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The Havel Spirit, and Its Enemies

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)

The subject of Taiwan is ever interesting, for many reasons, and it is terribly interesting now. Today on the homepage, we have a piece headed “Taiwan: Pariah and Poster Child.” Its subheading is, “An island in the pandemic.” See what you think, here.

On Friday, my Impromptus column included discussion of an assassination plot in Prague. According to reports, Moscow has dispatched a poisoner to take care of three Prague officials: the mayor and two district mayors. All three have round-the-clock police protection, and one is in hiding. This is serious business. All three officials offended the Kremlin in specific ways.

What is the relation between this development and Taiwan? Hang on a moment.

The mayor of Prague is Zdenek Hrib, born in 1981. He is a Czech in the tradition of Vaclav Havel. He is strong for freedom, democracy, and human rights. He is in marked contrast with the Czech president, Milos Zeman. They represent different strains in Czech society.

Mayor Hrib is a friend of Taiwan, and in fact he interned at a hospital there in his student days.

Under the previous mayor, 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.”

Hrib and his allies could not abide by this clause. China canceled the agreement. Prague subsequently formed a sister-city relationship with Taipei. In the PRC, there was the usual fury.

The mayor has criticized China for trying to take advantage of the pandemic and selling defective test kits and the like.

He has criticized China for its gross human-rights violations — and met with dissidents.

He has flown the Tibetan flag over City Hall. (Havel, of course, was a great supporter of the Dalai Lama and of the rights of Tibet.)

Beijing, fed up with this pestiferous mayor, canceled tours of China by Czech musical ensembles. (This is better than sending an assassin, to be sure.)

One more item:

Hrib invited a representative of Taiwan to a reception. The Chinese ambassador demanded that the Taiwanese rep be ejected. Hrib refused, saying that he was not in the habit of throwing out invited guests. The ambassador left in a huff.

President Zeman is a different cat — very different from Hrib. A former Communist, he has warm relations with Putin and warm relations with the PRC. He is supported by many on the right — in Europe and elsewhere — because he is seen as anti-EU. But what do “right” and “left” really mean anymore?

A paragraph from a Reuters story, published in 2016, gives 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.”

A headline from Radio Prague International — over an item in 2014 — says a lot, too: “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. The next year, Xi made a visit to Prague, during which some people had the cheek to display Tibetan and Taiwanese flags. Police confiscated those flags.

In 2018, President Zeman refused to participate in events marking the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring — clearly so as not to offend his friend Putin. In recent weeks, he has slammed a move by city officials in Prague. They removed a statue of the Soviet marshal Ivan Konev, which Czechoslovakia’s Communist government had erected in 1980. (I wrote about this issue in that Friday column.)

There are a lot of people like Zeman in the Czech Republic. And in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, and elsewhere in the world. (Including the United States, of course.)

Earlier, I mentioned that a Prague official is in hiding. That is Ondrej Kolar, a district mayor. The Kremlin is furious at him for the removal of the Konev statue. From hiding, Kolnar gave an interview with the BBC, in which he made this poignant statement: “. . . I am under police protection due to the threats I have been getting, not only from the Russians but also from Czech citizens who are — how to say it? — on the Russian side.”

Funny, but people on that side never have to go into hiding, for fear of their lives. They are loud and proud, and bullying. They themselves are not subject to assassination plots — but the targets of their wrath are.

How has Mayor Hrib offended the Kremlin? Simply by existing, surely, but more specifically for this reason: The Prague city council, with the mayor’s backing, renamed the square in front of the Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov. (The Washington, D.C., city council and other bodies have done the same.) Nemtsov was the Russian liberal democrat who led the opposition to Putin. Nemtsov was, of course, murdered within sight of the Kremlin in 2015.

“I would really like us to be a country that wouldn’t steer away from the tradition of human rights,” Hrib said last year. “A country that would not turn away from victims of injustice, but one that offers a helping hand.”

Last month, he said that “it is very important for me to stand by my belief, although it means a risk for my life.”

Is this “virtue signaling” and “moral preening”? Those are the phrases I hear today, when someone tries to stand up for basic right and wrong. These are weird times, and they will likely get no less weird. Meanwhile, Zdenek Hrib, Ondrej Kolnar, and others are setting important examples, and keeping important fires burning.

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