World

Standing Up for Freedom . . .

The mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, and the mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, arrive at Old Town Hall in Prague to sign a partnership agreement between their two cities on January 13, 2020. (David W Cerny / Reuters)
. . . and against Beijing and the Kremlin. Meet the mayor of Prague.

Vaclav Havel was the leading dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia, and the first president after the Fall of the Wall. All over the world, he became a byword for freedom, democracy, and human rights. There is still a Havel tradition in the Czech Republic, even if it is not the dominant one.

Havelians, if you will, traveled to Taiwan last week, in a show of support for that brave, beleaguered democracy. Communist China was very unhappy. The trip was a “despicable act,” said a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman. The foreign minister himself, Wang Yi, said that the delegation’s leader — Milos Vystrcil, president of the Czech senate — would “pay a heavy price.”

A second foreign-ministry spokesman, however, pointed out that the Czech government had “distanced” itself from Vystrcil and his delegation. They did not “represent the government’s policy,” said the spokesman — and he was absolutely right.

The Czech president, Milos Zeman, is a warm supporter of the Chinese government, and of the Russian government as well. This shows the split in Czech society (and Europe more broadly). I will have more to say about Zeman, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin in due course.

Zeman said that the senate president had engaged in a “childish provocation.” He further said that the senate president would be excluded from any further foreign-policy briefings by the government.

Part of the delegation to Taiwan was the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib. He had been there before: as a student, studying medicine. As mayor, Hrib has stood up to the Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin, both. He has required police protection, owing to threats from the Kremlin. So have other Prague officials.

I wrote about one last month — Ondrej Kolar, a “district mayor” — here.

“Zdenek Hrib” is a mouthful, certainly for a non-Czech, or non-Slav. The last name indicates a kind of mushroom — the Czechs’ favorite, according to the mayor. He says that mushroom hunting is a national pastime. How do you pronounce “Hrib,” in proper Czech? How do you pronounce “Zdenek,” for that matter? I’m afraid this is a mission impossible.

Commenting wryly on his name, the mayor says, “I wouldn’t recommend it for an international career.”

Hrib was born in 1981, when Communism had eight more years to go. The mayor has memories of the period. “I was the only kid in class who could explain what ‘free elections’ meant.” Free elections were one of the demands of the protesters.

He did not dream of becoming a politician. His field was medicine, and he became prominent in the “digitalization” of health care. Indeed, he is a co-founder of the Czech Republic’s digital system for prescriptions.

Yet he has made a mark in politics, becoming mayor of Prague in 2018.

A descendant of Havel — in mind and spirit — Hrib has met with dissidents from China. He has flown the Tibetan flag from Prague’s city hall. In fact, he revived that tradition. City and town halls across the Czech Republic have traditionally flown the Tibetan flag on March 10, which is known as Tibetan Uprising Day. It was on March 10, 1959, that Tibetans rose up against Chinese Communist rule, in a doomed but valiant effort. The Dalai Lama fled the country.

Vaclav Havel was a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibet.

Under the mayor before Zdenek Hrib, Prague made a deal with Beijing: a sister-city arrangement. There was a clause in this deal, namely, “The City of Prague confirms its continuous commitment to the One China Policy of the Government of the Czech Republic, and acknowledges that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory.”

In good conscience, Hrib and his allies could not abide by this clause. So China canceled the agreement. Prague then formed a sister-city relationship with Taipei.

This infuriated the Chinese authorities, who retaliated by banning Czech musicians. That is, they canceled tours of China by four Czech musical ensembles.

Did you hear about the New Year’s reception? As is traditional, Mayor Hrib invited representatives of foreign governments to toast the new year. Among the invitees were the ambassador from China and the representative of Taiwan. When the Chinese ambassador found out about the Taiwanese rep, he protested. He demanded of Hrib that he expel the Taiwanese. Hrib said that it was not Czech tradition to expel invited guests. So the ambassador expelled himself, so to speak.

Flash forward. A government minister had the same problem at a reception. The ambassador demanded that she expel the Taiwanese representative — which she did.

The minister and the mayor are very different cats, very different Czechs.

To give you a sense of President Zeman, I will cite a couple of press reports. The below paragraph from a Reuters story published in 2016 provides a neat summation:

“Zeman has been keen to forge stronger ties with China and Russia since his election in 2013 rather than with partners in NATO and the European Union. EU relations with both Beijing and Moscow are tainted by disputes over human rights and trade.”

And here is a headline over an item from Radio Prague International, in 2014: “President Zeman Tells Chinese Officials Prague Will Not Question China’s Stance on Tibet, Taiwan.”

In 2015, Zeman was the only Western leader to attend a military parade in Beijing.

As for Zeman’s relationship with Putin and Russia, it might be glimpsed in one extraordinary fact: Two years ago, Zeman refused to participate in 50th-anniversary commemorations of the Prague Spring. (In August 1968, the Soviet army crushed the aspirations of Czechoslovakians for freedom.)

While President Zeman is a favorite of the Kremlin, Mayor Hrib is the opposite. Hrib presided over the renaming of a square next to the Russian embassy for Boris Nemtsov, the late opposition leader to Putin. Nemtsov represented hopes for democracy in Russia. He was murdered in 2015, within sight of the Kremlin. Other capitals have renamed squares for Nemtsov too — squares by Russian embassies. Kyiv and Tallinn have, and so has Washington, D.C.

These renamings have infuriated the Kremlin, of course. Earlier this year, there were reports of a murder plot against Hrib and two district mayors — the aforementioned Ondrej Kolar, and Pavel Novotny. All of them required ’round-the-clock police protection, and Kolar was forced into hiding.

During this period, Hrib made a statement that reflected the stance of all three men: “It is very important for me to stand by my beliefs, although it means a risk to my life.”

As I mentioned, Czech society is split between democrats, or Havelians, such as Hrib, and people who lean toward Russia, are attracted to authoritarian rule, and embrace a pan-Slavism. The second group has the upper hand. They are often called “nationalists,” these people, but that is a misleading designation. How can deference to Moscow and pan-Slavism — whatever you think of those things — be nationalist?

Hrib points out that there is a curious alliance between former Communists and present-day oligarchs. So it is in several countries, including Russia. He further points out the need for liberal-democratic politicians to band together and offer solutions to people’s problems.

At the end of our discussion, I ask him about America — which leads to talk of the Trump family. The first of the president’s three wives, Ivana, was born in Czechoslovakia, in 1949. (His current wife, the first lady, comes from this part of the world too: Slovenia.) Indeed, Ivana Trump and Zdenek Hrib share a hometown: Zlin, in the southeast of the country. Three of the president’s children are half Czech.

That is a fact that generally goes unremarked. It is interesting to think about.

For the podcast I’ve done with Zdenek Hrib — a level-headed, modest, and refreshing leader — go here.

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