Category Archives: Czech Republic

(BBC) The European capital cobbled with Jewish gravestones

(BBC)

Prague cobblestones

Each year millions of visitors walk through the cobbled streets of Prague’s Old Town – without realising, most likely, that many of the stones below their feet have been looted from what was meant to be sacred ground. The BBC’s Rob Cameron only recently learned their secret.

We stood, blocking the pedestrian traffic, on one of the busiest streets in the Czech capital. A steady stream of people pushed by us muttering as they clutched bags of Christmas shopping and souvenirs and we peered at the ground.

In the distance, at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, crowds congregated around street performers and kiosks selling sausages and beer.

“There,” said Leo Pavlat, the owlish, bearded director of the Prague Jewish Museum, pointing at a thin strip of dark, square cobblestones at our feet. “There! You see? All along there.” He looked up, his eyes following the strip as it ran along the short pedestrianised street.

He delved into a plastic bag and brought out two cobblestones. They were almost identical to those embedded in the ground below us. But these ones you could turn over in your fingers, revealing a single smooth side of polished granite that would otherwise have been hidden face down.

One bore fragments of a date, 1895. The other featured three letters of the Hebrew alphabet – he, vav, bet, the gold paint which lined the chiselled inscriptions glinting in the winter sun.

“What does it mean?” I asked. “Is it part of a name?” Leo frowned. “No idea. It’s not enough to tell. Possibly it’s part of a eulogy.”

Leo Pavlat with his cobblestones made from gravestones

Leo Pavlat has owned these stones for more than 30 years, ever since he slipped them into his pocket one spring morning some time in the late 1980s.

“It must have been shortly before Gorbachev came, because I remember they redid the cobblestones here especially for his visit,” he said.

Later I looked online and discovered that the Soviet leader first visited Prague in April 1987, and the trip had indeed included an hour-long walkabout at the bottom of Wenceslas Square.

But back to Leo and his cobblestones. On that spring morning just over 30 years ago he was on his way to work in the Albatros children’s publishing house, a short distance from where we now stood. He’d passed a sight that’s still familiar in Prague today – piles of new cobbles waiting to be laid by workers in overalls and kneepads.


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Something about them caught his eye, and he bent down for a closer look. They were fragments of Jewish tombstones that had been cut into perfect cubes of granite. Judging by the dates, they’d been taken from a 19th Century cemetery. Shocked, Leo pocketed a few and walked briskly away.

“It wasn’t easy being Jewish back then,” he told me. “I was an active member of the community, though not in the official circles. And I wasn’t a member of the Communist Party.”

Even attending the officially-sanctioned weekly service in one of the few functioning synagogues was enough to prompt a chat with the secret police, he said.

“There were no publications, no education. I think the regime just wanted the Jewish community to slowly die.”

The old Jewish cemetery in Prague, in 1904 (Scheufler collection)
Image captionThe old Jewish cemetery in Prague, in 1904 (Scheufler collection)

Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population of some 350,000 people before World War Two, was reduced to about 50,000 in 1946 – including the few who had staggered back from the concentration camps.

Official anti-Semitism and voluntary emigration followed during the decades of communism. By the late 1980s, the population barely numbered 8,000.

I don’t think it was done deliberately by the Communists, to offend Jews – but it is insensitiveLeo Pavlat, Prague Jewish Museum

And across the country, on the edges of villages and towns, some 600 Jewish cemeteries lay untended and forgotten. The Communist authorities – and, it seems, the leaders of the Jewish community too – saw them as repositories of valuable building material that would otherwise go to waste.

Leo Pavlat couldn’t remember where his stones had come from, but directed me to an article he’d written several years before. His cobbles, it seems, were cut from tombstones taken from a Jewish cemetery established in 1864 in the town of Udlice in North Bohemia.

There’d been a Jewish community there since the 17th Century, with a synagogue, yeshiva (a religious school) and two cemeteries. By 1930, the Jewish population of Udlice had fallen to 13. By the 1980s, when its cemetery was looted, it was – presumably – zero.

After a few minutes’ walk, we reached the end of the granite line, at the bottom of Wenceslas Square. Tourists and locals jostled past us.

The cobbles of Wenceslas Square

I asked Leo what he wanted the city to do.

“It’s not easy. The gravestones can never be put back together, and laying new cobbles would cost millions,” he said.

“I don’t think it was done deliberately by the Communists, to offend us Jews. But it is insensitive.”

He’d like the city to put up a small plaque. A plaque that would remind people, he said, of the once vibrant Jewish life here. And the barbarism of the Communist regime.

