INTERVIEW: Benjamin Roll, Czech protest leader

INTERVIEW: Benjamin Roll, Czech protest leader
Million Moments Chairman Benjamin Roll in Prague's Wenceslas Square.
By Robert Anderson in Prague September 14, 2021

The Czech pro-democracy movement Million Moments would have to consider “more radical ways of protesting” if Prime Minister Andrej Babis retains power in what will be crucial elections next month, Chairman Benjamin Roll told bne IntelliNews in an interview.

Million Moments brought a quarter of a million people out to peacefully protest against the billionaire populist premier in June 2019 – the biggest Czech demonstration since the fall of Communism 30 years before – but has struggled to maintain momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now Roll believes its moment will come again at the October 8-9 general election.

After some ambivalence in the past about working with the opposition parties and an abortive attempt by its former leader to form his own party, the protest movement has now thrown in its lot with the two opposition coalitions.

“I think it is very important to co-operate with the opposition,” Roll says, adding that Million Moments had pushed for the opposition to unite and had played a part in making it happen.

The protest movement has endorsed both opposition coalitions – the Pirate party together with the STAN mayors’ party, as well as the SPOLU centre-right grouping – and its thousand volunteers are campaigning to raise voter awareness of the importance of the election, which Roll says will have wider regional repercussions.

Roll fears that if Babis is able to stay in power, perhaps with the support of ally President Milos Zeman and extreme left and rightwing parties, this would severely damage Czech democracy and could drive many voters to lose interest in politics. “I’m afraid a lot of people will be resigned if Andrej Babis wins. I’m afraid of this,” Roll says.

Current opinion polls show that Babis’ ANO party has regained a clear lead, though he would not be able to form a majority government unless he can break up the SPOLU coalition, probably by luring away the rightwing ODS party.

“The worst scenario would be that despite all the scandals there is not a political reaction,” the beaming 26-year-old theology student told bne IntelliNews at his movement’s office in Prague's gritty Zizkov neighbourhood. “The politicians will see they can do whatever they want. If those parties win a majority in parliament we can be sure the process of state capture would get even faster and the extremists will gain.”

For his part, Babis has always written Million Moments off as opposition supporters who are sore losers. Both he and President Zeman paint them as Prague liberals who want to ignore the votes of poorer, less well educated voters in the provinces (who tend to vote for them).

Agrofertisation

Million Moments launched its campaign in February 2018 shortly after Babis – who had been finance minister in the previous Social Democrat-led government – won the 2017 election and ruled as caretaker premier with the backing of the president and extremist parties. Later he was able to persuade the Social Democrats to join him as junior partners in a minority government.

The protesters see Babis as a grave threat to Czech democracy not so much because of his ideology – he has none – but because of the way he has accumulated power, his alliance with President Zeman and extremist parties, and the clear conflict of interest between his political power and his continuing control of his Agrofert agro-chemical conglomerate.

Babis is supreme within his own party, which remains little more than his personal vehicle, and has filled the government and administration with personal appointees, including several from Agrofert.

“The connection of Andrej Babis and the state is really something unprecedented,” Roll says. “Agrofert is growing inside the state and state officials are starting to care more about the interests of Andrej Babis than about the public.”

“Institutions were strong but after eight years of Andrej Babis we can see they are getting weaker and weaker,” he adds. The step-by-step way this “Agrofertisation” of the state has proceeded has made it more difficult to mobilise people, he points out.

Babis’ power partly rests on pro-Russian President Zeman, who initially allowed him to rule without winning a vote of confidence in 2017 and has hinted that he will do so again if the October general election does not produce a clear majority.

Babis, together with Zeman, have also co-operated with extremist parties such as the Czech Communist party and the far-right SPD of Tomio Okamura, regularly consulting with them and relying on them in key votes.

“He is legitimising extremists. This is a really huge problem for the future,” says Roll. “[When] Andrej Babis is not a candidate, there will be new populists who will use the way he has built. We must be ready for this,” he adds.

Kicked into touch

Million Moments also argues Babis’ business empire constitutes an insurmountable conflict of interest, a view that has now been officially supported by the European Commission, which has threatened to stop reimbursing Czech spending on EU subsidies until the government clarifies its policy.

Babis is separately under investigation by Czech police for alleged fraud over his use of EU funds for building his Storks Nest conference centre, 60km south of Prague.

Babis dismisses both the EU and Czech probes as political  attacks and has successfully kicked them into touch ahead of the elections.

Despite five years of police investigations, the new Supreme Prosecutor recently delayed a decision on whether to put Babis on trial over Storks Nest, and this is now conveniently likely to come after the election. His predecessor had resigned, complaining of interference by ANO’s justice minister, who had herself been appointed in place of an insufficiently loyal predecessor.

“It’s really absurd and for ordinary people they don’t understand why something like that can take so much time – I don’t understand it either,” says Roll. “It questions our faith in justice.”

Meanwhile, repeated foot dragging and appeals by ANO-controlled ministries have also delayed any significant EU action until after the election. The government has recently asked the EU for another two months to respond on the conflict of interest issue, putting it conveniently beyond the election.

Despite the EU refusal to reimburse the Czech state for EU subsidies given to Agrofert, the government has continued to send money to the conglomerate, the largest private Czech recipient of EU money, and is pursuing legal action against the EU for not reimbursing them.

