Czechs tussle with 'nanny state' as they welcome 2023 with fireworks despite ban

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By David Hutt
Fireworks light the sky above the Statue of St. Wenceslas at Prague´s Wenceslas Square during the New Year celebrations in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 1, 2016.
Fireworks light the sky above the Statue of St. Wenceslas at Prague´s Wenceslas Square during the New Year celebrations in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 1, 2016.   -   Copyright  Katerina Sulova/CTK via AP

New Year’s Eve was far more explosive than the Prague authorities wanted as some revellers defied an edict banning fireworks displays.

The Czech capital’s annual fireworks display was cancelled again for the third year running, this time because of financial constraints and not COVID-19. 

But local authorities had also outlawed people from setting off their own pyrotechnics near the centre of the city because of environmental and noise pollution concerns, threatening hefty fines on anyone who went against the ban.

But that was without counting on a national distaste for anything that whiffs of a nanny state.

Ban 'did not work'

The police reportedly issued multiple fines before giving up after midnight. Around a dozen people were arrested, one for attacking a police officer, and paramedics responded to 81 calls over revelry-related injuries, according to local media. 

On Ve Smečkách street, near the central train station, more than 30 buildings' windows were smashed by fireworks. The roof of a supermarket caught fire.

“The ban on pyrotechnics in the centre of Prague did not work,” ran the headline in a national newspaper on Monday. 

New Year’s Eves are normally raucous in the Czech Republic, though locals say it’s less like a warzone than yesteryear. Few people nowadays set off bangers in champagne bottles, yet fireworks are cheap and the more dangerous pyrotechnics, some supposed only for professionals, are relatively easy to come by. 

Austrians and Germans frequently venture over the border to stock up. The Czech Republic was the world’s seventh-biggest exporter of fireworks in 2019.

This year, however, authorities in many cities and towns wanted quieter festivities. Several banned fireworks displays and cautioned individuals not to set off their own equipment. 

Concerns over pollution and injuries to wildlife

Days before December 31st, the Czech Academy of Sciences suggested that fireworks should be banned outright because of concerns over pollution and injuries to wildlife.

For many, regulating fireworks is long overdue. But others say this is another sign of the state intruding in their daily lives, a culture clash over personal liberty that has intensified in recent years, mostly on social media.

“I personally don't enjoy fireworks very much but other people clearly do and they have a point saying that people and animals can survive ten minutes of discomfort every year if it makes millions of other people happy,” Martin Pánek, director of the Liberal Institute, a local think tank, said.

“We cannot ban every activity that brings discomfort to somebody, all life would have to stop,” he added.

Debates about fireworks over New Year's Eve come just after the now-customary Yuletide back-and-forth about whether to ban fishmongers from selling live carp, the traditional festive dish, on the streets of the country.

Traditionalists say this goes back decades and the government should butt out, while others worry about animal welfare. This year, Lidl, a supermarket chain, prohibited the sale of live fish outside its stores.

Patrik Nacher, a parliamentarian from the largest opposition party ANO, complained on Facebook this week that “elites” are focusing on regulating the sale of live carp and fireworks rather than environmentally-harmful practices that they enjoy, like skiing.

“How about reducing skiing, [which requires] cutting down trees for slopes, artificial snowmaking, unnecessary lighting for night rides?” he enquired, before concluding that "elites…come up with the progressive ideas, as long as they don't affect them.”

'A haven of liberties'

The former communist-run country is known for its light-touch approach. Cigarettes and alcohol are relatively inexpensive and can be consumed in most places. Enforcement of cannabis possession fines is rare (around 20,000 fines each year, according to government estimates) and many people grow their own plants at home.

The Czech Republic was ranked as having the second-least restrictive regulations in Europe by the latest Nanny State Index, a survey by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs that measures legal restrictions on alcohol, e-cigarettes, tobacco, and food and soft drinks. 

It was the most “free” country in Europe in the 2016 and 2017 editions of the index, but “Czechia’s reputation as a haven of liberty took a knock in May 2017 when an extensive smoking ban came into effect,” the latest report states, referring to the country by its shortened name.

History plays its part. 

“Under communism, high consumption of alcohol and tobacco were tolerated both by state authorities, which knew that access to these substances helped keep workers docile and by society, which saw these drugs as a way to escape the grey communist reality,” Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute, said.

“Subsequently, the fall of the Iron Curtain meant social demand for less state interference in all areas of human activity,” he added.

After decades of living under a repressive communist authority, which had more edicts than apparatchiks, Czechs became well-heeled in knowing how far to push the limits before the authorities step in. Speeding on motorways is an expectation, although a zero-tolerance to drink driving is sacrosanct.

In December 2020, a survey by STEM, a local pollster, found that only 40 per cent of Czechs would willingly be vaccinated against COVID-19, amongst the lowest rates in Europe and which may have a contributing factor to the country having the highest per capita coronavirus infection rate in the world in March 2021. That said, vaccination rates are now as high as in most other European states.

“Czech society is very sensitive to all kinds of state control over individual actions,” Pavel Pospěch, associate professor at Masaryk University’s Department of Sociology, said. “Very frequently, you will find attempts at regulation or state control framed as ‘socialism’ or ‘return of communism’.” 

It’s a result of “a strong belief in individual agency and a strong disbelief in institutions and regulatory systems,” he added.

Pospěch points to the case in 2019 when Prague's city hall suggested monitoring electricity use in households in order to know how many homes were unused, especially as a housing shortage crisis was beginning in the capital. This may have seemed like a sensible policy but it “caused a massive backlash with the usual ‘the state will be spying on us like in communist times’.”

The following year, a popular far-right party sparked a brouhaha over whether to end state-enforced inclusion of disabled children and Roma, an often segregated minority, in the country’s schools. Invariably, culture wars have erupted over abortion and same-sex marriage. The anti-abortion National March For Life held its annual march in May for the first time in years.

Decisions left to local governments

Politicians have raced through the ranks by purporting to defend Czech personal freedoms against the allegedly rapacious European Union’s lawmakers. 

That was the core message from former prime minister Andrej Babiš, a billionaire populist, who even published a book titled "Sdílejte, než to zakážou!" (“Share it before they ban it!) while still premier.

According to Pospěch, Czech society “is prone to privatism”, to the comforts of private life and choice over public concerns. “Czechs are much more likely to explain poverty and unemployment in terms of individual factors…the Czechs believe that if you are poor, it's the result of your own actions.”

In a 2016 paper, Liviu Chelceaa and Oana Drutab, two academics, coined “zombie socialism” to allege that Eastern European “elites” buffet wealth redistribution or progressive reform by claiming that any state regulation of landlords or employers, for instance, would be akin to the return to socialism. 

One reason for the light-touch regulation on tobacco and alcohol in the Czech Republic is the power of those industry lobbies, analysts contend.

However, history and culture don’t explain it all. Hungary and Latvia, two other post-socialist countries, were ranked joint fifth in the latest Nanny State Index. 

A reason for the relative lack of state oversight in the Czech Republic is that local governments hold sway over many of these matters and are therefore wary of irking grumbling voters.

Another culture clash is brewing over drinking alcohol in public, but responses depend on the municipality since “the law gives municipalities a lot of freedom here,” Lubomír Kopeček, a political science professor at Masaryk University, said.

Leaving it to the localities appears to be the go-to response for most politicians. 

Marek Výborný, chairman of the parliamentary club for the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), a coalition partner, said any ban on fireworks should be left to the municipalities. “It is a classic example of what should not be regulated centrally,” he told local media this week.