Poland and Czech Republic – Common Interests or Common weaknesses

In terms of energy, Poland and Czech Republic are considerably dependent on Russia. That ought to result in a more intensive cooperation in their eastern policy.

Over the past twenty years Czech-Polish relations have generally been regarded as problemfree, if not ideal. There has even been frequent talk of a Czech-Polish alliance, particularly at the time of high level visits in Prague or Warsaw. However, if we probe a little more deeply it is likely that any talk of an alliance will be exposed as nothing more than an ornate cliché devoid of real meaning.

Nevertheless, given the two countries’ historic legacy, the “mere” absence of problems is not such a bad outcome at all. We must not forget that between the wars relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia resembled rather a cold war, which sometimes flared into real war. As successor states were being established after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the two countries briefly clashed in a war over the disputed territory of Cieszyn / Těšín Silesia, a dispute that continued to cast a shadow on their mutual relations for the entire twenty years between the two wars. The Czechs had long held a grudge against the Poles for having annexed the disputed eastern part of this region, known as Zaolzie in Polish / Zaolží in Czech [i.e. the land beyond the Olza river] in 1938, following the Munich Treaty. However, in the 1920s the Poles had grounds for a grievance similar to the Czechs’ in 1938, since the final confirmation of the interwar borders between the Czech and Polish part of Silesia took place in the summer of 1920, as Poland was facing a Bolshevik army assault.

Both countries often tried to turn global political power games to their advantage, quite short-sightedly of course, as they both ended up paying for the potential gain of little scraps of land by being gobbled up up by the superpowers. This reproach might be directed not just at 1938 Poland but also at Czechoslovakia’s government-in-exile. While in London, Edvard Beneš did enter into talks with the Polish prime minister Sikorski about a post-war (con)federation, albeit only until he realized that this was not going down well in Moscow. In addition, he tried to ingratiate himself with Stalin by being critical of the Poles. The Czechoslovak leadership stood idly by when Poland’s western allies cynically sacrificed the country on the altar of their alliance with Stalin, using this in fact to justify their own accommodating stance vis à vis the Soviet empire, which, however, in the end gobbled up Czechoslovakia and Poland alike.

The Demise of Central Europe?

Furthermore, both countries have been “ethnically cleansed” by the war and what followed in its wake. After 1945 Poland, historically a multinational country with a rich mix of religious denominations, became an ethnically monolithic and denominationally “monocultural” country—despite Communist attempts to impose atheism—while in geographic terms it shifted several hundred kilometres to the west. In the interwar period, most of Poland had bordered the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia, so from the Czech perspective Poland only began in the Cieszyn / Těšín Silesia region. Until 1945 the Czechs regarded much of present-day Poland primarily as Germany. And “Germany”, as personified by the German minority, also existed within the borders of what is now the Czech Republic.

Ironically, the flight, expulsion and resettlement of Germans (all three terms reflect part of the post-war reality) from the Czech borderlands as well as from present-day western Poland did not result in a “Slavonic fraternization” between the two nations, if for no other reason than that they both found themselves under the yoke of red totalitarianism.

1989 was followed by the conflict-free era mentioned earlier. Sadly, to a large extent this has been made possible by the ethnic “cleansing” and “equalization” of Central Europe resulting from the horrors of the 20th century: wars, totalitarianism, the Holocaust, displacement, resettlement and expulsions. Central Europe has ceased to exist as a cultural and political entity in the sense of an ethnically and denominationally mixed space, a state that had engendered not just conflict but also mutual inspiration and a flowering of culture, endowing this region with its specific character. These days it is little more than a geographic term, a space populated by monocultural national states, with very few bones of contention between them. The only dispute to speak of, that between Slovakia and Hungary, concerns the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, the last living remnant of the old Central Europe. None the less, this conflict is not likely to provoke a war, particularly as both countries, just like the other Central European nations, are members of the European Union and NATO.

In other countries of Central Europe, too, the European Union has prevented ethnic and political left-overs from the past from escalating into serious conflict, undoubtedly contributing to the absence of discord and relative lack of problems in the relations between Central European countries, including the Czech Republic and Poland. At the same time, however, the EU has instigated a rather fierce dispute in the domestic political arena in these countries with, to put it very simply, pro- Europeans or Europhiles on the one hand pitted against Eurosceptics on the other.

Might a potential alliance between pro‑European Poles and Czechs or, by contrast, Polish and Czech Eurosceptics, be regarded as an alliance between the two countries? While this is a difficult question, one should not speculate about the possibility of joint manoeuvres by Poland and the Czech Republic within the European space without analysing the options of such a potential bilateral alliance, based on some lasting interests rather than merely on day-to-day positions of their respective political representation on issues of European integration.

Two armies unaware of each other

Classic alliances have a military dimension. Both Poland and the Czech Republic belong to the same military pact, NATO, yet in military terms one would be hard pushed to find any sign of joint, allied activities. The only major Czech-Polish arms deal, the widely discussed exchange of Sovietmade MiG-29 Czech fighter planes for Polish Sokol helicopters, took place in the 1990s. Each country arranges its own arms purchases, even though they could quite certainly achieve at least bulk discounts if they agreed to act jointly. However, over the past few years Czech arms contracts have been a model example of corruption. A corrupt arms acquisition is typically overpriced and completely disregards the strategic interests of a given country as well those of its potential allies.

