The Rise of the Anti-Havels

NEW YORK – November 17 is an important date in the Czech Republic. It is a national holiday marking the start of the 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” which ended – smoothly and nonviolently – more than four decades of hardline communist rule and soon propelled the country’s best-known proponent of human rights, the playwright Václav Havel, to the presidency. This year’s commemoration was an insult to the revolution’s legacy.

To mark the anniversary, it is customary for the Czech president to speak at public gatherings. Last year’s commemoration did not go well for President Miloš Zeman, who took office in 2013 after having earlier served as Prime Minister. Zeman was pelted with eggs during his address, apparently in protest of his shifting statements on Russian activities in Ukraine. Since then, he has also become notorious for episodes of public inebriation, for his opposition to gay rights, and for denying the role of human activities in causing climate change.

This year, Zeman seems to have found a way to elicit a more positive reaction. Known for his opposition to the Czech Republic’s acceptance of refugees from the conflicts in the Middle East, he spoke at a rally organized – and held on the site where the Velvet Revolution began – by an anti-Muslim group called the “Bloc Against Islam.”

So far as anyone knows, refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are not trying to settle in the Czech Republic, and the number of asylum-seekers from those countries is under a hundred. No matter: Zeman took the opportunity to shore up his popularity by appealing to racist and xenophobic sentiments, telling several thousand listeners (separated by police from a large counter-demonstration) that they were not extremists.