In Prague, a Fight for Gay Rights Goes International

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The Czech government, in cracking down on a gay pride march, set off a diplomatic incident over its leadership's rightward push

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A marcher in the Prague Pride Parade wears a mask depicting Czech President Vaclav Klaus / Reuters

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Prague Castle has become a hub of activism again. Czech President Václav Klaus had exhausted the list of political enemies who could be publicly insulted or otherwise blamed for the country's problems, so new enemies have to be added to the list -- in this case, homosexuals and the foreign embassies in Prague who defend them. In August, he launched yet another attack on Czech society's open-minded nature, damaging, in the process, the reputation of the country abroad.

Earlier that month, just days before the Czech capital was set to hold its first-ever gay pride parade on August 13, Klaus's senior advisor Petr Hajek wrote, "The prepared Prague gay carnival is a pressure action and a political demonstration of a world with deformed values," referring to homosexuals as "deviant." (Hajek had previously got into hot water for claiming that the September 11 attacks were a U.S. Government conspiracy, and for claiming, on the day that Osama bin Laden died, that the terrorist never existed but was a "media fiction.") In response, Ambassadors from 13 countries, including the United States, signed onto a statement expressing their "solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in the Czech Republic, supporting their right to use the occasion to march together peacefully and lawfully, in order to raise awareness of the specific issues that affect them."

Rather than distance himself from Hajek's remarks, President Klaus endorsed them. "I do not feel any pride in the event either," he said in a statement posted on his website. The parade, he wrote, was a manifestation of "homosexualism." He added that the term "deviant," far from being derogatory, is "a neutral term in terms of value."  Klaus later derided the Western ambassadors for meddling in his country's affairs.  "I can't imagine any Czech ambassador daring to interfere by petition with internal political discussion in any democratic country," he told the Czech News Agency CTK.

Klaus is a good strategist. While of the media here often refers to the "truth-loving" Czechs, who are supposed to be supporters of former President Václav Havel, there's less discussion about Klaus's popularity.

Though he belongs to the center-right Civic Democrats, Klaus can count two right-wing political parties that regard him as their ideological leader -- the Strana Svobodných Občanů (Party of Free Citizens) and Suverenita (Sovereignty). Věci Veřejné (Public Affairs), a member of the ruling coalition, supports him as well. There are five internet news sites based on the tenets of Klaus's ideology, among them První Zprávy (First News) and Fragmenty (Fragments). He also has a select group of journalists who are "appointed" to talk to him.

In the Czech Republic's sometimes crowded political scene, Klaus has been maneuvering further right, collecting a political movement around himself that is often defined as much by what it's for as by what it's against: migrants, intellectuals, returning exiles, the Roma people, and homosexuals. Last month, Klaus announced that the environmentalist movement posed a greater threat to the world than al-Qaeda.

Presidential aide Petr Hájek later added another statement against the event. "The homosexuals' parade is a form of coercion and is far from being innocent fun. It is a serious political demonstration of a worldview encompassing certain values. Among those the traditional family plays no role and deep national traditions and cultural roots are being gnawed upon by a monster called multiculturalism."

The Czech political culture is not that typically encourages public outrage. People here, whether opposition activists or normal citizens, tend to argue with their president very gently, as if it were inappropriate to challenge him. So when European ambassadors in Prague issued a statement countering his criticism of the Prague Pride event, the Castle was outraged. "The American embassy is happy the Czech Republic is a country in which its citizens can enjoy all human rights regardless of their sexual orientation. It is regrettable that there are people in official positions that hold intolerant views," read the US embassy's statement. Klaus's sharp reaction to the statement caught the attention of The Washington Post and The Economist, the latter of which noted that Klaus could endanger his country's reemergence from communism, much as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán does in Hungary: "Poor countries needing investment and favors from their richer counterparts should polish their images and avoid rows. So it may seem odd that so many politicians in ex-Communist Europe, with wobbly economies and security, often do the opposite." Klaus's demonization of gays isn't just bad for Czech gay rights, and isn't just bad for Czech civil liberties -- it's bad for our relationship with the greater Europe on which we so depend.

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Erik Tabery is the editor of Respekt, a prominent Czech political magazine.

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