Protests in Prague signal a troubled winter ahead in Europe

Several thousands of protesters from the far-right and left groups rally against the Czech government on Sept 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

PRAGUE - Thousands of protesters flocked into Prague's Wenceslas Square on Wednesday, demanding the resignation of the government of the Czech Republic as an energy crisis stoked popular unrest that will be closely watched in other European capitals.

Despite a rain-soaked start, demonstrators hoisting Czech flags and chanting, "Shame! Shame!" turned out for the second time in a month to rally under the slogan "Czech Republic First."

They were a hodgepodge of figures with a broad range of causes, including Kremlin sympathisers and those who said they are fighting a "global elite." But many at the protest were there to express their concern about soaring prices and energy costs as winter loomed, with the Czech Republic one of the first countries in Europe to face such large protests over the issues.

Many protesters linked their economic woes to the European Union's tough sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine - repeating a line propagated by the Kremlin, which is advancing the narrative that EU sanctions against Russia are to blame for inflation and other financial troubles on the continent.

EU leaders counter that their sanctions against Russia are not causing energy prices to surge, but rather Russia's weaponisation of its gas supplies. Russia's decision to cut the gas supply to EU countries in response to their support of Ukraine has sent already high electricity prices - caused by pandemic-era distortions - skyrocketing.

And while individual EU countries might take some measures tailored to each's particular energy mix at home, the most effective intervention to stop the spiralling electricity costs will come at the collective level, analysts say.

EU energy ministers are meeting in Brussels on Friday to assess, and most likely finalise, a set of new policies that will aim to support households and businesses, and tax profits from energy firms.

But the EU efforts are viewed sceptically among protesters in Prague, the Czech capital, where some raised EU flags crossed with red Xs, while others raised the flags of the Czech Communist Party and far-right factions.

The odd mix, spanning the extremes of the political spectrum, was spearheaded by Mr Ladislav Vrabel, who brands himself as a populist leader seeking to force the resignation of the government and push for a deal with Russia for cheap gas.

"It is the duty of the Czech government to ensure the security of its citizens and their economic stability," he said before the protests. "Our government is bringing us to the edge of war and economic collapse."

The landlocked Czech Republic was particularly reliant on Russian gas and oil brought in through neighbouring countries, even receiving EU exemptions from sanctions against Russia.

Mr Vrabel's first protest, on Sept 3, took the government by surprise when more than 70,000 people marched on Wenceslas Square, the iconic gathering point of the Czech capital where hundreds of thousands gathered in 1989 to oust the communist government. It appeared to be a surprise even to Mr Vrabel himself - he initially registered the rally for 500 people, according to City Council records.

"It has been a wake-up call, and I hope it has been a wake-up call for others across Europe," said Mr Tomas Pojar, an adviser to the Czech prime minister, Mr Petr Fiala.

Smaller protests have emerged in Germany, with thousands gathering in recent days in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to demand that Berlin open the recently completed gas pipeline from Russia, Nord Stream 2. The pipeline was ruptured this week in what European officials said appeared to be a deliberate attack.

Similar to the protests against coronavirus pandemic restrictions that hit Europe in 2021, the demonstrations in the Czech Republic and Germany are drawing an unlikely pairing of right- and left-wing groups, as well as anti-vaccine and fringe conspiracy figures. And similar to those pandemic protests, analysts worry that radical groups will try to use the rallies to make inroads into the broader population.

People demand the Czech government's resignation and early elections in Wenceslas Square, Prague, on Sept 28, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mr Matthias Quent, a German expert on far-right extremism, said that some disgruntled citizens might believe the far-right groups' protests were their only outlet.

"They may think they have no other place to express their displeasure," he said.

The far right is having a resurgence across Europe. This week, the Brothers of Italy party won the largest share of votes in Italian elections. And in Sweden, a group founded by neo-Nazis and skinheads looks set to become the largest party in the next government.

In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD, has risen to about 15 per cent in public polls and is planning protests in Berlin next month.

"People are not even using heating yet - that is still to come," Mr Quent said. "And, nevertheless, the AfD already had a visible upswing. This is, indeed, the scenario I have feared."

In the Prague protest, many who joined bristled at the idea of being called fringe or far right.

"It's not only energy prices rising - grocery prices, too. I am raising my granddaughter, and I am worried," said Mr Miroslav Kusmirek, who came from a town 48km outside the capital to protest on a rainy afternoon. "I see companies now struggling, and I worry; if the company that employs me collapses, so will I."

Mr Simone Tagliapietra, an energy expert at Bruegel, a European research group, said that, in a worst-case scenario, some countries could find themselves facing a "vicious cycle" of popular discontent that pushes for populist responses that could stoke rivalries among European states. In that scenario, he said, countries could stop trading electricity.

"If countries are to close down their energy borders, what you have is flaring political tensions between European countries," he said. "That becomes very, very risky because we can really compromise European unity. Countries could start to fight about all other political issues."

Although that is still far from the current reality, he said, a false report suggesting that France might stop sending electricity to Italy sparked outrage among Italians and illustrated the sensitivity of the situation. "That's just a preview of what could happen," he said.

Demonstrators protest in reaction to the energy crisis and soaring prices in Prague, Czech Republic, on Sept 28, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

In the wake of the first Czech protest this month, Prime Minister Fiala's government offered a price cap on electricity prices for its citizens, but the protests Wednesday show that it has yet to ease economic anxieties.

Czech electricity trading prices have more than doubled compared with last year's, according to some analysts. About 10 per cent to 15 per cent of households have been hit badly, according to research by the Stem Institute for Empirical Research in Prague, which advises the government.

The middle class is also starting to feel the pinch, it said, with its disposable income falling by 50 per cent compared with last year's.

Ms Claudia Trantina, 27, was one such protester Wednesday, driving an hour from her home city, Plzen, to protest in Prague.

"I can't provide my daughter with the things I had as a kid," she said. "It's not like I can't pay the bills, but I can't do things like take her to the zoo or restaurants."

Many experts say that part of what causes discontent is European leaders' failure to find the right messaging on the energy crisis.

"We need a kind of wartime mobilisation," Mr Tagliapietra said. "Not exactly like Churchill - but something of that sort. The leadership needs to tell people: Look, this is a war. An economic war has been launched against us by Russia."

In Prague, officials say they have been trying to send that message but are wary of provoking anger or fear.

"If the subject comes up day after day and it is scaremongered, it will not have a positive effect," said Mr Petr Tresnak, a deputy minister of industry and trade. "You need an informed public, but you don't want to cause panic." NYTIMES

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