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14 October 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 12:53pm

Prague’s Pirate Party mayor on his war with illiberal politics

Zdenek Hrib is part of a new wave of progressive mayors in central Europe campaigning for direct EU funding to fight cronyism and the climate crisis. 

By Ido Vock

Zdenek Hrib may be the most famous Pirate Party politician in Europe. The mayor of Prague symbolises the Pirates’ transformation from a collection of activist nerds campaigning for looser copyright laws and internet freedom, to a modernising political force with a broad platform, only some of which is concerned with computers. In some polls, the Pirates now come second in the Czech Republic and the party could well play a king-maker role after the next elections in 2021.

In no small part, the rise of the Czech Pirates is due to Hrib himself, who took office two years ago. During his time in city hall, he has firmly positioned himself within a long lineage of humanist Czech politicians dating back to Václav Havel, the former dissident and the first president of the Czech Republic. He has taken a hard stance against the communist legacy in Prague – removing a statue to a Soviet general partially responsible for the crackdown against the 1968 Prague Spring – and become a vocal advocate for Tibetan and Taiwanese rights, much to the irritation of Chinese officials. “The role of the politician in Czech Republic is also to be a history teacher,” he says of his decision to challenge the communist-era narrative of the postwar period.

Hrib is also one of a wave of broadly progressive mayors of central European capitals fighting what he sees as the illiberalism taking hold in the region’s politics. Together with his counterparts from the other Visegrad capitals – Warsaw, Bratislava and Budapest – he formed the so-called Pact of Free Cities last year, promising increased cooperation between the broadly progressive, pro-European city administrations as they came under assault from national governments with decidedly different tendencies.

The Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, for instance, has feuded with Hrib on numerous occasions, attempting to shift some of the blame for a resurgence in coronavirus cases on to the mayor. Hrib called for the prime minister, also a billionaire businessman, to resign last year after an EU audit found a potential conflict of interest between Babis’s business and political activities.

[See also: When Chinese influence fails]

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“We take the role of ambassadors of the liberal and democratic traditions in the region, and that includes also the protection of human rights and social justice,” Hrib says, adding that the Pirate Party’s main focus remains on political reform. “We are disruptors of the existing political system.”

The Visegrad mayors want the EU to directly fund cities, bypassing national governments which can decide where funding should be disbursed (often not to big cities led by their political opponents). The mayors argue their administrations are less prone to cronyism and more serious about tackling the climate crisis than national governments. “In the Czech Republic there is a huge conflict of interest on the national level – the prime minister owns the companies which are getting [European] subsidies,” says Hrib.

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In private, officials in Brussels, who primarily work with EU member states rather than regions, aren’t keen on direct funding for cities expanding much beyond the relatively modest instruments already on hand, such as the approximately €10bn earmarked for urban development from a seven-year fund to reduce EU regional inequalities. Whether the Free Cities alliance succeed depends on them convincing European leaders that cities have an increasing role to play in the Covid recovery and the transition away from carbon emissions, a battle which the Viesgrad mayors have not yet won.

Yet Hrib believes the underlying political forces that drove his accession to office are reflected far beyond the Visegrad capitals, pointing to mayors in western Europe who are greener and more progressive than their respective national leaders. Alliances of cities such as the global C40 group are becoming increasingly prominent in politics, a trend which is unlikely to disappear as the political disparities between big cities and countries at large increase. “The problems of today’s cities are so similar. Therefore, I believe that the solutions are also transferable from one capital to another.”

[see also: After the end of history]