A Czech View of Russia

Why is it that 22 years since the birth of the Russian Republic in 1991 neither the Czech elites nor the public have been able to reach a general consensus in their relations with the “new Russia”?

In the course of the thirty years that have passed since US President Ronald Reagan’s famous speech in which he referred to the Soviet Union as an “empire of evil” the geopolitical situation in general, and in Central Europe in particular, has changed beyond recognition. Nevertheless, the Czech elites and civil society have yet to reach agreement as to whether the Russian Federation, as the direct successor to the collapsed empire, is still pursuing its imperial ambitions or whether it has become a partner worthy of cooperation.

After a tentative start, the discussion on the subject was sidelined for a while as the Czech Republic focused single-mindedly on joining NATO and the EU, to be revived again in the early 21st century.

Not many opinion polls on this issue have been conducted and those have been rather ad hoc. In 2008 (on the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of former Czechoslovakia) around half of the Czech population said they were concerned about Russia, whereas three years later (on the anniversary of 9/11) Russia’s negative rating was markedly lower.

Given the random character of the data Czech politicians cannot rely on a “majority“ view. On the other hand, they don’t have to feel bound by public opinion either, which gives them almost too much leeway to devise a policy toward the eastern power that is often based only on instinct. While some politicians are guided by ideological concepts bordering on cliché, others have favoured a so-called pragmatic policy, with the rest oscillating between these two extremes.

Ideologues vs. Pragmatists

The ideological position is represented chiefly by the adherents of the political thought of the late President Václav Havel who regarded Russia as an “entity“ of a fundamentally different nature from the rest of Europe and did not believe in the dream of Europe as a “common home“ stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. While this view is justified in and of itself, Havel’s practical political deeds demonstrated that, in spite of all the talk of a possible “partnership“ between Europe and Russia, his main emphasis had been on the need to be constantly wary of the power ambitions of the Eurasian “entity“, a country he could not comprehend. Combined with his focus on the protection of human rights in a purely European sense, this attitude resulted in a harsh critique of the Russian regime voiced not only by the Castle, the presidential seat, but also by government representatives.

Individuals who had shared Havel’s views on this issue have continued to exert considerable influence on the Czech Republic’s foreign policy. They include Alexandr Vondra, who served as Minister of Defence from 2010 until his resignation in late 2012, while warning against Russia has been a motto of the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel Schwarzenberg. In his capacity as the leader of TOP 09, a party in the current government coalition, he has used the Russian threat to influence domestic politics as well. Calling for the Czech parliament’s support for the eurozone bailout he argued that the MPs had to vote for a contribution to the EU unless they “wished a return to the Russian fold after 22 years“ (implying this was what the people around the then President Václav Klaus wanted).

Schwarzenberg’s diatribe was inspired by the pragmatic course in the relations with Russia initiated under Havel‘s successor Klaus, likely to be continued under the latter‘s successor Miloš Zeman. During his time as Prime Minister (1998– 2002) Zeman demonstrated that in relations with Russia he prioritized Czech economic interests, seeing everything else (apart from the war on terror) as a distraction. Although some Czech commentators regard his approach as a sign of a “pro-Russian“ policy (which, in Zeman’s case, is allegedly supported by personal links between “his“ Party of Civic Rights—Zeman’s People [SPOZ] with the Russian company Lukoil), most Czech businessmen seem quite happy with it.

On the other hand, some Czech diplomats have unofficially hinted that the business community wasn’t all that happy about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focusing on human rights, for fear that it might drive Russian officials to putting their projects on the back burner. Therefore a change of emphasis would be likely to bring them some relief, particularly if the government approves Zeman’s appointment of the communist euro-MP, former astronaut Vladimír Remek, as the new Ambassador to Moscow.

