, but really it’s just very sad. We knew it was coming, but it turns out we were completely powerless to stop it.”

The war has at least put the West on the same page in understanding the threat posed by authoritarian states such as Russia and China, he adds.

But Kaputin won’t rest on its laurels. With the level of outrage provoked by the invasion starting to recede, Kaputin was back in action on May 8 as President Milos Zeman and others sympathetic to Moscow gathered to mark Victory in Europe Day.

Putin was still sat atop his regal toilet, but now sported a “Z” medallion and held a blood-drenched washing machine – a reference to the widespread looting by Russian troops in Ukraine. “Our role is to keep the pressure going as fatigue sets in,” van Gemund states.

Kaputin rejects the populist head of state’s sudden U-turn to condemn Putin as a “madman” after years spent promoting the Kremlin’s interests. “Once Putin’s slut always Putin’s slut!” proclaimed a sign that van Gemund managed to position directly behind the wheelchair-bound president at Prague’s Olsany cemetery.

Protest against President Milos Zeman at the Olsany cemetery, Prague. Photo: Kaputin

Friends and enemies

Despite Zeman’s new-found anti-Putin rhetoric, Russian-linked business interests continue to dominate the head of state’s office in Prague Castle. And with wider Czech society now convinced – for the meantime at least – of the dangers posed by Moscow, it is this “fifth column” that Kaputin now plans to target, van Gemund says.

However, he’s wary of discussing details. “We don’t really hear from the Czech security services, but we are concerned that the local Russian and Chinese security services watch us,” he says. “And the police always seem to know what we’re planning,”

“And that’s okay to some extent,” he adds. “Some of our actions are on the edge of legality, and we’ve paid fines. But these risks must be taken to have an impact.”

Kaputin has rarely faced much violence, the activist reports, but he hints that things could turn more aggressive as it pays more attention to Zeman’s gang and its financial ties to Russian interests.

The presidential security force is different to most, van Gemund explains. At the ceremony at Olsany, the bodyguards were clearly angered that the protest came so close to the frail septuagenarian. But they could do little because it was a public event, the activist points out, noting that information regarding the legal status of the president’s appearance came via new political friends.

“Since the war [in Ukraine], we’ve started getting a lot of support from major political figures,” van Gemund claims. “And that’s an incredible change. Everything has changed since February 24. But Zeman’s guys remain roguish and hostile.”

However, Czechia is not Russia or China, and the authorities tend to act with reserve, even in the face of Kaputin’s impertinent theatrics. And that’s not ideal, van Gemund complains.

“We need a reaction. We shamelessly seek media attention,” he says. “Our goal is very specific: to influence the political elite and alert public opinion to the dangers of these dictatorial regimes.”

Therefore, the group actively welcomes unreasonable treatment from the police. “We’re quite open about that,” van Gemund says.

But denied such drama, that often leaves Kaputin’s grotesque puppets and crude slogans – or “applied art” as van Gemund labels it – to do the heavy lifting.

“We believe attention can be commanded with cheap and original ideas. That’s applied art, and originality is the key,” the activist states. “But art is not the defining element. We’re very much political and very ambitious, and at the end of the day we’re just a PR organisation trying to help people understand the threat of these modern dictatorships.”

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