Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999

Arranged Marriage with Aborted Honeymoon?
The Czech Republic and NATO

Tomas Pecina

Czechs are known to be almost pathologically preoccupied with what "the world" thinks of them and whether it is paying enough attention to them; oblivion is their worst inferno. They seem to be behaving like actors on a stage, living on nothing but foreigners' applause and praise. Now, once again, their ambitions have been satisfied. The country is the focus of attention, being, at least unofficially, referred to as the weakest link of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which the Czech Republic joined this March, shortly before NATO's Kosova operation was launched.

Have the people forgotten Russian tanks in Czech cities? Or were they perhaps happier with a strong and unforgiving master in Moscow? No on both counts. No one has forgotten the tanks, and few would like to go through the humiliation of Russian occupation again. What the Czechs seem to be afraid of in this case is their own government. Czech history appears to be moving in cycles of indecisiveness, acts of capitulation, long periods of faithful servitude to a foreign power, followed by brave revolts after the power has already been overcome by others and submission to a new hegemony immediately thereafter. Average Czechs are afraid that their government is going to transform itself into a stooge once again and make the country a far-off colony prepared to send its troops anytime the transatlantic empire requests it.

Prior to the Czech Republic's induction into NATO, there was no public debate on the issue of joining the Alliance, which the Czech media portrayed as a sort of apotheosis, a winning lottery ticket, reprimanding mercilessly anyone who dared criticize the move. When the bombing of Yugoslavia started in March 1999, the mood of the newspapers and TV stations grew less enthusiastic. In July, more than a month after the end of the bombing, Czech political representation is split into three clearly defined groups. While the Communists and President Havel (along with his minions) are consistent in their respective unreserved rejection or support of the NATO operation, the two main forces on the political scene - Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Milos Zeman's Social Democrats (CSSD) - are both divided on the issue. Behind the facade of the ambiguous and diplomatic language of official statements and press releases, strong infighting is going on within the two parties.

Whether to grant or turn down support for the Kosova military operation was a tough choice to make for the CSSD, which makes up the current weak and unpopular minority government of the Czech Republic. After some initial dawdling, Zeman's government decided to approve the attacks, eliciting much resentment from its own party members (who, in reaction to the decision, mailed an open letter of support to the Yugoslav Ambassador in Prague) and experiencing a steep decline at the opinion polls, as the Czech population began to generally reject the NATO campaign. Trying to mend the image of a government which does not heed its people, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan hastily prepared a joint Czech-Greek diplomatic initiative. The document turned out to be a complete public relations disaster: overlooked and sneered at at home and causing many a raised eyebrow internationally.

The clear winner of the fray is the ODS, a party that has led the country's ruling coalitions from 1992 to 1997. Since its inception in 1991, the party, as well as its authoritarian and savvy leader Vaclav Klaus, has gone through several metamorphoses, usually being the first to react to any change in the public mood. Despite the voices of the less flexible members of the party, Klaus's people succeeded in making several points on the NATO issue, all fitting perfectly within the general public's stereotype-burdened perception of the events in Kosova.

First, from the linguistic point of view, NATO is always referred to as "they" rather than "we" by the leading officials of the party; as Party Chairman Vaclav Klaus made clear, a newcomer such as the Czech Republic is not expected to really decide on anything in the Alliance. Czech opinion is irrelevant in NATO, as it was in the Warsaw Pact. This was a message many people wanted to hear.

Secondly, the actions of NATO have nothing to do with human rights or stability in Europe. What matters is geopolitics, Russia and the interests of the war-mongering lobbies back in the United States. As Miroslav Macek, a high-ranking official of Klaus's party, said, one of the primary objectives of the operation was the testing of new missile technologies.

This perspective was exactly what Czechs, the majority of whom are unable to understand any foreign language besides Slovak and are thus effectively cut off from international sources of information, yearned to hear. They are all against us, Russians as well as Americans, Communists and Social Democrats as well as President Havel (who was often depicted as the Trojan horse of the US in Central Europe). No one can be trusted except the ODS and its people. From the point of view of political science, a perfect move, a textbook case of exploiting external and unrelated events for one's own political benefit. Sure enough, the opinion poll figures soared, and this helped calm, at least temporarily, previously strong dissenting voices within the party.

So, is or is not the Czech Republic the weakest link of NATO? I fear it is. The reason being that the population of no other member country is so prone to manipulation and so isolated from external sources of information; no other member country has such poor media coverage of international events; and no other member country has such uneducated and mediocre journalists, repudiating fiercely anyone above their level of professionalism and personal integrity. By accepting the Czech Republic, NATO created a serious problem for itself, which will take a long time and much effort to remedy. The big question is: after the problem is eventually solved, will the Czech Republic still remain a NATO member?

Tomas Pecina, 10 July 1999




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