Czech activist Jan Cemper wants democracy — “real democracy” — and he wants it now. That is why the former electrotechnician, who now works for a small Prague travel agency, established the Real Democracy Now(STD) group together with a few sympathizers. The main objective of the group, which draw its inspiration from foreign protest movements such as the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street, is to organize tent protests in Prague and other cities starting from April 28.
By the end of the month under the name Occupy Prague they intend to build a tent village on Klárov square that should serve as a venue for debates with other citizens on alternatives to the present political-economic system.
Although Cemper is close to the Czechoslovak Anarchist Federation (ČSAF), of which he was a member until 2008, and also has taken part in the Czech anti-NATO and anti-IMF protests held at the turn of the millennium, he in his own words no longer adheres to radical extremist ideas. “Anarchism is a big utopian dream. I rather see a future in direct democracy,” the SDT co-founder and coordinator stated immediately at the beginning of his meeting with Czech Position.
Q: You say you are, above all, devoted to direct democracy. What form should it take specifically?
CEMPER: At present oligarchy rules this place. A minority controls the majority. We have a mafia government. We want to return power to the people. We would like to push through general referenda that would overrule the legislative bodies. If the people would have expressed themselves in any way or another through a referendum, politicians should not be able to change such a decision, they would at best, after a certain period of time, be allowed to call another referendum.
Q: I'm not sure I’d want my grandmother to decide about, say, tax reform in a referendum…
CEMPER: Currently, a chemist is finance minister [Miroslav Kalousek, Top 09] while a person completely lacking in agricultural or ecological education is acting as the minister of the environment [Tomáš Chalupa, Civic Democrats (ODS)]. In such a situation your grandmother is of the same level. Overall, however, only the most important issues would be tackled by referenda. People would be able to decide on whether to send Kč 80 billion to the European Union or which mission our soldiers should be sent to. It is, after all, their money. I am not disputing the need for a council of experts to exist. But personally, I don’t like the division of a Chamber of Deputies [lower house of parliament] and a Senate [upper house]. The government should be one single entity consisting of personalities, politicians and experts, all under the same roof. ‘Eventually, this would also require a change of the constitution. But certainly not in the way envisaged by the Holešovská Appeal ...’
Eventually, this would also require a change of the constitution. But certainly not in the way envisaged by the Holešov Appeal [Holešovská výzva, which is demanding public referenda] – they, it seems, already have an exact wording for the changes [they want implemented]. We don’t agree with that. If it comes to constitutional changes, let the people themselves decide and let this process take place in its own time. Let the people decide whether they want a party-based system and, if not, let them propose an alternative. That is where I see the shortcomings of the Icelandic revolution. It’s all very well they’re putting the former politicians and bankers on trial who brought about that country’s crash; on the other hand, a select group was formed to draw up a new constitution and ordinary people have no way of seeing into what these changes involve.
Q: Are these ordinary people at all interested in following these political processes from so close? Do they have the time and mood for that?
CEMPER: People are indeed interested. The state is, after all, managing their money. At least some measure of transparency in the state budget should be a matter of course — so as to enable us to see where and to whom that money is going to. We would like to know the names of all companies partaking in state contracts etc. We are continuously incurring debts, simply because the state is poorly managing its finances. Twenty percent of state funds are, just like that, vanishing somewhere down the line due to corruption and obscure state orders.
Q: Are you sure you would be able to find experts better at running the country’s finances?
CEMPER: Experts aren’t really the issue. Politicians should rather get a real sense that someone is watching them, that they are accountable for their actions and can’t afford showing people their middle finger. They should know that if they fail in something they will be held responsible and not get away with pretending as if nothing had happened, as is happening now at a regular basis – just look at the [ProMoPro] affair involving [ODS Defense Minister] Alexander Vondra.
Q: You are proposing ten points to improve the situation in the Czech Republic. Could you briefly enunciate these to us?