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(EUobserver) Populist victory puts Czech EU policy in doubt

(EUobserver

  • Despite fraud charges, former deputy PM Andrej Babis has succeeded in portraying himself as an outsider fighting a corrupt system of traditional political parties. (Photo: anobudelip.cz)

The Czech elections, where anti-establishment parties just won an overall majority, was the biggest victory for populists in the EU since the Brexit referendum.

It happened in a country where economic growth was solid, unemployment and inequality were among the lowest in the Europe, and wages were rising.

“The Czechs have rejected traditional politics based on ideas, which they associate with clientelism,” Petr Honzejk, a commentator for Czech business daily Hospodarske Noviny, said.

“They want strong authority. This is the fundamental meaning of this election,” he added.

The vote, held on Friday and Saturday (20 and 21 October), was a personal triumph for Andrej Babis, the country’s second richest man.

His Ano movement (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, an acronym which also means “Yes” in Czech) received 29.64 percent of the vote, almost 20 points ahead of the second party, the right-wing ODS (11.32 percent).

At a European level, Ano, which Babis founded in 2011, belongs to the liberal Alde party led by Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt. Experts often describe it as a one-man party with no internal democracy.

Although Babis was until last year deputy prime minister and finance minister, he has succeeded in portraying himself as an outsider fighting a corrupt system of traditional parties.

Babis says he wants to run the country as successfully as he has his business empire – which spans from chemicals and agriculture to media.

“Babis has managed to galvanise voters with his claim that it is ‘now or never’,” said Jaromir Volek, a sociologist at the Masaryk University in Brno.

He won despite the fact that, earlier this month, the businessman-turned-politician was charged with fraud in a case involving a €2-million subsidy from EU cohesion funds.

Also this month, the Constitutional Court in Slovakia, where Babis was born, ordered a lower court to revisit a case on whether he collaborated with the Communist-era secret police.

Babis denies wrongdoing. He calls both cases a “brutal disinformation campaign”.

During the run-up to the election, he constantly criticised the EU and ruled out giving Brussels any new powers.

He also said that the euro was bankrupt.

He wants the EU to concentrate on stopping migrants and has repeatedly said he did not want to accept any refugees at all.

Babis, a pragmatic

He said all people fleeing to Europe were economic migrants and that the EU should seal its borders against them, ideally with the help of Nato.

After the vote, Babis was quick to stress his “pro-European orientation”, however.

As prime minister, he said, he would “go to Brussels with proposals how to solve migration crisis”.

In a brief interview with Reuters on Saturday, Babis suggested another priority might be dual-food standards in eastern EU member states, but also to push and expand the Visegrad 4 (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) agenda.

“The Visegrad group must find other allies, we need Austria and other countries, in the Balkans, or Slovenia, Croatia and perhaps others,” Babis told Reuters.

“Babis is not a die-hard eurosceptic,” Vladimir Bartovic, director of Europeum, a think-tank in Prague, told EUobserver.

“He is a pragmatist and, thus, it is possible that with the election campaign now over, he will stop his anti-EU rhetoric,” he added.

“But, if he becomes prime minister, he would not take the Czech Republic into the core of the EU, if such a structure emerges in the next few years,” Bartovic said.

Before the election, Babis did not rule out that he might himself stay out of an Ano-led government.

But after his large victory became clear, he said he would take up office because people had voted for him to become the next prime minister.

A less pro-EU government

His party allies reaffirmed over the weekend that he is the only person who would lead a government formed by Ano.

President Milos Zeman said on Sunday that he would nominate Babis as prime minister.

“The next government, whatever its composition might be, will be less pro-European than the current one,” Bartovic noted.

Although the large margin of Babis’ victory was unprecedented, the formation of the new government might not be without its difficulties.

With 78 seats out of 200, Ano will need allies to form a government.

Parties with, at best, lukewarm attitudes towards the EU have a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

ODS, which had been the governing party for most of the time since the end of Communism in 1989, but which imploded four year ago, improved its result in this year’s election, although by a relatively small margin.

It demands a Czech opt-out from the euro and the EU’s common asylum policy.

Social-democrats decimated

Two other anti-establishment parties, the Pirate party and the far-right SPD, finished third and fourth, respectively, both within touching distance of ODS with 10.79 percent and 10.64 percent.

The SPD wants to take the Czech Republic out of the EU as soon as possible, while the Pirates are pro-European.

The Communist Party, which finished fifth, wants to radically reform European integration on Marxist lines. With less than 8 percent of the vote, it suffered the worst result in its history.

It still came ahead of the Social-Democratic Party (CSSD) of outgoing prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka, however.

The CSSD, which had governed with Ano and the Christian-Democrat Party, was decimated with only 7.27 percent of the vote.

