What makes a nation’s soul? One thinks of the cultural, historical and biological determinants, and if one thinks of these properly, one realizes that only surprisingly few are crucial. Among them recent history is most influential. As nations of Central Europe go, Czechoslovakia’s post war history marks it as an outlier. Its road to communist serfdom was different from Poland’s and Hungary’s, not to speak of the Baltic States and the Balkans.
Offended by Munich betrayal, the exiled President Edvard Beneš conceived the post war Czechoslovakia as a bridge between the East and West. He was encouraged to do so by British realpolitik—much like the Polish exile Premier Stanisław Mikołajczyk—to accommodate Russian interest in Central Europe. Red Army then captured Poland and much of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis. In Poland and Hungary Russians played rough, but in Czechoslovakia they did not need to. The strong Communist Party decidedly won the semi-free elections in 1946. Already in 1945 the Communists captured the Interior Ministry and used police as a tool to prepare the ground for the 1948 coup d’état. It would be imprecise to say that communism was forced upon Czechs. They invited it by committing some forced and some unforced errors.
Why is it important today? Despite the aggression perpetrated by Putin’s Russia in the Ukraine, despite Moscow’s roughshod regional politics and resurgence of fascist tendencies embraced and fanned by the Kremlin’s elite, there is a sizeable portion of Czech population that harbors pro-Russian sentiment, or at least see today’s Russia as morally equivalent to the United States. And it is all the more curious after the Czech experience with the Soviet invasion of 1968. A significant and occasionally vocal minority of Czechs never internalized that Czech Republic has for 16 years been a NATO member. Many in the vocal minority view the European Union, too, as an alien body—in spite of Prague‘s entry into the club in May 2004.
Since the early 1990s, Czech foreign policy orientation has been Western. All significant political forces supported the direction. A first dent occurred in 1999 when NATO bombed Serbia to stop the genocidal Milošević’s regime in Belgrade. There was a significant and loud protest coming from the same crowd that is now so willing to listen to Putin’s lies about the Ukraine. In the first decade of the new century, President Václav Klaus turned against the EU with gusto and his pronouncements became increasingly pro-Russian. Upon reflection, it would be difficult to look back at Klaus’s political career and find one act or pronouncement that would go directly against Russian foreign policy interests.
Given the cards on the table, it is the left wing Social Democratic Party that will always be a decisive factor on where the Czech foreign policy ship will sail. The party’s constituency is split between Westerners and Russophiles. While the right wing parties are at least rhetorically pro-Western, although Civic Democratic Party’s euro-skepticism and anti monetary union stance undermines their formally Western orientation, Social Democrats are more hesitant to declare their allegiance to NATO and the West. Current cabinet is run by a coalition of three parties with Social Democrats in the lead.
Early on after the parliamentary elections last fall, when the government was formed, it looked like for the first time after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the cabinet foreign policy will steer away from a clearly Western direction. Minister of Foreign Affairs Lubomír Zaorálek signaled an end of support for human rights, legacy of the late President Václav Havel, and his Deputy, Petr Drulák, set about devising convoluted schemes to reinforce Czech-Austrian relations at the expense of the traditional transatlantic link.
One prominent member of Czech Euro-Atlantic community and a friend of mine told me he had been flabbergasted after a meeting with Drulák during which he sought his support for Aliante, long-running and extremely successful NATO-knowledge competition of international high-school students. All ministers had supported Aliante since its inception. Drulák, however, wanted to have none of this, refusing to offer the minister’s backing.
“I will not push the militarization of Czech youth,” he told my perplexed friend.
Combined with the openly pro-Russian President Miloš Zeman, whose key adviser is head of Moscow-run oil company Lukoil in the Czech Republic, who bankrolled his election campaign with Russian money, Czech Republic was faced with a dramatic foreign policy turnaround.
And then something unexpected happened: the Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Social Democrat, visited the United Stated to unveil Havel’s statue in Congress and all the symbolism was very pro-American, in favor of the continuation of the Western orientation. He even rebuked Drulák in the press. To make clear who is the boss, Sobotka corrected the draft of a new foreign policy doctrine prepared by Drulák to make it more transatlantic and returned the human rights language to it that the ministry wanted to water down.
In March, Czechs unexpectedly welcomed the Dragoon Ride, the U.S. military convoy returning from the Baltics to its base in Germany. Tens of thousands of pro-American citizens lined the streets with U.S. flags, braving cold rainy weather to offer the U.S. troops a warm welcome. The soldiers themselves felt surprised. Czech media had offered an inordinate amount of airtime to the members of pro-Putin fifth column before the Dragoon Ride, creating an optical illusion that the nation was divided and that there would be mass anti-U.S. protests. Instead Czechs have thrown a national party for the Americans, organizing two rock concerts for them in Prague and treating them as rock stars. Martin Stropnický, Minister of Defense for ANO 2011, a proto-political party headed by Czech billionaire oligarch, Andrej Babiš, who only recently compared a possible American military base on the Czech soil to Russian invasion of 1968, turned his coat and showed up in La Fabrika at one of the concerts for U.S. troops. The concertgoers treated Stropnický with studied indifference.
These events signal that most Czechs on the right as well as left are finally waking up to the danger presented by neo-imperialist Russian aggression. Pro-Putin’s fifth column is getting more isolated by the day and pro-Russian rhetoric of ex-President Klaus is provoking more and more ridicule. The Atlanticists have not won the political war, but for now they seem to be having the upper hand.
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