CEMPER: Firstly, I’d stress that all our resolutions are adopted at assemblies anyone is allowed to attend. We sharply reject racism, xenophobia and hatred towards homosexuals. We believe that the present system is not sufficiently democratic. It's devoid of any elements of direct democracy. We consider the current system to be unsustainable over the long run, from an economic perspective but for instance also for environmental and social reasons. ‘We believe that the present system is not sufficiently democratic. It's devoid of any elements of direct democracy.’
Global corporations, banks and governments don’t give a damn about the environment and inter-human relationships. We reject the monopolies of the banks, multinational corporations, the European Union and other large international institutions. But we, for example, also reject that bailiffs in this country can nowadays do whatever they like. The current system is simply unsustainable. We should, therefore, look for alternatives which should come from us, from an awakening of society. Let us not rely anymore on politicians and the state. We have to rely on ourselves – the solution to this crisis is within us. We really have the power to create a new future.
Q: You had your first action event Sunday, April 25, in Prague’s Bunkr club. How did your “beginning of the future” work out?
CEMPER: It was a benefit concert attended by roughly 100 people. Expressing their support and performing in the Bunkr were hardcore punk bands and bands from the modern underground scene such as Drom, Kiss The Sun and Underground Theatre. Also featured was a half-hour lecture about our planned Klárov protest. We managed to collect some money for mobile toilets and basic facilities. We also distributed some materials and organized the posting-up of placards on the streets. We gear all our efforts towards April 28.
We will present a more detailed announcement of our protest a week before it goes ahead, during the upcoming trade union demonstration which, of course, has our full support. Bringing down this government is simply a necessity. The current reforms threaten a large part of the population, particularly the poor and the unemployed. The freezing of pensions and the VAT increases would in the coming year, among other things, result in a large rise in the number of homeless people. People would simply lack the money for rent and food.
Q: Will dringing down the government solve anything?
CEMPER: True, also other steps need to be taken, towards direct democracy, transparency of public contracts and the removability of politicians from office.
Q: So how will Occupy Prague proceed?
CEMPER: On April 28 we will set up a tent village at Klárov of at least 50 and up to, ideally, several hundred tents. We will organize various lectures, workshops and, above all, discussions with people. We would like to know what’s bugging them and what solutions they suggest. We would like to hear the opinions of at least 1000 people and with their help draw up a set of specific demands with which we'd go to government and opposition politicians.
Q: What if the government and opposition completely ignore you?
CEMPER: Then we simply won't vote for them. We will also spur people to civil disobedience and the like.
Q: So specific objectives will only crystallize from that Klárov protest?
Q: How many people do you expect to come there?
CEMPER: At least 2000 people will take part in the demonstration which starts at Wenceslas Square. But not all of them need to be camping for all those months at Klárov. It will be enough if after work they come to visit, support and debate with us. We want to stick it out there to at least 12 May, which is World Occupy Day. ‘[Not] all of them need to be camping for all those months at Klárov. It will be enough if after work they come to visit, support and debate with us.’
Q: Do you already know what workshops you are going to organize?
CEMPER: Every day at six we'll have our so-called “grand assembly” when it is decided what actions will be taken in the coming days. Apart from that we already have several commitments from experts for the holding of lectures. For example professor Milan Valach, spokesman of the Movement for Direct Democracy, should be making an appearance or Ilona Švihlíková, who focuses on various aspects of globalization, while the workshop on internet security should be held by a member of the Pirate Party. This all will be complemented with happenings and petitions.
Q: How close are you to the Czech Pirate Party?
CEMPER: Quite a few among us sympathize with the pirates. Of all the political parties they are certainly closest to our hearts.
Q: In your promotion materials you also feature the Guy Fawkes mask, the symbol of the Anonymous movement…
CEMPER: Also their movement is rooted in the ideals of the Occupy movement. We are very close to them as well, since they, similar to us, don’t rely on a leadership or a charismatic personality. Like Anonymous we are of the view that we constitute a driving force capable of showing politicians and global administrations that it’s we who will decide about our future and that they’d better pay attention to us. That's where we've got a lot in common with Anonymous. It’s even sometimes suggested that Occupy is the internet appearance of the Occupy movement – the only difference being that we're on the squares while they’re in cyberspace.