Even while negotiating the details of the US anti-missile defence system—which would have involved the deployment of a radar in the Czech Republic and missiles in Poland—each country negotiated with the Americans more or less on its own, with little coordination. Any talk of a military alliance is therefore completely pointless, as in military terms we are just as allied with the Poles as we are with the Portuguese or the Greeks, since we are all in NATO. This in spite of the fact that since the end of the Cold War the North Atlantic Alliance has been floundering, searching for a new identity and mission, and it is common knowledge that we cannot rely on NATO to guarantee the safety of its member states, especially not in the case of a major upheaval in the existing order. Every government is cutting its costs, including those of military acquisitions, and what happened during the military raids on Libya—when it turned out that Great Britain, a former ruler of the seas, does not, for reasons of “fiscal responsibility”, have a single operational aircraft carrier—ought to sound alarm bells with every planner and analyst in military headquarters and European ministries of foreign affairs and spur them into action.

The time is nigh when European countries will have to become more self-reliant and this ought to encourage more cooperation, if only because of the growing cost of modern weapons systems. This opens up great possibilities for potential Polish-Czech cooperation, indeed of an alliance. Yet this has not so far progressed beyond hypothetical musings. However, the current level of Czech corruption (not being as familiar with the Polish situation in this area I don’t wish to idealize it or to malign it without cause) might sink the implementation of a potential cooperation with the efficiency of a state-of-the-art torpedo. The political representation of the two countries do not seem to fully appreciate their common interests, or perhaps they are aware of them but cannot or will not put this knowledge into practice since they are aware of the links between their political backround and certain lobbies primarily championing the interest of the companies that they are lobbying for, rather than the interests of the states to whom the arms are being sold.

Raw materials and access to sea

Unfortunately, the primacy of lobbyists pursuing their employers’ utilitarian interests also has a negative impact on the economy, including its strategically important industries. The oil and gas that both countries buy from Russia provides the blood and oxygen of the modern economy. In terms of energy the Czech Republic is heavily dependent on Russia and this also applies to nuclear energy since currently the exclusive supplier of uranium for both the Temelín and Dukovany nuclear power plants is TVEL, a Russian company. In terms of Czech- Polish relations the gigantic tender for finishing the construction of Temelín is seemingly, but only seemingly, immaterial. Here, too, the Czech Republic faces (or, to be precise, has allowed itself to face) power pressure not from one but three sources: Russia, the US and France. Yet this situation could easily have been avoided if more effort had been devoted to developing alliances with neighbouring countries and trying to win a better position within EU structures.

Poland is slightly less dependent on Russian energy but its relations with Russia are more tense than ours. While there are historical reasons for this, Russia has quite incredibly seemed to be very far away in Czech perceptions over the past twenty years. Russia is a country that doesn’t seem to concern us since we are in the EU and NATO. But in fact, the Czech economy will grind to a halt without Russian oil and come winter the Czechs will freeze to death without Russian gas. The Poles, on the other hand, still have large quantities of coal as well as shale gas reserves, although Polish research has considerably lowered the original American mammoth estimates. What material foundation can there be for building a potential political alliance other than so-called strategic raw materials? None the less, it is not happening.

Another reason why Poland is less dependent on Russia and Russian raw materials is the sea, at least potentially, even though the Poles may not see it that way since the Russian-German pipeline has bypassed them by going under it. The Czechs, however, have no access to the sea at all and “maritime” cooperation with Poland could be of great advantage to them. At this point a small historical digression won’t go amiss: Poland didn’t acquire its long sea coast until after World War II, which further illustrates the fact that certain past stereotypes (such as that of the predominantly agrarian and backward Poland) may no longer apply and that it is vital to respond flexibly to new situations.

The twilight of the nation state?

Rather than the EU, it is globalisation that poses the greatest threat to the sovereignty of nation states. Major multinational corporations are often more powerful than nation states the size of the Czech Republic or Poland; these days, national government and multinational political institutions have to kowtow to the big players on the global markets instead of being the ones who effectively keep them in check, let alone control. It is mainly in this context that one can speak of a crisis of the nation state. At the same time, the interests of large economic groups usually differ from the historic interests of ailing nation states. Why should corporations respect the need for a country to diversify its natural resources? Particularly if that diversification means less profit?

Interwar Czechoslovakia was an advanced industrialized nation while Poland was an agrarian country, much more backward in terms of industry. Now, Poland is catching up with us fast; for instance, engineering products now provide the largest proportion of Polish exports. This is quite a fundamental change compared with the past. Nevertheless, Poland is still only catching up, Polish infrastructure is notoriously underdeveloped, and its innovation and development is well-known for progressing at a snail’s pace. Does this perhaps offer an opening for Czech companies? Alas, it is enough to take a closer look at what’s happening behind the political and economic facade of Czech motorway construction to feel disinclined to pursue this idea further.

Both countries thus have too many weaknesess to be able to create an effective and powerful double bloc on a continental scale. Ironically, both still regard their major trade partner, Germany, as something of an enemy. Of course, this is partly due to historical resentments but also to Germany’s staunch support for deepening European integration, which has met with resistance both in Prague and in Warsaw. In terms of energy both countries are considerably dependent on Russia, which ought to result in a more intensive cooperation in their eastern policy, both in the form of a double bloc as well as, primarily, in the form of efforts to increase their influence with regard to shaping the EU’s eastern and energy policy. Poland has shown much more interest in the East than the Czech Republic, and this ought to be an inspiration to Prague.

In conclusion, although the two countries share some interests, their political elites are not fully aware of them and seem incapable of putting potential cooperation into practice, partly because their government policies are beholden to lobbyists and the interests of large corporations. Unless they do so, it would be more appropriate to talk of their common weaknesses than to entertain fantasies of a Czech-Polish power alliance.

Josef Mlejnek jr

Josef Mlejnek, Jr. is a Czech political scientist and journalist, specialising in the transition to democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe.

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