RADU TOMA, ROMANIA
After the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of November 1989 and the removal of the communist leadership, the opposition to the new ‘invader’, economic liberalism, and suspicions generated by the EU, had old roots in the Czech Republic. The Euroscepticism manifesto, from the beginning of the 1990s, of the former prime minister Vaclav Klaus (1992-98), president of the country in the years 2003-2013 is well known. His position and moral arguments were the priority of developing the national capital ahead of the foreign one, even with sacrificing a greater efficiency of the market and even of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). A vigorous defence of the Czech national state, he said, is a guarantee of national identity, against the supranational institutions recommended by the EU and the neoliberalism (IMF, World Bank). And it must be made clear that, from the beginning until now, neither neoliberalism, nor the EU nor NATO have managed to have their way in the Czech Republic. The last Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, who was appointed by the President on December 6, 2017, as the head of the government, spoke in harsh words, rejected the agenda of the globalist elites; he swore that he would leave the ‘corrupt EU’, destroy globalism and the new world order and ‘restore the sovereignty of Eastern Europe’ (30). In the end, after qualifying the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West in 2014 as ‘meaningless’, as did presidents Klaus and Zeman, Babis ruled for the further development of his country’s economic relations with the entire Eurasian space, including Russia (31), as a solution from recent past that had contributed to lessening the effects of the 2007-2008 crisis and as a future one, for the economic freedom of movement of his country.
From Vaclav Klaus, Prime Minister and President from 1992 to 2013, Milos Zeman who has succeeded him until today, and the last PM Andrej Babis from 2017 onwards, in Czech Republic’s case we can talk of a continuity in promoting the political and economic national interest, with assumed sacrifices, in front of the unopposed offensive of Western neo-colonialism, camouflaged in economic neoliberalism and free market democracy. With popular support and being strongly supported, for over 25 years, by the Czech public opinion, the three rejected offers coming from the Euro-Atlantic world which were considered inappropriate for their country, from sending soldiers to Iraq in 2003 and setting-up missiles, or US military bases on their territory, up to the refusal, after 2015, to accept Islamic migrants. The Euroscepticism was a social and political phenomenon manifesto even before the accession of 2004 and still exists today in acute forms, at the limit of Czexit.
It is clear that, far from happening out of love, the accession of the Czech Republic to the European Union was a marriage of interest.
Vaclav Klaus’ Euroscepticism in the 1990s was more than a leader of a post-communist country’s precaution against neoliberalism (32). The Czech privatization with vouchers sought the support of the national capital against the foreign one. A stronger protection of the Czech state was sought and ensured, as the guarantor of national identity and political autonomy before the supranational institutions fabricated and promoted by the EU and considered by the Czechs as inefficient, undemocratic and lacking political, historical and cultural legitimacy in their country (33). It is an European Union, Prague said, which sees Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, as a source of rapid and great benefits, of raw materials, cheap, skilled labour, and a possible buffer zone against political and security risks coming from Eurasia, the Balkans and the Black Sea.
The Czechs’ resistance to the neo-colonialist expansion of the West went to paradoxical, extreme forms, but perfectly democratic ones. After the December 2017 elections, when he won with only 29% of votes 78 of the 200 parliamentary seats, in July 2018, Babis brought back the communists to governing (34), an absolute premiere throughout Eastern Europe after 1989. It was an absolute premiere, but which proved that the Czechs have the guts and the clairvoyance to revive even the political arguments of the past, of course, the valid ones, when they question and reject another external, severe hegemony, this time coming from the West. We should immediately point out that the PM’s choice was not accidental: although he never did penances for the past four decades of authoritarian rule, polls have shown since 2012 that, in the population’s preferences, the communist party was the second political party in Czech Republic, with over 20% of the expressed opinions. The reason? They opposed the European Union, put the economic crisis on the incurable defects of capitalism, older or newer, and presented themselves as the oldest and most serious truly reformist party in the country, even before 1989 and the fall of communism (35).
Meanwhile, in Czech Republic, liberal democracy has been for years in recession, almost half of those who surveyed thinking it is not the best form of governing for their country. Also, there, Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy and authoritarianism are on the rise, the closure of Soros’ Central European University in Budapest, in the spring of 2017, was ignored by politicians, media and the public (36). The almost sole protester was Jiri Drahos, defeated in the last presidential elections, in January 2018, by Zeman. Instead, Orbán of Hungary was publicly praised by former President Vaclav Klaus, who had rejected Soros’ initial offers to build the mentioned university in Prague in 1990.