Q: If anything, Czech politicians tend to make fun of Anonymous. You think they'll take you seriously?
CEMPER: The government not even takes a trade union demonstration attended by 40,000 people seriously. Each movement that aims to achieve something first has to show that it is strong, with regular people at its side who go to work and watch television but who are ready to take to the streets with them. The present government demonstrates incredible arrogance of power while it must be aware that the trade unions are capable of bringing this country to a halt.
Q: Is your movement symbolic or do you believe you can achieve concrete results?
CEMPER: We would at the very least want to push through that law on general referenda. Under public pressure politicians will have to put that into law. Moreover, there is talk about a new economic crisis, and I strongly believe that movements such as Occupy will increasingly see their numbers boosted as a result. People will soon realize that growth for the sake of growth won’t lead anywhere. Soon the moment will arrive that we'll have to ask ourselves as to whether we at all desire capitalism in its current form, and also which changes to implement to prevent the system from completely collapsing. If this fails to happen it will lead to civil war or another such catastrophe. ‘[There] is talk about a new economic crisis, and I strongly believe that movements such as Occupy will increasingly see their numbers boosted as a result.’
Q: As of late, you’re by no means the only movement claiming these things. How do you for example perceive the Holešov Appeal and the group surrounding Mr Ponert?
CEMPER: Some of our members attended the opening discussion of the Holešov Appeal. We are of the view that there was a purely undemocratic atmosphere at that meeting. They want to install a new government, tell everyone who'll be in it and are already creating a network of their own experts. This, we think, rather smacks of some kind of corporatism or a dictatorship of experts under their control. It certainly is nothing spontaneous – I sense lobbyist interests of some big companies here.
Zdeněk Ponert was present at some of our assemblies. Although I view some of his opinions positively, I believe it is the kind of person with whom it's impossible to enter into a discussion. He's simply always conducting a monologue. This character reminds me of [far-right leader] Miroslav Sládek. Although, unlike Sládek, he is not a racist, his rhetoric is exactly the same.
Initiatives such as ProAlt and Alternativa Zdola are more prepared to listen to the man on the street. We are therefore closer to them. We think, however, it’s regrettable that many people from the [parliamentary] opposition turned up at ProAlt meetings. We believe that ProAlt should, on the contrary, show a much more critical approach towards the opposition.
Q: Why is it, you think, that at this point in time so many of these groups and initiatives have sprung up?
CEMPER: A huge number of problems have accumulated here and people are not prepared to put up with it anymore. On top of that, thanks to the media, people are now able to reflect what is happening around the world. I’d compare this time with what was going on before 1968. People desire change and so there's a period of revolts of sorts impends where the citizens will not content themselves with a mere change of government but demand more profound changes.
Q: Some critics compare you to teenagers who are in love. Don't you think your demands are just naive exclamations and that none of you have come up with some specific solutions?
CEMPER: I can’t see any naivety in the citizens revolting as a result of being totally ignored by the government for over twenty years. A discussion regarding more radical change is an absolute necessity; otherwise we’ll end up like Greece. There, moreover, certainly are also some concrete proposals. I would for example compose the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies from representatives of parties which managed to secure more than one percent of the vote and complement their ranks with personalities, who aren't nominated by the parties, as well as experts. Professional chambers, students, the unemployed, trade unionists and the like would all be represented there.
Q: Can you imagine what a shambles this would produce? Such a “government” would never be able to operate and, moreover, it would be full of extremists and oddballs.
CEMPER: This indeed is a certain disadvantage. But now we have a big party monopoly which needs to be broken up. If there'll be one racist ranting there no-one will take any notice anyway – it is, after all, of no consequence. Now there are Stalinists there such as Marta Semelová and no-one is bothered by it either.