The Incomprehensible Left

The pro-Russian attitude of the Czech and Slovak Left: a betrayal of identity?

“We would certainly not agree if, all of a sudden, someone were to make a territorial claim against our country, as was the case in Czechoslovakia in the previous century.” These words, uttered by Slovakia’s President Andrej Kiska in his New Year address, and alluding to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, ought to be self-evident as guidance for the geopolitical orientation of the Czechs and Slovaks. Who else, if not these two nations, given their historical experience, should feel profound empathy when Ukraine is invaded by Russia?

Nonetheless, this is not the case. Their criticism of the sanctions against Russia has earned the Czech and Slovak governments a reputation as the Kremlin’s Trojan horse in the EU. The Czech President Miloš Zeman, whose close adviser is the head of the Czech branch of Russian company Lukoil, has advised the Ukrainians to accept Russia’s proposal to transform the country into a federation, while Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico has publicly declared his opposition to the sanctions against Moscow and suggested that we should come to terms with the annexation of Crimea. There have been a number of similarly shameful statements lately, and they all have one thing in common: they reflect the position of a considerable section of the Czech and Slovak Left.

This is really quite surprising. After all, we are talking of the same left-of-center parties that claim allegiance to the legacy of the 1968 Prague Spring, which for them represents a high point in their history and core identity that had to be laboriously restored after 1989 because, unlike their Hungarian and Polish counterparts, these parties could not build on their 1980s ideological record. Yet, although the Prague Spring was crushed by the Russian-led invasion, the present- day Czech and Slovak left have found all sorts of justifications for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which seem to come right out of the 1968 playbook. This defies logic, particularly since Putin’s Russia is a right-wing dictatorship that has nothing whatsoever to do with left-wing ideology. What is going on in the mind of the Czech and Slovak left? A possible explanation, derived from depth psychology, comes to mind: the Czech and Slovak left have succumbed to Stockholm syndrome of the hostage who falls in love with his captor. However, the real explanation is likely to be less romantic even though emotions and passions do play a key role in it.

Party Functionaries

One would be hard pressed to detect any rational political or economic reasoning in this positive attitude to Moscow. Unlike other (pro-Russian) countries such as Bulgaria, neither the Czech nor the Slovak Republic is dependent on the Russian economy, with exports to Russia no more than some four percent of the total volume of exports, the vast majority being headed for the EU. And the opening of reverse-flow pipelines has rendered the two countries less vulnerable to disruptions in gas supplies.

That leaves political and psychological reasons. A possible political reason might be the fact that both major political parties on the left—the Czech Social Democratic Party, ČSSD, and Slovakia‘s Smer—are still made up of many rank-and-file members as well as party officials who tied their early careers in the 1980s to membership of the Communist Party. These are people who have retained fond memories of the normalization era under Gustáv Husák as well as of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, and who consider Putin’s Russia its legitimate successor. They can’t say this out aloud because both countries officially regard the normalization period as a dark age but their nostalgia for the 1980s is an open secret. They still hold key positions in both parties of the left and neither Fico, nor his Czech counterpart Bohuslav Sobotka, have any desire to antagonize this constituency by being critical of the Kremlin.

Another, equally pragmatic reason, is the simple fact that the Czech and Slovak right (with the notable exception of the former Czech President Václav Klaus) has been traditionally anti-Russian. They have established a kind of ideological monopoly on opposition to Moscow, using it to crush the left and accusing it of being attached to Russia and thus betraying national interests. In the absence of a convincing response to these—not always fair—accusations, the left has decided to turn this disadvantage into an advantage, proudly adopting the label of Russophiles.

It’s All America’s Fault

The two reasons mentioned above can be explained by external pressure, which has forced the left to adopt a position it would not necessarily have taken under normal circumstances. More worryingly though, the pro-Russian orientation on the part of the Czech and Slovak Left is quite possibly based on a voluntary decision and genuine conviction, and may be a true reflection of their frame of mind.

Petr Uhl, the left-wing intellectual who spent nine years in communist prisons after 1968 and a legendary member of the Czech dissidents linked to Charter 77, praised Putin for allegedly having tamed Russia’s oligarchs (!), pointing out that this is something Ukrainian politicians have failed to do and adding that under Putin‘s leadership “Russia has broken free of a 15-yearlong crisis, which is one of the reasons why I hesitate to call Putin a dictator.” He criticizes Europe for rushing to express its support for the Kyiv government that came to power “thanks to Molotov cocktails on the Maidan.” Another left-wing intellectual heavyweight, the philosopher Václav Bělohradský, has wondered “why the EU and the US consider the referendum in the Crimean Autonomous Republic illegal and illegitimate, while declaring legitimate and legal the government (in Kyiv) installed by means of violent demonstrations.”

Is there an explanation for this blindness? The strongest and most genuine motivation for defending Putin’s Russia seems to be the one that is also prevalent among the Western left: obsessive anti-Americanism. The Czech and Slovak left has used their opposition to the American invasion of Iraq as a key distinguishing factor in defining themselves against those on the right who supported the invasion and who are proud to this day to espouse this view even though it is no longer fashionable. Anti-Americanism is thus ingrained in the ideological framework of the Czech and Slovak left and the fact that its adherents refuse to change their attitude despite the US being governed by the Democrat Barack Obama only confirms that the left has chosen to cultivate anti-Americanism as part of their brand.

This, however, inevitably translates into support for Putin, who in his fierce criticism of the US makes the same arguments as the Czech and Slovak left. The old adage—my enemy’s enemy is my friend—has proven irresistible yet again.

Unfortunately, the pro-Russian orientation of the Czech and Slovak left has seriously undermined both countries’ foreign relations as well as their reputation, since these parties play a leading role in the government of their respective countries, dictating their agendas. In Slovakia a certain corrective is provided by President Kiska, whose New Year address mentioned earlier is in line with his clearly pro-Western orientation, while in the Czech Republic Foreign Affairs Minister Lubomír Zaorálek has somewhat helped to repair the damage. However, the Czech and Slovak Republics won’t free themselves of Russia’s influence unless and until the right wins power again. That, however, may be some time coming.

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Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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