The Radar Row

With the notable exception of ODS (Civic Democratic Party)—the largest party in the government coalition—whose former chairman Mirek Topolánek and a few other politicians have been ringing alarm bells about an eastern threat, a peculiar feature of the Czech political scene has been the pragmatic attitude of most ODS representatives, particularly those responsible for the economy. Although they have kept their views to themselves, they have been happy to travel to the Russian Federation and make friendly noises, paving the way for Czech business. The two main opposition parties—the social democrats (ČSSD) and the communists (KSČM)—have been particularly accommodating towards Russia. It is, therefore, very hard to tell how far the powerful influence of the adherents of the ideological line in Czech diplomacy reflects the real interests of a decisive part of the political representation, or whether its success is rather the result of the potential “pragmatists’“ concern that by pushing for greater openness towards cooperation with Russia they might demonstrate bad manners.

The development of Czech policy as well as the public sentiment towards Russia has been further affected by the fact that the relations have long stopped being a merely bilateral affair. All major political parties, apart from the communists, support euro-atlantic bonds within NATO (some stressing the need to consider US interests) as well as, with some reservations (especially on the part of ODS), cooperation with the EU. The heated public debate in 2007–2008 on the installation of the American radar shield as part of the US missile defence system on Czech territory provides a good example. The fact that a right-wing government, led by public opinion, consented to the installation of the radar system only on condition that it be fully integrated into a NATO structure in the future, demonstrates the limits of the “pro-American“ faction‘s influence among the political elite. Some government politicians tried to use the “radar row“ to stir up patriotic feelings, invoking Russia’s imperial traditions. “This has unfortunately revealed Moscow’s adherence to thinking in 19th century and early 20th century terms,“ said Karel Schwarzenberg, explaining the Russian Federation’s opposition to missile defence system, while others spoke of Russia’s Warsaw Pact era optics.

The fact remains that, although the attitude of the Czech population to the deployment of the radar was affected by considerations of Russia, they influenced it against rather than in favour of the missile defence system. And while only about a third of the Czech public made an explicit reference to being concerned about potential hostile response from Russia or showed understanding of Russia’s attitude, BIS (the Czech intelligence service) thought it necessary to mention the Russian influence as a key factor in its report to the Czech parliament. In the BIS view Russia‘s influence and a Russianfunded media campaign had a significant impact on Czech public opinion. It seems, however, that the ČSSD was more effective with its moderate tactics, demanding that the radar system be integrated into NATO structures from the outset and that a decision be taken by referendum. That, however, did not stop the media from spreading the rumour that during a visit to Moscow (which was broadly condemned by the press) the social democrats‘ leader Jiří Paroubek allegedly promised Vladimir Putin to make opposition to the radar system an issue in his forthcoming electoral campaign.

Response to the Russian-Georgian War

Another heated debate, this time limited to the elites, was stirred up by the argument about the pros and cons of the 2008 “Five-day war“ between Russia and Georgia, with President Klaus and Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg representing the two opposite extremes. The President stressed that while both sides were responsible, Tbilisi’s actions had been “disastrous“, while the Minister laid the blame chiefly on Russia. “Not even the Führer could have come up with the idea of granting citizenship to expats and then mounting an operation in their defence,“ he declared, reopening Czech historic wounds inflicted by the [1938] “Munich betrayal“ and the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland. Another ideologue, the then Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra, wanted Prague to make the EU adopt a harsh stand, going as far as a fundamental revision of its policy towards Russia. However, partly due to the “pragmatists“, the Czech Republic eventually adopted a more moderate position favoured by most EU member states.

Remarkably, the ČSSD was split down the middle on this issue. Whereas before the conflict broke out, the party‘s then deputy chairman Bohuslav Sobotka had proposed supporting Georgia’s joining of NATO, after the war ended shadow foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek condemned US policy towards Russia as an act of a “clumsy and witless Batman“ and opposed the admission to the alliance of countries lacking democratic credentials, such as Georgia.

