Czechoslovakia would have been a hundred years old last Sunday, and Prague spent the weekend celebrating. I’ve been to better birthday parties. The gloomy weather didn’t help – it didn’t just rain on the parades, it poured – and the centennial narratives, never simple, were complicated further by the fact they were commemorating a state that dissolved itself in 1993.
Liberals, libertarians, conservatives and Islamophobes were out in force all weekend, and President Miloš Zeman isn’t the kind of leader who brings different sides together: his cantankerous state-of-the-nation address on Sunday night concluded by warning Czechs that there were ‘rabid and envious dwarfs’ in their midst.
The event I spent most time at was probably the smallest. Under leaden skies, as fighter jets roared invisibly overhead, about a hundred members of the Czech Republic’s Romani minority gathered beneath umbrellas outside Prague Castle. The slogan on their banners was as plaintive as they were angry. ‘We work like everybody else,’ it said.
They were protesting against recent remarks made by President Zeman. Ruminating on high levels of Roma unemployment, he had grown nostalgic for totalitarian times. Though he was no friend of communism, he told his provincial audience, gipsies then had either dug ditches or gone to jail. To applause and laughter, he claimed that any lazy members of a forced labour platoon had been ‘slapped around’. It was, in his opinion, ‘a very humane method that worked most of the time’.
Between 1950 and 1990, anyone who ‘unfairly avoided honest work’ was liable to a mandatory jail term. Such people (or ‘parasites’, as the Penal Code called them) may well have experienced a slap or two as well. Zeman was expelled from the Communist Party because he didn’t support the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, but he’s a creature of authoritarianism through and through. Like another ex-rebel turned president, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, his notion of democracy doesn’t extend beyond majority rule.
A year ago, Zeman claimed that 90 per cent of Czech layabouts were Romani, describing them as an ‘unadaptable’ (nepřizpůsobivý) segment of the population. Attributing their problems to discrimination was wrong in principle, he insisted, because it interfered with the rights of the majority.
‘Unadaptability’ is a venerable Czech euphemism that’s almost always racially targeted, but it’s related to other complaints about social maladjustment that used to be colour-blind. A Communist crackdown on misfits in 1966 targeted not only unadaptable parasites, but also men with long hair: 4000 were given compulsory trims. Supporters of Charter 77 were always being punished for their aberrant tendencies. Zeman never signed that document (apparently because ‘no one asked’) but if he had, it’s just conceivable he’d appreciate why states that victimise non-conformists are dangerous.
Not that Zeman cares. He's been on Donald Trump's side since the US president was just a hopeful billionaire, and though atheistic, his dislike of Islam makes him a vocal champion of Europe’s ‘Christian cultural roots’. He’s also very fond of Vladimir Putin, with whom he apparently shares a sense of humour. At a conference in Beijing in 2015, a hot mic caught him grumbling about journalists to the Russian president, and suggesting that they needed ‘liquidating’. His spokesman shrugged off inquiries about the exchange by observing that the media ‘never understand bon mots’.
There’s something particularly wrong about a Czech president touting totalitarian approaches to social cohesion. It isn’t as though the Communists have changed their ways. Their MPs complain about laziness among their compatriots using language that echoes Zeman’s, and their present leader tried in early 2017 to have ‘parasitism’ reinstated into the Penal Code. Zeman claims to be no friend of the party that expelled him in 1970, but there’s time yet for that wheel to turn full circle.