Prague, Czech Republic – Paving stones, firecrackers and glass bottles versus cayenne pepper, explosive grenades and water cannons. Almost identical scenes of violence marked the protests against the sanitary measures taken against the spread of COVID-19 held in Bratislava and Prague over the weekend.
The anger and violence observed in Prague on Sunday afternoon seemed to be a carbon copy of what happened the previous day in Bratislava, in neighbouring Slovakia, where football club hooligans teamed up with the far-right People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS). Marching towards the seat of government, some five hundred demonstrators directed their anger towards Prime Minister Igor Matovič (OľaNO) with the shouts “Come out, you rat!”.
“Put down the masks!”, also chanted the crowd, mostly young men who, for many of them, were slightly paradoxically wearing balaclavas and hoods. When Slovak hooligans attacked the door of the building, the police intervened and used a water cannon to disperse the crowd throwing firecrackers and bottles.
Unlike the Slovak demonstration, the protest that took place in Prague the next day was authorised, provided that the number of participants did not exceed five hundred and that hygiene and sanitary rules were respected. One hour after it began, Czech authorities counted 2,000 people attending, and therefore gave the order to break-up the demonstration.
Far-right protesters from all over the country retaliated with violence and clashed with the police for almost an hour. Czech police used a water cannon and made around 100 arrests. Before the protest began, Czech police had announced they had seized firecrackers, knives and a firearm during preventive checks.
Slovak Interior Minister Roman Mikulec described Saturday’s illegal demonstration in Bratislava as “primitive provocation”, deploring that it could take place at a time when the country is in a state of emergency and the number of infections is soaring. Slovakia, where 2,000 new cases of Covid-19 were reported on the day of the protest, still lags far behind the Czech Republic in terms of new infections per capita. To step up the fight against the epidemic, Slovak Premier Igor Matovič announced this week his ambition to have the entire population, just over five million people, tested in a nation-wide campaign.
As for his Czech counterpart, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, he said he was “shocked” by the violent demonstration and condemned the selfishness of citizens putting others at risk. Interior Minister Jan Hamacek announced that he was launching judicial proceedings against the organizer of the march, who could be fined up to 120,000€ for failing to comply with the law and limitations on public gatherings.
The organizers, the “Citizen Dissatisfaction Movement”, had assured the day before that it had reached an agreement with the Ultras, who “saw their participation as a chance to prove that they are not just primates who only know how to beat each other up and cause disorder,” the movement said. They’ve missed their chance.
Although the anti-COVID protests in both countries did not attract massive crowds, they are a symptom of the growing scepticism and frustration among the Czech and Slovak population regarding their government’s handling of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. While the organisers emphasised their struggle to protect civil liberties and the socio-economic fallout from the restrictions, the speakers’ speeches were more akin to conspiracy paranoia.
From health-dangerous masks to the electronic chips that Bill Gates, the US billionaire who is committing billions of dollars of his personal wealth to medical research and support, would allegedly like to implant in us. As a symbol of the excesses of these demonstrations, the Prague crowd did not hesitate to chant “Gas Prymula!” in reference to Roman Prymula, the top Czech epidemiologist recently promoted to the highly sensitive post of Minister of Health.
Article originally published by Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, a Kafkadesk partner, and written by Adrien Beauduin.
A Prague-based correspondent, Adrien is a Central Europe and former Eastern bloc specialist, who studied political science and European affairs at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, at Charles University in Prague and the College of Europe in Warsaw.