"Czechia" Needs More Than a New Name

Andrea Gambaro
May 23, 2016

The Czech Republic was recently thrust into the global spotlight after leaders of the European nation proposed changing its name to ‘Czechia’. The Guardian argued that the decision, made without public consultation, “increased the estrangement between the people and the government”. But their real concern should be the issues threatening the country's democratic future: mounting xenophobia, political tensions and government control of the press.

Czech president Miloš Zeman is often compared to US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Both have railed against refugees and immigrants. For instance, Zeman sardonically called for Muslim refugees to live by their own laws rather than those of their host country:

“Unfaithful women will be stoned, thieves' hands will be cut off and we will be deprived of the beauty of women because they will have to have their faces covered,” he said. “I can imagine that in some cases this might be beneficial, though.”

Similar to Donald Trump’s refusal to disavow Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, Zeman celebrated the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – which saw the Czechoslovak communist regime overthrown in 1989 - by attending an anti-Islam rally organised by the nationalistic Bloc Against Islam movement. Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “What would you say if your head of state shared a stage with an advocate of concentration camps and gas chambers?”

Just like Trump’s racist rhetoric, Zeman’s anti-refugee hate speech has surprising appeal. A recent opinion poll found that over 72% of Czechs approved of his attitudes towards refugees, while around four-fifths labelled refugees and terrorist group Islamic State as security threats. Unsurprisingly, the leaders of Bloc Against Islam have decided to create a formal political party that will run for elections in 2017.

The Czech Republic is currently run by a coalition government. Socialist prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka has distanced himself from the president's populist drift, saying he “legitimises the spread of xenophobia and hatred in its most extreme form, (something that) a democratic president should not do”.

Most democratic presidents also wouldn’t joke about ousting the prime minister with a Kalashnikov, but Zeman did that too. He’s one of several top Czech politicians who have similar attitudes to Donald Trump. For instance, Politico called out deputy prime minister and finance minister Andrej Babiš as one of the men responsible for Czech democracy taking a “turn for the worse”.

Babiš, a millionaire and media magnate, is likely to become the next prime minister. Sobotka warned that could set the nation back by three decades: “He now concentrates political, economic and media power to the extent that has been unprecedented in this country since 1989.”

The Czech Republic ostensibly has a free press, but it plunged by eight spots in the latest World Press Freedom Index. Moreover, the European University Institute believes there are “medium risks” to the media’s political independence and social inclusiveness, and even greater threats to market competition as a handful of owners control most of the major outlets.

Czech journalists saw a recent amendment to press law in Poland - intended to muzzle the media - as a warning, says Czech analyst Milan Šmíd. “Their perception is this is what could happen here if the nationalistic and extremist parties gain the upper hand in Czech politics.”

Next year’s elections will be critical in deciding the future of “Czechia” and the role it plays in Europe. Rather than worrying about the nation’s branding, the focus should be on its spiralling xenophobia, polarised government and diminishing press freedoms, which together represent a grave threat to its democracy.