Many of its voters seem to have turned to Babis, who skilfully portrayed as his own achievements some measures of the outgoing government, such as salary and pensions increases, which where actually put forward by social-democratic ministers.

The social-democrats were also unable to shake-off their reputation for sleaze and clientelism, which emerged in some of their regional branches.

Catastrophic scenario

Babis has said that he wanted to talk to all parties.

The mainstream ones, such as ODS, have refused to go into government with him because he faced criminal charges.

The SPD and Communists are much less strict.

That would leave the likely PM with two options – a continuation of the current coalition with the CSSD and the christian-democrats (KDU-CSL), or an alliance with right and left wing extremists – the SPD and Communists.

A continuation of the current governing coalition, but with Ano at its head, would probably result in a considerable degree of continuity as regards Czech EU policy.

But an alliance with the SPD and Communists would be “a catastrophic scenario”, Bartovic said.

(BBG) Who Likes Europe? Czechs Don’t—and That’s a Big Issue in October Elections

(BBGBillionaire Babis is poised to win by embracing euroskepticism.

Former Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis on May 31.

PHOTOGRAPHER: CTK/AP PHOTO

Since joining the European Union 13 years ago, the Czech Republic has become the richest country in the formerly communist east, with a higher living standard than older members Portugal and Greece and the lowest unemployment in the 28-member bloc. Families travel freely, students study abroad, and businesses thrive by exporting to other EU countries. And yet Czechs are less excited than any other European nation about being part of the club: Only a third say that being an EU member is “a good thing”—lower than the crisis-stricken Greeks and the Brexiting Brits—and just a quarter or so want to adopt the euro, according to recent Eurobarometer surveys. “The EU doesn’t bring me anything,” says Pavel Ricka, a 38-year-old lawyer from Prague. “It’s headed by politicians with very socialist thinking. They want to regulate everything.”

That euroskepticism will shape general elections in October and threatens to nudge the Czech Republic toward the kind of isolationism sweeping neighbors Poland and Hungary. Opinion polls give a wide lead to Andrej Babis, a Slovak-born billionaire who crashed the Czech political scene in 2011 and has gained popularity by painting traditional parties as corrupt and incompetent. Like Donald Trump in the U.S., Babis has argued that his business acumen qualifies him to run the country, and he portrays himself as a doer: During his three years as finance minister, he rammed through a bill forcing businesses to link cash registers to the tax office via the internet, significantly improving tax compliance.

Babis remains popular despite the potential for conflicts of interest with a business empire that includes farms, chemical plants, two leading Czech newspapers, and a restaurant in the French city of Mougins that boasts two Michelin stars. A brewing corruption scandal—police say one of his farms illegally received EU subsidies, an allegation he denies—has done little to hurt his appeal to voters.

His party, ANO (Czech for “yes,” but also an acronym for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), has attracted voters from both right and left, draining support from traditional parties. Babis, 63, doesn’t have quite the authoritarian streak of Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban or Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, but he mirrors their euroskepticism. He’s said the EU should set up Ellis Island-style immigrant detention centers in Tunisia and Turkey. He wants NATO to seal the bloc’s borders to keep out immigrants. And he’s voiced strong support for maintaining the koruna as the Czech currency. “We don’t want the euro here,” Babis says. The common currency “gives Brussels another area for meddling.”

Babis taps into a long-standing wariness of outsiders among Czechs, honed by traumatic histories with the Austro-Hungarian empire, Nazi aggression, and Soviet domination. “Czechs have always been suspicious of anything that seems to control them from the outside,” says Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague, who served as an adviser to President Vaclav Havel in the 1990s. “There’s a gaping historical wound in the Czech psyche.”

With the exception of Havel, the dissident playwright who became the country’s first post-communist president, Czech leaders have been at best lukewarm toward Brussels. Milos Zeman, the current president, has shown a greater affinity for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping than for fellow EU leaders. In July 2016, Zeman floated the idea of a referendum on membership, and he’s criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel as being soft on immigration. Havel’s immediate successor, Vaclav Klaus—arguably the most influential Czech politician of the past three decades—has over the years shifted from grudging acceptance of EU rules to comparing the bloc to the Soviet Union. “We’ve prospered not because of EU membership but in spite of it,” the 76-year-old former head of state says. “The EU has become a dominant centralized power with very little autonomy for its members.”

Even the ostensibly pro-European ruling Social Democrats have opposed EU policies on refugees and adoption of the euro as they seek to shore up support. Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, who’s leading the party into the election, says the next government should focus on narrowing the gap with richer neighbors such as Germany before a shift to the euro. And he says the Czechs shouldn’t be required to accept refugees from border nations such as Italy and Greece. Still, he says, “the EU is our only chance. We won’t find anything better.”

