By Kateřina Krejčová
The whole European Union faces austerity and massive cuts in public services due to the Eurozone crisis, and the Czech Republic is no exception. This country, together with the UK, recently refused to sign the European Pact for budget discipline and decided to run the Czech austerity measures on its own, with the help of occasional supervision and friendly advice from OECD representatives. While Ángel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, is patting the conservative Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas on the back, 90 per cent of the Czech population claims to be greatly disappointed after electing him two years ago. Communists, right-wing radicals, Neo-Nazis and Euro-skeptical parties are all increasing their presence 23 years after the Stalinist regime in the former Czechoslovakia was thrown out. Massive demonstrations are taking place and trade unions are talking about general strike, but an early election doesn’t seem to be realistic yet.
The Czech Republic, like most of Europe, has been haunted by the economic crisis. The current right-wing government in the Czech Republic won the election two years ago, in 2010, arguing the necessity of belt-tightening measures, but simultaneously promising the impossible: growth and revitalization of the economy and an end to the growing debt. People, fed up by the two-decades-old hegemony of the two strongest parties—the right-wing Civil Democratic Party (ODS) and the centre-left Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD)—decided to vote for new, fresh parties which promised to change the situation drastically through an array of belt-tightening measures which will make the reputedly too generous social system no longer possible and bring strict control over where public funds are distributed.
The new conservative parties—The Party of Public Affairs (VV) and Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity 09 (TOP 09)—together in coalition with the traditional but only partly successful ODS, all officially sponsored by the “godfather” billionaire Zdeněk Bakala, used for their election campaigns strong and aggressive propaganda which attacked not just the old, rotten structures among the left-wing Czech parties, but also people who are suspected of abusing social benefits. These attacks on vulnerable groups became very popular and people started to align themselves with this rhetoric, blaming the poorest citizens, such as the Roma minority, immigrants and the unemployed for the growing depth of the economic crisis while at the same time buying in to the argument that people need to tighten their belts in order to help solve the situation.
“Responsibility” became the main motto the conservatives worked with in order to make people feel guilty and encourage them to grow up, leave the old socialist welfare utopias behind and accept responsibility for themselves and their lives. As part of its election campaign, TOP 09 even sent people fake money orders for 120,000 Czech Crowns (CAD$6153) which represented the equivalent amount every single Czech citizen supposedly owes of the entire public debt. The government started characterizing itself as “the government of budget responsibility” which “won’t give benefits to those who refuse to work.” The main areas the TOP 09, VV and ODS coalition decided to focus on were fighting against corruption, stopping the increase of national debt and instituting government reforms.
Now, after two years, the conservative government is failing in every single area it focused on. Corruption has almost killed the government from the inside—with 8 ministers out of a total of 14 resigning so far mostly because of corruption scandals and the VV party splitting apart after several important members were sentenced for bribery—while debt is still growing uncontrolled and government reforms are more and more being rejected by the public as damaging and rash.
Since fall 2010, trade union and citizens’ initiatives have continued to analyze and criticize all proposed reforms and their impacts on society. The pension, tax, health care, higher education and other social reforms are gradually being introduced even though, according to public opinion surveys, almost 90 per cent of people in the Czech Republic don’t agree with the way they are being implemented. The government pushes the reforms through quickly, without proper impact analysis or the least attempt to discuss them with those groups which will be affected on a daily basis by the particular changes, arguing instead that analysis and discussion of policy was already involved in the election programs through which the parties were voted in, so they have a mandate to realize what they promised. This claim obviously isn’t true since the government doesn’t hesitate to vary all previous decisions as it goes along.
The only proper and publicly accessible economic analysis of the real impact for people of all the reforms was made by the trade unions’ economists, who described them as a way “to easily transfer financial wealth worth hundreds of billions of Czech Crowns from the public sector to the private.” Regardless, the nominal incomes of public sector workers are decreasing, the social benefits for low-income citizens (especially families with children) already have been cut significantly and the worldwide inflation trends connected with the increase of food prices are more and more noticeable.