The adoption of the Eastern Partnership, an EU policy adopted in 2009 under the Czech EU Presidency, provided a kind of epilogue to this conflict. The Czech Republic has hailed the Partnership as its great contribution to common EU policy although, in fact, it has been strutting in borrowed plumes, since the basic project had been jointly prepared by Sweden and Poland at a time when the Czech Republic had, quite surprisingly, temporarily withdrawn from the initiative. Most Czech political scientists have noted that Russia’s intervention in Georgia features as the main motivating factor in nearly all the documents from the September 2008 EU summit relating to the extended cooperation with some former USSR countries. No wonder that Moscow has also read the EU project in this way and that Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov protested against it. As a result, when the Eastern Partnership treaty was being signed in Prague both José Manuel Barroso and Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, in his capacity as a representative of the country holding the EU Presidency, felt the need to explicitly state that the Eastern Partnernsip was not directed against Russia.

All this, however, has turned out to be a storm in a teacup. West European governments (France, Italy and others) basically agreed to the Eastern Partnership in order to appease Central European countries, particularly Poland, a country traditionally sensitive to signs of Russia’s “imperial policy“. In fact, the so-called southern wing of the EU prefers a Mediterranean partnership, which has been reflected in the meagre expenditure and scant political attention the top EU officials have given to relations with their eastern neighbours. Implementation of the project has thus been limited to the Visegrád group countries, especially Poland and the Czech Republic. The original motivation, i.e. primarily an attempt to protect eastern partners from falling into Russia’s sphere of influence, is no longer seen as a priority. Instead, projects implemented as part of the partnership are aimed at trying to bring the legal and business environment of partner countries closer to those of the EU, a development that has been gratefully received by Czech business.

The Espionage Affairs

The assertive period of Czech policy towards Russia culminated in 2009 with the “espionage affair“ involving expulsions of Russian diplomats as well as the proscribing of Russian companies trying to acquire large Czech enterprises such as the Czech airline ČSA. The current government is likely to follow this precedent in its handling of the tender for the completion of the Temelín nuclear power plant. At the same time, there is no reason to expect that, following Vondra’s departure from the cabinet, anyone apart from Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg might be interested in raising the temperature in the relations with the Russian Federation. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. At a time when Czech entrepreneurs are happy with a significant increase in trade with Russia over the past year, and when, according to a survey carried out by DHL, they have listed Russia as the country with the greatest export potential (“dethroning“ Germany for the first time), whoever forms a new Czech government will be careful not to step on Russia’s toes.

If the Right stays in power, it will stick to its “energy security“ mantra. This would not be based purely on ideology but on facts, supported by a warning from BIS: “Should Russian companies succeed in their attempt (to dominate the energy transit infrastructure) their influence would grow… and, in a worst-case scenario, could be used to assert Russia‘s economic and political interests.“ However, should the next election bring victory for the social democrats, the question is whether they too would regard “Russian interests“ as particularly harmful. Many social democrats undoubtedly perceive Russia as a “normal country,“ to cite US scholars Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, rather than a reincarnation of the empire of evil.

“Our advantage is that we are not burdened by any phobias vis-a-vis Russia and don’t carry around the baggage of old wars, injustices and fears,“ said former Czech Ambassador to Moscow Petr Kolář before taking up his post in 2010. He represented that part of the political elite that has more or less successfully managed to oscillate between ideological policy and “hard pragmatism.“ This may sound wonderful but plenty of Czechs still carry a lot of historic baggage, often based on bitter personal experience. In addition, phobias vis-a-vis Russia are often promoted by the Czech media (who would probably regard an attempt to give an equally objective assessment of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin as a sign of bad manners). Neither does the excessively swaggering assertiveness on the part of Russia’s leadership go down particularly well with the Czech public.

However, everything seems to indicate that change is on the way, partly due to the bleak economic outlook. A new Czech government might be more open to new ideas for developing the Czech policy as well as a common EU and NATO one, which may not necessarily have to choose between the Scylla of ideology and Charybdis of so-called pragmatism. It is about time, especially given that 22 years after the emergence of the Russian Republic the Czech political elite has not managed to come up with a coherent approach to its relations with Russia, or even with an outline of an approach that does not stir up political emotions.

Pavel Máša

Pavel Máša is a Czech writer and Russian specialist, and a former Czech Ambassador to the Ukraine.

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