“Skeptical and pragmatic: the Czech Republic will always be like this”. Vít Dostál, Czech geopolitics expert

"I don't know why, but it is certain that on my second visit to Trieste, within minutes I already felt at home" (Jan Nepomuk Neruda*, 1834-1891)

22.04.2021 – 12.20 – Few remember the time when Trieste was the Czech window to the world. Yet, as reconstructed by Professor Borut Klabjan in “Czechoslovakia in the Adriatic,” ties with the Julian city were thriving. In 1910, more than two thousand Czechs and Moravians lived in Trieste: a middle class of employees and managers of the Živnostenská banka or the Česká spořitelna, employees and engineers of the Sudbahn, or technicians of Breitfeld & Daněk. And a certain Franz Kafka worked as a clerk at General Insurance.
Today, however, only the memory of that connection remains.
After the in-depth articles on Germany, Serbia and Slovenia, it is now the turn of the Czech Republic. To better understand Czech foreign policy, we talked with Vít Dostál, director of the Association of International Affairs in Prague (Amo, in the Czech acronym).

How has Czech foreign policy evolved from 1989 to the present?  

“After 1989, the country (at that time still Czechoslovakia) intended to regain full independence, driving out the Russians for good. By 1989, the regime had changed and the political and economic transition had begun. But thousands of Red Army soldiers were still stationed on Czechoslovakian soil. At the same time, action was taken to dismantle the key institutions of the Eastern bloc: Warsaw Pact and Comecon. All these objectives were achieved by 1991.”

After the secession of Slovakia (1993), the independent Czech Republic moved to join NATO (1999) and the EU (2004).

“Since 2004 the Czech Republic has been a full member of the EU. Some guidelines of foreign policy can be recognized – the global promotion of human rights, support for the countries of the Eastern Partnership, unconditional support for Israel, the centrality of the relationship with the USA. But none of these has the importance of the objectives pursued during the 1990s″. 

Before getting into the heart of the contents, I ask you for a general opinion. As an outside observer, the impression is that Czech foreign policy changes considerably depending on the president in office. Václav Havel, the country’s founder, seemed very close to the West. His successor, Václav Klaus, was branded as Euroskeptic. Miloš Zeman, the current president, is openly seen as hostile to the West and inclined towards interaction with China and Russia. Is this impression correct? 

“No. Certainly, the three presidents have (or had) different sensibilities and, above all, different tones. But foreign policy remains the prerogative of the government, not the president. If we look at the actions of the various governments, which in the Czech Republic are almost always coalition governments, Czech foreign policy stands out for its continuity – both in the goals set and in the ways adopted to achieve them.”  

For the Czech Republic, American support is an indispensable pillar of this continuity. How have the four turbulent years of the Trump administration been experienced in Prague? 

“The relationship between our country and the US has been maintained well. Problems have emerged mostly as fallout from the deterioration of the US-EU relationship. Trump saw the EU as a competitor in the international arena, not an ally. Our government then tried to carve out a niche for itself in order to cultivate cordial relations, however, by crafting an intelligent policy.

Adhering, for example, to “Clean Network”, the initiative launched by Washington for the security of 5G [widely interpreted as a move to oust Huawei from the development of 5G networks of countries allied to the Americans, Ed] and organizing a major conference on the subject in 2019 in Prague. A move with which our country put itself in a good light in the eyes of the Trump presidency.”

What has changed with Biden’s arrival? 

“Of the four Visegrád Group (V4) countries, Poland was the least enthusiastic about Biden’s victory – to put it mildly. Hungary did not jump for joy either. In my opinion, for our national interest, it was instead a blessing because it will allow the transatlantic relationship to improve. For example, the duties imposed by Trump hit automotive, the spearhead of Czech exports, hard.

So much, however, depends on what Prague will actually be able to bring home. Warsaw, although preferring Trump, seems ready to interact with Biden as well. The Poles know that communication, for example on issues such as LGBT rights, media freedom and the rule of law, will be difficult. But they are in the process of signing an arms contract with an American company: this is something that matters. And Democrats know how to do math as well as Republicans do. For the Czech Republic it remains to be understood what the contents with which this relationship is to be substantiated might actually be. My impression is that our government has not yet defined a new agenda”.

Don’t you see the decision to open a new diplomatic office in Jerusalem, a choice contrary to the official EU line, as an attempt to get noticed by Washington? It was Trump who inaugurated the new course, but on this, the Democratic administration does not seem intent on backtracking.  

“This initiative was certainly also dictated by the desire to please the Americans. But, personally, I see it more as the fruit of the excellent relationship between Czechia and Israel. The Czechs have always supported Israel, regardless of its actions in the Middle East scenario. Even in the current executive there are countless supporters of Israel. President Zeman himself is one of the most pro-Israel politicians in Europe”. 

And not only: he is also one of the most pro-Russian and pro-Chinese. Is there room for Russia and China in the Czech Republic? 

“There are a few actors pushing towards Moscow and Beijing: mainly President Zeman and the Czech Communist Party, which supports the government coalition as an external crutch. But you only have to look at the actions that are actually taken by the executive or read the policy documents to understand that, when it comes to Russia and China, the Czech Republic is not Hungary or Slovakia”. 

