bne IntelliNews – Czech protest organizers make a business out of it

Organizers of last weekend’s large far-right rally in downtown Prague demanding the resignation of the Czech government and attacking NATO and the EU are also active campaigners against COVID-19 vaccines and masks , follow Kremlin talking points and appear to be running the protests as a private company, a Czech investigative journalist has revealed.

Demonstrations in Prague’s Wenceslas Square drew a much larger than expected crowd of 70,000, demonstrating discontent over the worsening cost of living crisis, with inflation hitting 17.5% in July and soaring energy prices are already starting to translate into much higher domestic tariffs.

Far-right and far-left organizers and speakers at the ‘Czech Republic in First Place’ rally used this widespread discontent to protest sanctions against Russia, accuse the government of helping Ukrainian refugees more than ordinary citizens and attack NATO and the EU.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala has been criticized for saying the protest leaders were displaying “strongly pro-Russian positions”. He was accused of failing to see that many protesters were attending the rally out of genuine fear that he would not be able to afford the cost of heating this winter.

Although many of the protesters were ordinary people, the scale of the rally also highlighted the strength of extremist opinion in the country. Parliamentary elections last year saw 18% of votes cast for far-right and fringe anti-establishment parties, although only political entrepreneur Tomio Okamura’s Freedom and Democracy party made it to parliament, garnering 9 .5% and 20 seats in the 200-member parliament. . In addition, the Czech Communist Party, pro-Russian, narrowly crossed the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

The success of the fringe and extremist protest, and its exploitation of ordinary people’s grievances, has political observers worried ahead of what is expected to be a “hot autumn”, as the cost of living crisis deepens and the country organizes municipal and senatorial elections. later this month and presidential elections in January. The protest organizers have already called another protest on September 28, St. Wenceslas Day, while the unions will hold their own protest on October 8.

Since the protest, Czech journalists have been investigating Ladislav Vrabel, the protest’s main organizer, who describes himself as a freedom fighter against the government and the EU, and has warned of the “genocide of the unvaccinated”. during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also ran unsuccessfully in the parliamentary elections for the “Chcipl pes” platform, which blasted COVID-19 restrictions and vaccinations.

Both Vrabel and fellow organizer Jiri Havel are veterans of a feverish Czech anti-establishment conspiratorial subculture, fertilized by numerous disinformation sites. Havel’s Facebook profile features a photo of red and blue pills with a phrase “your choice?”, a reference to the cult film The matrix.

Now Vrabel and Havel have clung to popular unrest with rising prices to campaign against sanctions on Moscow and help Ukrainian refugees.

An investigation by Czech investigative journalist Lukas Valasek also revealed that Vrabel is bankrupt, with liabilities of CZK 3 million (€120,000) and 27 forced collection proceedings registered against him. Its protests website calls for donations, which organizers claim to use for the protests.

“Even 100 CZK [EUR4] is a contribution with which you can participate in the plan Czech Republic first! reads the site calling for the protest and linking to the Facebook profiles of Ladislav Vrabel and Havel on the main page.

According to Vrabel’s responses to Valasek and his colleagues at Actualne.czhis Serbian wife Bojana Vurdelja collected more than 0.5 million Czech crowns (€20,000) from these donations, which Vrabel said was used to organize the rally, adding that “other protests and various other events ” will follow.

The spread of disinformation online by the organizers and their portrayal as freedom fighters is “a lucrative way out of their dire financial situation”, Valasek said. bne Intellinews.

Valasek said that since the pandemic, there has been an apparent pattern of bankruptcy and “failed marginal people” manipulating “vulnerable groups of Czechs into believing they are saviors fighting in the name of their freedom.”

The Czech NGO platform Czech Elves monitors the host of disinformation websites written in Czech and has long pointed out that the actors spreading disinformation about COVID-19 are the same actors spreading disinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

These false narratives include portraying Ukrainian officials and its military as criminal and violent NATO-funded Nazis, and blaming the energy crisis for EU sanctions and climate policies.

“Social media algorithms play into the hands of these disinformants by spreading their lies to tens of thousands of people,” Valasak said, adding that targeted users also represent a pool from which Vrabel and others “draw attention.” ‘money in the form of financial contributions’.

“It’s an attractive way to earn money because if they were officially employed, their wages would be confiscated by bailiffs,” Valasek said.

Disinformation analyst Roman Maca has documented that pro-Russian activist Jiri Cernohorsky and Zarko Jovanovic, the Czech-Serbian presenter of pro-Russian television Raptor, are also deep in debt or in personal bankruptcy proceedings.

Besides unmanageable debts, all of these men also have in common pro-Russian views, a nationalist fervor for Czechia (or in Jovanovic’s case, for Serbia) and an alleged goal of protecting their compatriots from the establishment in time. of crisis.

“The growing social tension of many citizens will further nurture the environment ripe for similar manipulators,” Valasek said. He added that it is essential for the Czech government “to communicate better with people and to prevent them from seeking flavors from the merchants of fear”.

In recent weeks, NGOs have warned of the impact of the rising cost of living on vulnerable sections of the population, with pensioners and low-income families already struggling. Some 700,000 Czechs (about 6.4% of the population) remain trapped in endless enforcement proceedings, many of them facing debts that cannot be repaid in their lifetime.

Opposition parties accuse the government of doing too little too late to deal with the crisis, and they staged a vote of no confidence on September 1.

A recent survey conducted for Czech radio shows that 55% of Czechs distrust Fiala’s cabinet and some 70% are dissatisfied with the cabinet’s handling of the energy crisis. Most of the 70% are people who did not vote for the parties represented in Fiala’s cabinet. People aged 45 to 59 are most often among the dissatisfied.

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