The latest survey by polling agency Median shows the Social Democrats getting only 14.5 percent of the vote, trailing ANO’s 26.5 percent and just ahead of the pro-Russian Communist Party, with 13 percent. A decisive ANO victory could cement the Czechs’ anti-EU views at a time when bigger countries such as Germany and France are discussing a multispeed Europe, with core members pursuing greater integration. Its economic success notwithstanding, the Czech Republic risks finding itself on the bloc’s periphery, says Petr Just, a politics professor at Metropolitan University in Prague. “Lots of people think that since we’re doing so well already we don’t need the EU anymore,” he says. “They point to examples like Norway or Switzerland. But that’s an illusion.”

+++ (BBG) Czechs May Veto Brexit Deal Over Movement of People, Babis Says

Comment:

…No one can prevent a Country from denouncing a Treaty, whatever that Treaty might be…

   International Law.

(BBG) The Czech Republic may block an agreement on the terms of U.K.’s departure from the European Union if it doesn’t respect free movement of people, Finance Minister Andrej Babis said.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has signaled that immigration controls have taken precedence over access to the bloc’s single market, prompting east European states to seek assurances that the rights of their citizens to work in the U.K. will remain protected. EU countries have said that free movement of people, goods, services and capital are inseparable.

Andrej Babis
Andrej Babis
Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

“It will be a decision of the Czech government, but this issue is very important for us, so I cannot exclude it,” Babis told Bloomberg Television in an interview on Tuesday, when asked about a potential veto. “For us, it will be negotiations about the access of the U.K., after Brexit, to the EU market and the possibility of our workers to work in the U.K. without any regulations.”

European finance ministers are holding a meeting in Luxembourg as the pound fell to the lowest since 1985 following May’s pledge to notify the EU by March of Britain’s exit and remarks pointing to her government’s readiness for an abrupt departure from the bloc. The pound is this year’s worst performer among 32 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg, plunging 17 percent since Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the EU.

Babis said it was in the interest of the EU and the U.K. to agree on the terms of the split “as soon as possible.” Still, the procedure will “take quite a long time” and will probably last two or three years, according to the Czech finance minister.

“We have to speed up the negotiations, but, you know, in the EU everything lasts a very long time,” the Czech billionaire said.

+++ (BBG) Babis Says Czech Economy Doesn’t Need Syrian Migrants: Pravo

… Obvious my dear Watson …

(BBG)  Czech Republic “certainly” doesn’t need further migrants as they present security threat, Pravo newspaper reports, citing interview with Finance Minister Andrej Babis.

* “If somebody needs workers for certain professions, a
selection of people for specific jobs should be made in
refugee camps in Turkey”
* “We need to build a fence from the Adriatic to the Baltic
sea, exclude Greece from the Schengen area because it
totally failed. Hungary turned out to be the first real
Schengen border.”
* “Europe is impotent” in defending its borders, urgently
needs reform
* Peace in Syria isn’t possible without Assad who must be part
of the solution

+++ (BBG) Czech Premier Chides President for Spreading Xenophobia, Hatred

(BBG – click to see) Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka unusually criticized President Milos Zeman for approving of the spread of hatred in its “most extreme” form by appearing at a rally of a “xenophobic sect” three days ago.

Sobotka, whose Social Democrats backed Zeman’s presidential bid in 2013, told Hospodarske Noviny in an interview on Friday that everyone within the party is “very upset” with the president for speaking at a Nov. 17 rally alongside two parties with strong anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views. Czechs held various public events that day to mark the start of 1989 Velvet Revolution that led to the fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia.

The spat highlights a divide in Europe among leaders who support granting shelter to the biggest wave of displaced people since World War II and those who argue that the attacks in Paris last week are a reason to turn them away. While the Czech Republic serves mainly as a transit country for migrants on their way to the west, there’s a group of politicians that is fueling fear of migrants instead of trying to find a solution, Sobotka said. Zeman has “unpleasantly surprised” people, he said.

“The worst thing is that he basically legitimizes the spread of xenophobia and hatred in its most extreme form,” Sobotka told the newspaper. “A democratic president should not do that.”

Appearing at a demonstration with the Bloc Against Islam, the president said everyone had the right to express their views and opponents of accepting refugees shouldn’t be labeled as “extremist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, or racist.” Zeman, who used to lead the Social Democrats, rejected the criticism and said the prime minister lacked “adequate information” about the event, according to Hospodarske Noviny.

It would be “good” to have read his speech at the event, because Sobotka “wouldn’t find one Islamophobic, hateful phrase” in it, Zeman told the newspaper.