The trade unions point out as well that going forward the Czech Republic will lose around 90 billion Czech Crowns a year because of the flat income tax introduced by the current Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek (TOP 09); this was introduced six years ago, in a previous government of which he was a member. The Czech trade unions also argue against neighbouring Slovakia where, due to their own austerity measures, last year the government was obligated to provide food aid for 350,000 citizens out of necessity. According to their research, middle-income earners may lose the equivalent of one month’s pay a year due to social and tax reforms. The government still refused to take this into consideration and its arrogance forced trade unions to leave tripartite negotiations several times.
The biggest changes the Czech government is pushing through are freezing pensions, increasing retirement age, privatization of pensions—through second and third tiers—to the detriment of the compulsory public pay-as-you-go tier, hiking of the VAT, privatizing health care and increasing fees in hospitals, introducing university tuition fees into what has so far been a publicly funded education system, making distinct anti-worker changes in the Labour Code and introducing strict controls for drawing unemployment benefits.
Randomly selected unemployed people are obligated to report regularly at job centres and work for free a minimum of given hours a week providing community services in order to be able to receive financial aid. This official bullying of desperate people trying in vain to find jobs is financed by the European Social Fund (ESF). State job centres have recently been replaced by private agencies focused on job mediation, which are paid 5,000 Czech Crowns by the state for every successfully mediated job. Healthy disabled and unemployed people now will be given a special debit card to withdraw their government financial aid and shop with, but in order to avoid system abuse nobody will be able to buy alcohol and cigarettes using these cards. Here it should be mentioned that Social Affairs Minister Jaromír Drábek (TOP 09) is closely connected with the companies which are supposed to implement this credit card service. On the whole, because of reforms, women are suffering primarily. The financial support for single mothers was cancelled last year, benefits for families with children (maternity grant, parental allowance and child benefits) are decreasing and women comprise the majority of public service workers, with these services being strangled by the current government.
Frustrated citizens living in the poorest areas have started to turn their hatred against the Roma minority, which is constantly blamed by politicians and media for abusing financial aid. The conflicts have increased rapidly during the last two years and are regularly turning violent.
It seems that the government is content with bullying people, to hypocritically pretend to be busy at work while simultaneously hiding the main goal of their reforms: the gradual privatization of public wealth.
Students and workers resist
Recently the trade unions and social initiatives started to collaborate, due to their mutual antagonism toward the government, although separately they have organized many demonstrations since the government took office. April 2012 saw the biggest demonstrations against the government since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, which were the result of these connections. Organized by the “Stop the Government” platform which consists of 75 organizations, including trade unions, civil initiatives (ProAlt), students (Initiative for Independent Universities), unions for health care and disabled people, the largest protest attracted more than 100,000 citizens from all over the country to join a rally in Prague.
One of the most progressive groups recently formed is the students’ Initiative for Independent Universities, which decided to collaborate with trade unions in the “Stop the Government” platform and managed to pull many previously apolitical university students into the discussion about neoliberalism and the common context of austerity and government reforms all over Europe. The perceived need for them to finally grow up, accept the challenge and face the crisis through personal responsibility made a lot of young people vote for the right-wing TOP 09 and call for introducing university tuition fees in 2010. These students believed that paying tuition fees would provide more money for schools, thereby increasing the quality of education in the Czech Republic and motivating students to work harder. Lots of them changed their mind during the last two years and became more critical. Together, these formerly apolitical and newly critical students and the Initiative for Free Universities successfully forced the incompetent Education Minister to resign after massive student protests in March but they faced unseemly attacks by Czech President Václav Klaus, who sent a message to students that everybody who is studying for free and refuses the idea of university tuition fees is a social parasite.
People continue to question the austerity measures and follow closely the examples of resistance abroad to learn their lessons, generalize them and empower the international movements with solidarity. Inspired by the worldwide Occupy movement, there are already some Occupy actions in the Czech Republic but solidarity with the Quebec student protest—spreading of the Maple Spring across Czech campuses, demonstrations organized by Czech students in solidarity with Quebec students—and discussions about the ideological contexts of global austerity imposed by the ruling class must and will be the next steps.
Kateřina Krejčová is an exchange student, a member of the Initiative for Free Universities and the Socialistická Solidarita group in Czech Republic, a part of the International Socialist Tendency.
If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, which includes the panel discussion “The global fight against austerity: from the ballot box to the street”, with activists from Greece, Britain, Quebec and Canada.