In 2018, experts from Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German independent foundation for the promotion of democracy, confirmed that democracy is declining in many industrialized states in the European Union and elsewhere, that political reform is becoming more difficult and the quality of governance is declining (37). The United States, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Mexico are the first of the 26 countries listed. The study shows an increase in the population’s confidence in illiberal or authoritarian governments such as Hungarian, Polish and Turkish governments, who, it is mentioned that, rather than governing, are in a permanent political campaign (38). And the Czech Republic and Iceland, the Bertelsmann Stiftung says, are also aligning to this political trend, both having performed poorly in recent years in terms of democratic standards.
Western specialists, scholars and authors, as well as from the Czech Republic, have spoken and written in recent years about the general recession in front of the uncontrollable economic failures and the populism’s offensive in Europe (39). This fact led the well-known British journalist, historian and writer Timothy Garton Ash to recently publish the free essay ‘Is Europe disintegrating?’ (40). It is a captivating story about a guy cryogenically frozen in 2005, in the time of the glorious and peaceful colour revolutions in Ukraine, and brought back to life in 2017 when, he said, ‘I was going to die again due to the shock.’ Crisis and disintegration ruled everywhere, the eurozone wasn’t working, sunny Athens was living in misery, Spanish doctors had left to waiter in London and Berlin, the children of Portugal were looking for work in the former colonies of their ancestors, Brazil and Angola, Europe still had no Constitution, east – Europeans were about to use the British Brexit brand for theirs Polexit, Czexit, Slexit, Hunexit, Roexit and Bulexit, the British were getting ready to lose in 2019 the European citizenship acquired in 1989; border controls had been restored between Schengeners and the others, of course ‘temporarily’, and Ukraine was left without Crimea, and de facto lost its industrial East. What are the motives invoked by Garton Ash, of this unfortunate resurrection in a miserable world? Neoliberalism as a blind belief in the virtues of the market, irrational reliance on its organizers, contempt for the state as a participant in the nation’s socio-economic life, unconditional application of the economic dogmas of the ‘Washington Consensus’ (41), marginalization of entire countries (Polska B, i.e. second hand Poland), insulting those from the south of the continent – PIGS, acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain – social dislocation, revolting inequality and extreme poverty in Eastern Europe, all these, says the same author, are consequences of liberalization, markets deregulation and out of any control privatization. From London and Timothy Garton Ash, welcome to Ukraine, Georgia and others eager to join the EU!
Why has the Czech Republic become a controversial political subject for policy makers and experts in international relations in the West? The shortest answer to this question is: because of its seemingly duplicitous behaviour in political relations with the West, and with Russia.
So, in January 2018, the re-election of Milos Zeman as Czech President was seen by most of the aforementioned Westerners as a sign that this country will further strengthen ties with Russia and China, and they all asked themselves, if maybe the Czechs would also start on the path to separate from the EU. The leaders of the two Eurasian powers were among the first to congratulate him, Vladimir Putin praised his ‘authority’, and Xi Jiping underlined the ‘strategic partnership between China and the Czech Republic’. A Zeman who, in the fall of 2017, said in the middle of the European Parliament, that sanctions against Russia were ‘damaging and inefficient’ and that Crimea’s return to Russia was a ‘closed matter’. An overlooked Zeman – everyone knew that the Czech president is rather a decorative figure, without much executive power. But things are not as they seem with him, the guy has his own foreign policy, a personal one. He travels often to China and on a regular basis to Russia and is always surrounded by businessmen, industrialists and, almost every time, has contributed to the signing of important contracts. In the years to come, experts believe, the president will try to place several, strategic, multi-billion-euro contracts, such as with the Russians to expand the Czech nuclear power station in Dukovany. And so, those experts are adding, Czech Republic’s tendency to distance themselves more and more from their Western partners will continue.
Apparently, a correction to the president’s appetite for the Eurasian space could come from PM Andrej Babis, but it is not clear if he can or wants to change things. The leader of the ANO governing right-wing party, owns a $ 3.4 billion empire and does business almost everywhere in Europe, including Germany, being partially, and for a long time, subsidized also by the EU, which would lead to the idea that the Czech billionaire is interested in having good relations with Brussels. But, like Zeman, he has repeatedly said that EU economic sanctions against Russia are a mistake. At a recent high-level meeting in Budapest, he joined Viktor Orbán’s anti-EU rhetoric, compared the European Commission with a communist ‘Politburo’ from Kremlin, in the former Soviet Union, and after a few days, in Brussels, changed his mind and promised a more active role of the Czech Republic in the EU. He immediately changed his mind again and rejected any recommendation regarding the welcoming of Islamic migrants in his country. Although the collaboration between Zeman and Babis is older and well-known, the misunderstanding between them regarding a referendum organization on the remaining of the Czech Republic in the European Union is equally prominent to all. Zeman wants to consult the population and Babis firmly opposes a possible Czexit, realizing, probably, that everything could turn into a nightmare for his mega economic status.
