100,000 demand Czech PM’s resignation
The mixed social makeup of the crowd, along with the large distances people had travelled for the protest, suggested anger had reached beyond liberal, relatively cosmopolitan Prague, where opposition to Babis has always been strong.
“Andrej Babis gives us a new reason to protest every week,” Benjamin Roll of Million Moments for Democracy, one of the protest organisers, told the crowd. “We’ve had enough.”
Slovak-born Babis denies fraud charges and has condemned a draft report from Brussels demanding the return of millions of euros in farming subsidies.
Babis, who is the Czech Republic’s second-wealthiest citizen, has already faced a series of large protests in recent weeks, opposing his appointment of a new justice minister while prosecutors have to decide whether to indict Babis over alleged fraud.
The billionaire was required to transfer ownership of his businesses to two trust funds in February 2017, months before becoming prime minister, to avoid a conflict of interest.
But a confidential EU draft report said Babis and his wife remained the beneficiary of his Agrofert conglomerate of more than 200 food, chemicals and media firms.
A public Slovak registry also still lists the couple as the final benefactors of Agrofert’s firms in Slovakia.
Confusing the personal and national interest, Babis dismissed the report as “an attack on the Czech Republic, an attack on Czech interests, a destabilisation of the Czech Republic”.
The EU report concluded that he still formally controlled the businesses and influenced their subsidies and Prague should now return about €17.5 million that Agrofert received. The report said the findings could be altered after Czech input.
Brussels has already halted further subsidies.
The protesters again demanded the removal of Justice Minister Marie Benesova, who has significant influence over state prosecutors and was appointed shortly after the authorities recommended the prime minister be indicted in April.
Benesova voted against a parliamentary request by police to remove Babis’ immunity from prosecution.
The 64-year-old populist tycoon also faces allegations that he collaborated with the secret police under communism. It raises questions about Babis’ decision to go into a coalition government with the Czech Communist Party.
“Babis is an oligarch. He is like [former Italian prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi but worse,” said retiree Vaclav Bozdech, who was wearing a mask of the prime minister’s face with the letters StB stamped on the forehead in reference to his alleged role as an agent for the Soviet-era secret police.
“He thinks he owns the Czech Republic and he isn’t even Czech. He is a Slovak gangster and they were glad to get rid of him. He is like the hijacker of a plane and we are his hostages.”
Crowds gather regularly in Prague against Babis. Picture credit: Wikimedia