The Commission has painstakingly stuck to the rulebook and has not escalated the dispute in the way it has done with Poland and (belatedly) with Hungary. “The EU is afraid of making him another [Viktor] Orban,” says Roll. “They don’t want to push Andrej Babis too much or our society too much, it would be a disaster, so they are being careful.”

For Roll and his supporters, Babis’ use of the state to fight his own personal battles in Brussels, as well as the suspected interference of the justice ministry in his fraud charges, clearly demonstrate his conflicts of interest and the damage caused by his accumulation of power.

According to David Ondracka, a former head of the Czech branch of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, the way Babis has been able to marshal the state to defend his business empire is extraordinary.

“I did not expect such open collaboration of the Czech authorities against the EU,” he says. “They seem to play quite openly in favour of Babis and his interests, playing for time, making new excuses. It is a huge blow for the rule of law, and the officials responsible for this should be help accountable.”

Nevertheless, up till now Czech voters do not seem to have taken on board that, given the EU is refusing to reimburse the subsidies the state is giving Agrofert, that money is essentially coming out of their pockets.

The Czech CEO

If all that has been disappointing, the pandemic, while restricting Million Moments’ opportunities to protest, has at least shown that Babis’ pretensions to be a technocratic manager are just hot air, says Roll.

The Czech death rate is the fifth highest in the world per capita, and the government’s policy has been poorly communicated and inconsistent, with too much attention paid to opinion polls rather than infection figures. As the country’s “CEO”, Babis’ most decisive action has been to fire four health ministers as scapegoats.

“Andrej Babis as a manager failed during the COVID crisis. This was his story: I am the best manager, I know how to run things in the most efficient way. This was destroyed – or at least I hope so,” says Roll.

However, Babis is still ahead in opinion polls, something that mystifies the protest leader, though he admits that opposition forces also failed to provide a clear message on whether the restrictions should be tighter or looser.

“It is very difficult for me to understand it,” he says, though he suggests: “People believe [the pandemic] is all behind us. And opposition politicians didn’t use the topic as they could – perhaps even us.”

Roll says that from talking to people across the country during his voter mobilisation campaign he feels that there is not much strong support for Babis or satisfaction with the government. “They want change but a lot of people are resigned,” he says, a feeling that will even deepen if he wins again.

Zeman has already said that he will nominate Babis to make the first attempt to form a government, and he could be allowed many months to do so, given the way the president has controversially interpreted the constitution.

The nightmare scenario for the opposition is a coalition between Babis and the far left Communist party and Okamura’s far right SPD and perhaps the new populist Oath party of former policeman Robert Slachta.

According to Roll, this would give the green light for further attacks on civil society and the media, and foster a climate of intolerance. Though the Czech constitution and institutions have been robust enough to withstand Babis so far, this could push Czechia down the slippery slope to Viktor Orban’s Hungary or at least Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland.

Replacing the head of the Czech public television would likely be the first goal, something Million Moments argues that it has helped block up till now. “They can see they can do this and no-one will do anything about this,” Roll says.

Backseat driver

In the case of political deadlock, another scenario is that President Zeman creates his own government, as he did in 2013-14, though this government would likely only last until at most the next presidential election in January 2023, at which Zeman cannot stand (though Babis might).

“This would be very hard for our constitutional system,” says Roll, adding: “[So long as] Milos Zeman is president, there is a huge danger for our state and we need to be ready to react.”

The threat of either of these possibilities would also put pressure on the rightwing ODS party and the Christian Democrats to abandon their pledges and form a coalition with ANO as the least worst option. Babis has already hinted that he could take a back seat, solving his conflict of interest problems at a stroke.

“If something like that was possible after the election, this is another ‘moment’ for Million Moments to protest against,” Roll says. “ANO without Babis is a nonsense.” However, he adds: “I’m afraid that if he will take a [backseat] Kaczynski role, it will be very difficult for us to say ‘ANO is the [real] problem’.”

Roll argues that any of these scenarios – an extremist coalition, a Zeman government or an ANO-ODS government – would force Million Moments to lead new huge demonstrations together with opposition parties.

Given how these have been ignored in the past, these protests may even include “more radical ways”, though he declined to spell out what these could be.

Onetime ally Ondracka says such radical protests would only include sit-ins or blockades – “remember this is the Czech Republic we’re talking about” he jokes – though he questions whether Million Moments is really the best movement to lead them.

“I’m quite sceptical that [Million Moments] could be the ones to run this,” he says. “They are very conciliatory and they are not street fighters.”

As the Hungarian opposition gears up for elections there in the spring, the success or otherwise of this opposition campaign in Czechia could have regional importance. It could build on the success of the Slovak protest movement that forced Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign in March 2018 and helped bring the opposition to power in March 2020, or it could mark another stage in the "democratic backsliding" of Central Europe.

“I hope it will show it is possible to change things,” Roll says. “If  [not] it will ‘break’ active citizens in the Czech Republic and perhaps elsewhere.”

“I hope the Czech Republic will be a good example of how to do it before it’s too late,” he adds. “The lesson is to recognise the threat and mobilise at the right time, when you still have free elections.”

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