At present, the ambiguity at the highest level of the Czech policy towards the West and Russia makes history. Symbolic in this sense was Zeman’s recent absence from the official commemoration of 50 years since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the same Zeman who was among the leading leaders of the ‘Prague Spring’ and the fight against foreign occupation from half a century ago. Criticisms towards him flow unabated in the West. Presidential Prague is a ‘centre of Russian espionage and propaganda operations’ for all of Eastern Europe, and beyond. Zeman is considered arrogant, contemptuous of journalists and intellectuals, a ‘Trump-style’ ill-mannered, a supporter of the war on terror against the West and a foul-mouthed like the British Nigel Farage. He is indecent, vain, a Russian-Chinese tool, disrespectful to the ‘liberal elites’ (42), his victory in the January 2018 presidential elections undermines the unity of Europe and it is to Putin’s liking.
Things can be seen differently. Milos Zeman continues the tradition of his predecessors, Czech Republic presidents Tomas Masaryk, Edvard Benes, Ludvik Svoboda and the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek. Zeman, the last one on this list, certainly wants for his country something not done yet, nowhere: a ‘globalism with a human face’.
From November 17, to December 29, 1989, the Velvet Revolution changed almost everything: the one-party state disappeared, the Iron Curtain on the borders with West Germany and Austria was demolished. Husak, detested, left in disgrace, Dubcek, dusty, returned to triumph, a parliamentary republic began to function, a former dissident, Vaclav Havel, became the president of the free country on December 29. Almost everything has changed, but while one political regime was replaced by another, the former Czechoslovakia’s strong economic ties with partners in the former communist world have been preserved. After 1990, the country remained the ‘bridgehead’ of the Russian metallurgical industry to the west of Europe and the EU (Celiabinsk Pipe and UGMK, from Urali). Since the time of CAER, Russian companies have owned, and continued, even in the 1990s., to own important parts of the Czech steel mills and the Skoda industrial equipment factory. Farmatec Czech Republic further built high-productivity model farms throughout Russia. The central and regional chambers of commerce of the two countries (170 of them) exchanged 24/7 information through their own network, etc.
The Czechs and Russians, Slavic and other, have gotten along good throughout history, have lived in harmony for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, the century of national rebirth throughout Europe, and of the uprising Pan-Slavism, Russians were always described as the last defenders of the Slavs oppressed by the Germans, Austrians and Turks, and Russia was considered by many Czechs, seeking self-determination, as their natural ally, as a possible ‘saviour’ from under the Habsburgs. Then, the communism years created strong economic links, but the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 put an end to the good relations between the two partner nations. On the walls of Prague the Russian soldiers, perched on tanks, could read the words: ‘We waited for you for six years in the World War II to come here and free us, what you did now we will not forget in a hundred years.’ 1968 was a serious blow to the Czech-Russian relations, but not a fatal one, and the hundred years of unforgiveness was shorter. Much shorter. The old anti-Russian stereotypes, including 1968, have softened, the new euro-communitarian Czech had other approaches and horizons. In the spring of 2010, in Karlovy Vary, a reporter from the New York Times (43) interviewed two people, a former Czech dissident from the Communist years, and a very young Russian businessman established there. The first one said: ‘I didn’t expect the memory of 1968 to last so long. The world has changed since then. We, the Czechs, no longer have to assume that whenever they defend their interests, Russia is an aggressor.’ Then, the 21-year-old Russian from Urali said: ‘I got tired of being accused of things that happened before I was born.’ In the same excellent report of ‘NYT’, an American official from President Obama’s team, at the signing in Prague, with Russian President Medvedev, of the US-Russia Agreement to Reduce the Nuclear Arsenal (New Start Agreement) said: ‘President Obama aims to create a new attitude of the regional leaders, in which the older fears of Russians hiding under the beds of Eastern Europeans remain only ghosts of the past.’
Ukraine and Georgia, riparian to the Black Sea, have a lot to learn from the Czech Republic when it comes to three things: (1) relations with the European Union, (2) relations with NATO and (3) relations with Russia. When they will know this lesson well, they will be much, much wiser.
(to be continued)