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Czechs protest against prime minister’s business links

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Via Financial Times

Hundreds of thousands of Czechs descended on Prague on Saturday to rally against billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis, in one of the biggest protests in the central European country for three decades.

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which swept away communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, protesters waving Czech and EU flags and banners emblazoned with messages such as “No more Babis”, flooded on to Letna plain in the north of Prague demanding a renewal of the nation’s politics.

Police said that at least 200,000 people took part in the protest, which is the latest in a series of demonstrations against Mr Babis organised by the student-led activist group, A Million Moments for Democracy. Organisers said 300,000 people took part.

The protests began during the spring, and have centred on the business interests of Mr Babis, who is one of the richest people in the Czech Republic, and built up an empire stretching from food and agriculture to the media, before going into politics.

“We are not protesting against the result of the elections, but against the abuse of power by those who won them,” Benjamin Roll, a theological student and one of the leaders of A Million Moments, told the sea of protesters, who whistled and blew horns at the mention of Mr Babis.

The initial trigger for the protests came in April after police recommended charging Mr Babis with fraud in relation to the alleged misuse of an EU subsidy. The next day, the justice minister resigned, and was subsequently replaced by an ally of Mr Babis.

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The protests were fuelled further when a leaked EU audit concluded provisionally that Mr Babis had a conflict of interest, because he was involved in implementing the EU budget in the Czech Republic, while also retaining a direct economic interest in the fortunes of his former business, Agrofert.

Mr Babis put the business into trust in 2017, but the EU audit said he was the sole beneficiary of the trust funds, and noted that his wife was on a body that oversaw them. Organisers of Saturday’s protest called on Mr Babis to sever all links with his former businesses by the end of the year, or to resign.

Mr Babis has denied any conflict of interest, and Prague prosecutors have since decided not to press charges against him in the fraud probe. However, the protesters who thronged on to Letna — the scene of some of the biggest anti-Communist protests 30 years ago — said that under Mr Babis’s leadership, the country was going in the wrong direction.

“We think that democracy is in danger in the Czech Republic,” said Jiri, who had travelled for four hours from Uherske Hradiste to join the protest. “There are a lot of oligarchs, and people like this can break what we and our parents have built in the last 30 years.”

Despite the huge turnout, which was similar to the previous protest arranged by A Million Moments in June, observers said Mr Babis’s position remained relatively strong as his political opponents are fragmented, and he retains the support of president Milos Zeman.

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“I don’t think that [these protests] are a big threat, because [Babis’s] popularity according to opinion polls is still very high,” said Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the University of Economics in Prague, pointing out that Mr Babis’s ANO party remained comfortably the most popular.

Participants in Saturday’s demonstration conceded there was little prospect of Mr Babis stepping down. But they insisted it was still worth protesting against the 65-year-old tycoon.

“I think that it is necessary to keep the fire burning,” said Bob Kartous, who was a speaker at the previous anti-Babis rally in June. “I hope [the protests] will keep going until the next election . . . [and] I hope that after that, we will be able to change the political environment.”

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