PRAGUE – The Czech Republic has been run by the chain-smoking, self-proclaimed “Czech Donald Trump,” President Miloš Zeman, since 2013. Zeman was the first European head of state to endorse Trump and has aligned himself with the U.S. president’s approaches to immigration as well as terrorism.
Zeman has fanned anti-immigrant sentiments at home, claiming there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim” and opposes Western sanctions against Russia. Trump, in kind, has invited the Czech president to the White House in April. He told Zeman,“You’re my type of guy.”
And although Zeman is a social democrat and a member of the left-of-center Party of Civic Rights, he and Trump share broader commonalities.
“I would say the one major similarity [between the two] is the vulgarization of politics,” said Chad Bryant, professor of Eastern and Central European history and director of graduate studies at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “They appeal to [the] kind of cheap, populist resentments that are transformed into anti-foreign rhetoric.”
This step away from civility and leap toward nationalism, xenophobia, and villainization of the media is echoed across Europe in countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary — mirroring a similar phenomenon in the U.S.
Young progressives are responding. In both the U.S. and the Czech Republic, millennials have organized and acknowledged risks of losing democratic freedoms. In the small country home to the Velvet Revolution in 1989, young Czechs know the value in peaceful protest and public discourse as well as anyone – it punctuates their recent history.
Most millennials in the Czech Republic grew up with parents who experienced the 40-year communist regime. In 1948, Communists seized power in a coup d’etat that initiated former Czechoslovakia’s existence behind the Iron Curtain. Millennials either began their life under the regime or grew up hearing stories of the extreme censorship, loss of property and fear of the secret police. And many close family members joined the opposition leading to the peaceful transition of power that became known as the Velvet Revolution.
In November, on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution, hundreds of thousands of Czechs gathered in Wenceslas Square and simultaneously set off their alarms to awaken civil society. It’s the same square that lit up with the jingling keys of nearly a million young Czechs ringing in the end of communism in 1989. But in 2016, it echoed with reminders of the importance of political engagement.
Like Trump, Zeman has encountered large-scale protests. On the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the Czech president was met by thousands in Prague who called for his resignation. And this past November, thousands of students from Charles University gathered in the historic Albertov Square, where Nazis attacked student protesters on November 17, 1939.
Drahomír Kolenčík, a 23-year-old medical student at Charles University and national exchange officer for the international federation of medical students, helped organize the discussions and presentations in Albertov.
The centerpiece of the event was the main stage that hung a slogan from the 1989 revolution: “Who, if not us? When, if not now?” Throughout the event that lasted the entire day, participants from different student societies presented the work of their groups and engaged in discussions that ranged from school funding to Czech media. Although political discussions entered the program, the organizers of the Albertov event emphasized that they were not affiliated with any particular party.
“We are not a party. We are students,” said Kolenčík. “And we want to be taken as people that promote values of liberal democracy and try to bring people together to discuss.”
The desire to claim the space of the famous Albertov may have been enhanced by the very different demonstration that occupied the space in 2015. Last year, a large anti-Muslim organization accompanied by President Zeman held an anti-refugee rally in the very space that commemorates the students’ lives that were dedicated to the fight.
Students were not permitted to enter the square as a result of Czech demonstration laws that allow areas to be previously booked for specific protests. The next day, Charles University students filed to request the space for the following year.
Jan Kuklik, the dean of the Charles University Law School and strong supporter of this year’s Albertov event, believes the actions of the president on the anniversary was a “betrayal of Czech ideals” because the square belongs to the students that fought for the freedom of the Czech people.
Lukáš Kostínek, a student senator at Charles University and head organizer of the gathering on Albertov feels the greatest flaw in people today is their lack of understanding of different ideas.
“In Prague, we unfortunately don’t always understand the needs of the rest of the population,” said Kostínek, “and I think it’s really important that we try to understand them.”
Like many who live outside of the capital, Drahomír Kolenčík is from a small, homogenous town just north of Prague. Similar to the U.S., more rural communities in the Czech Republic are sympathetic to populist leaders like Zeman.
“It’s hard to talk to them about freedom, democracy – they have totally different problems,” said Kolenčík. “It’s a mistake of the liberals that they don’t communicate with other parts of the Czech Republic, and the populists will use that against them.”
Kolenčík and other organizers of the event on Albertov believe that public discourse and discussion are the key to bridging the gaps so many countries see between political parties. But that’s not easy – especially in a country where civilians were silenced for several generations.
According to Kolenčík, discussing politics in the post-communist country still has a negative connotation. Just 27 years ago, people were banned from criticizing the government and were risking their lives if they did so.
“Talking about politics isn’t something you want to chat with your friends about,” said Kolenčík. “I think it’s still from the communist era. My parents couldn’t talk about politics … and we were raised by our parents.”
Kolenčík believes it’s time for his generation to break the silence and participate in political discussion and expression.
“All of our parents were part of [the revolution], even if they weren’t on the streets,” said Kolenčík. “We should all be much more involved than we already are. We feel we should influence society.”
Although students like Kostínek and Kolenčík are active, comparable to the United States, young Czechs are not known for their political engagement. A 2014 study by Eurobarometer found that only 28 percent of young people in Europe voted in the parliamentary elections. All of the bottom countries (having a turnout lower than a third) were in Eastern and Central Europe, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“If they are not satisfied with the current government, they have to manifest,” said Kuklik. “It’s important to have not only people coming for elections but running [for office].”
Kostínek, who refers to his generation as “Havel’s Children,” feels that millennials lack a trustworthy hero who inspires them.
“The problem with the young generation is that they’re really disgusted with everything that’s happening in the public space,” said Kostínek. “They don’t trust in politics. They don’t want to get involved.”
Both Kolenčík and Kostínek said that international events such as Brexit and the outcome of the American election make this year’s discussions and involvement of young people even more crucial.
And despite low voter turnout in past elections, Kostínek hasn’t given up on his country or the U.S.
“[The] response from civil society is exceptional– that is something to be really proud of,” said Kostínek, referring to recent anti-Trump protests. “I think it is also a sign, that his efforts cannot leave a lasting mark on the U.S.A.”
“If they show just a little bit more interest, they could actually change our society,” said Kostínek. “It’s the same as Great Britain or in the U.S. – if the young generation voted or if more of them voted, all of the elections could end up differently.”
It’s not certain that Czech millennials will show up at the polls, let alone on the ballot for their parliamentary election in October.
Meanwhile, Zeman has recently announced his bid for re-election next year. With his support high in the polls, he indicated he doesn’t plan to campaign.