What do you mean? 

“A recent example. At the beginning of March, Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič went to welcome Russian vaccines with pomp and circumstance at Kosice airport, after secretly ordering them without notifying either his coalition partners or the public. He had to resign over this stunt.
These things do not happen in the Czech Republic.
Czechia’s position is discreet, but not poised. Our country is firmly tied and oriented to the West. Opinion polls confirm that the majority of Czechs believe that the country, geopolitically, should remain anchored to the West. Only a small minority, both in society and in parliament, advocate a rapprochement with Russia.

The same applies to China. For Prague, the friendship with Beijing turned out to be a bitter disappointment. In 2014, there were very high expectations about what the Chinese could guarantee. What was tangible, however, saw little: China’s action was a total failure. I think that even many of the people who initially viewed interaction with Beijing favorably have now changed their position”.

Could something change with the contract for the construction of the new reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant? On a geopolitical level, it is considered the hottest issue in the Czech Republic today. 

“Some actors, such as Zeman, are pushing for the contract to be given to the Russians, as happened in Hungary with the Paks plant. But many are opposed and our Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, does not like agreements with the Russians and Chinese. In fact, he has yet to visit Moscow since he was elected (2017).”

From the way you speak, it seems that the Czechs have no doubt: their place is in the EU. Yet, historically, there is always a very low level of support for Brussels in the polls, even lower than in Poland and Hungary, where the governments are actively engaged in anti-EU propaganda. How can this contradiction be explained? 

“We need to mention two constitutive characteristics of Czech national identity. The first is skepticism. Euroskepticism is usually seen as a negative thing, which could undermine the stability of the EU. That may be true, but in general being skeptical is a quality: skepticism is the basis of the modern scientific method.
In the Czech Republic we are skeptical of everything, not only of the EU. In my opinion, it is an attitude we have derived from geography. We are in the middle of Central Europe: we have always had to absorb different foreign influences and undergo different regimes. That is, adapting to an environment not created by us.

To paraphrase Churchill, Central Europe has always produced more history than it could consume.
Our second characteristic is pragmatism. We inherited it as part of our identity, and it is reflected in our foreign policy, in the way Prague operates in the EU and in international politics.
So yes, in the Czech Republic you can distrust the EU and at the same time want to continue to be part of it”.

On the subject of Central Europe: does the V4, founded to integrate the four member states into NATO and the EU, still make sense, today that these objectives have been achieved? 

“Yes, but it is often not understood. Many observers see it as a pressure group, a sort of gang blackmailing Brussels with crazy ideas on immigration, for example….
But, if we look at how Prague and Bratislava act when they want to bring foreign policy issues to the attention of the European Council, they know how to weave different relationships, leaving the perimeter of the V4. Which often serves as a megaphone of instances shared by the four members, especially when they are issues on which the Brussels line is contested.
Some Czechs, however, view the V4 negatively. They fear that continuing to participate in it could lead the country into the coils of nationalism, they don’t want to run the risk of being infected by the nationalism of Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński so as not to risk ruining our ties with the West. But I do not share this view.”

Why? 

“Because, while it is true that our four governments have a good affinity, it is also true that Czech foreign policy remains defined by elections and the attitude of Czech society, not by the plots of Hungary or Poland.
V4 has a great advantage: it allows for better communication and coordination of some activities in Central Europe. This is something that seems obvious now, but you only have to look back to the interwar period (1920s and 1930s) to see how divided this region was: among all its neighbors, Czechoslovakia’s only ally at the time was Romania (40 km of common border).
Today we are surrounded only by allies, all EU members: Germany, Slovakia, Poland and Austria. And, Austria excluded, we are all in NATO.
The V4, in short, helps to make Central Europe more stable and more predictable. Of course, it is a partnership that only makes sense within the EU. It is often forgotten that the enlargement of the EU in 2004 also coincided with an unprecedented integration of this region. Not even during the Austro-Hungarian Empire was Central Europe so integrated.”

Staying in the post-Habsburg sphere, can Trieste become the “gateway to the Czech Republic,” as hoped for by the president of the Eastern Adriatic Port Authority in Prague in 2018? Over the past twelve years, economic ties have strengthened. Today, seven trains a day run between Trieste and the Ostrava-Paskov interport in Moravia. And the oil that is pumped in the Czech Republic through the Ingolstadt – Kralupy nad Vltavou pipeline, an important alternative to the Russian Družba pipeline, comes from tankers that dock in Trieste.   

“At the moment the predominance of Hamburg seems indisputable, mainly due to the better infrastructural connections. Moreover, between Trieste and Moravia there is a connection, Bohemia, which being virtually separated from Bavaria remains separated from Trieste. The situation could change if the Baltic-Adriatic corridor were seriously enhanced, but as far as I read it does not seem that Italy is betting much on this initiative.” 

[* The name of this nineteenth-century author, relatively little known outside the Czech Republic, inspired the sixteen-year-old Chilean Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, known throughout the world under the pseudonym Pablo Neruda].