Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 31
26 April 1999

Andrew Stroehlein E U R O P E   A T   W A R :
Clear Land Corridor
Brings Clearer Roles

Andrew Stroehlein

With last week's official go-ahead from the Slovak and Czech authorities for NATO's use of transport routes through Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a clear overland path now exists from Western Europe to Yugoslavia. This new possibility is changing the roles of the Central European "corridor countries" in the eyes of NATO. Hungary is understandably reluctant to be on the frontline. NATO has promised Bratislava that the Slovak move "would not be forgotten," and one hopes this will translate into Slovakia's entry into NATO at the earliest possible opportunity. One also hopes that with the parliamentary approval, the Czech political scene will settle down, rally around this decision and demonstrate once and for all that Prague intends to take its membership in NATO seriously.

On 21 April, the Czech Parliament approved a government resolution to allow NATO planes to land and refuel at Czech airports and also approved the use of Czech roads and rail for Alliance purposes. The Alliance's extensive stockpiles of hardware in Germany now have an easier route to the conflict area in Yugoslavia - through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. This potentially frees NATO planners from the logistical and political quagmires in Albania and Macedonia.

Hungarian frontline

A ground war, discussed more and more in the European press, may well be launched from Hungary, but Hungarian uneasiness with such a prospect has been voiced on several occasions. Last week, Budapest repeated its rejection of a ground attack launched from Hungarian soil, saying that Hungary would not take part in ground attacks on Yugoslavia. Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi was quoted as saying, "There is no ground intervention on the agenda, and that there would be a so-called northern intervention, from Hungary, figures even less on the agenda."

Hungary's reluctance is understandable. With 350,000 ethnic Hungarians in the north Yugoslav region of Vojvodina, Budapest has been worried that offering too much support for NATO's action may spark a Serb backlash of ethnic cleansing against this large non-Serb population in Yugoslavia, which has largely escaped Belgrade's mass terror thus far.

Still, according to Reuters, NATO is eyeing Hungary as, at the very least, a possible major player in the bombing campaign against Belgrade, and it sees a Hungarian airbase as an eastern counterpart to the NATO airbase in Aviano, Italy, from which many of the sorties over Yugoslavia are now operating. Reuters quoted unidentified NATO officials who are now examining various Hungarian airbases for suitability. The BBC reported that NATO had long ago draw up contingency plans for invasion.

Official Hungarian rejection of a ground war launched from its territory may be as illusory and fading as NATO's formal dismissal of a ground war.

Czech reserve

While Hungary's fears are easily understood, Czech vacillation is not. There is a strange mix of feelings that makes Czech society reluctant to side strongly with their new-found allies. A lack-lustre military history and the "Svejk syndrome" are part of it. Memories of the 1968 invasion are another. Empathy may also play a role: Czechs have never got on well with other ethnic groups in the past - they expelled the Germans, split with the Slovaks and now build walls to separate themselves from the Roma - so perhaps, they feel they understand Serbs' not wanting to live with Albanians.

There is also the possibility, as Hanley noted, that the suppressed guilt over - or at least the suppressed memory of - the expulsion of three million Germans from the Czech lands after the war makes Czechs unwilling to morally resist ethnic cleansing today. And would the mass return of Kosovars after NATO's victory set a precedent for Prague to follow?

Such fifty-year-old fears may seem far-fetched to the outside observer, but one should not underestimate the power of the Czech/German issue in Czech society and politics. Witness the furore and two years of painful public debate over the "Czech-German Declaration," a rather senseless document that set out to "draw a line under history" but, instead, only exacerbated traditional Czech fears and animosities toward their neighbours. The European Parliament clearly did not help to ease Czech concerns when it foolishly passed a resolution last week calling on Prague to nullify the "Benes Decrees," the set of post-war pronouncements enshrining the Sudeten expulsions into law.

History is only part of the problem

All these "historical" reasons are compounded by the lack of strong leadership in Prague. Czech politicians spend most of their time slinging insults at each other and hardly ever discuss actual issues. Sometimes, the newspapers are so full of "X said this about Y and Y responded by saying this about X" that the reporting is simply vacuous and the newspapers, unreadable. Such a pathetic level of personal politics based on intimate rivalries paralyses the Czech political class, and those who should be leading are unable to provide clear leadership on most issues, not just the war.

Into that sandbox of whining toddlers, someone throws a piece of cut crystal, a difficult issue of foreign affairs, requiring forthright judgement and political mettle. The children fight over it, smash it to bits and then spend the rest of the day blaming each other for breaking it. It is not surprising the Kosova issue was initially fumbled by leading Czech politicians.

Additionally, we now also see how the Czech intellectual elite's "no-debate" attitude toward NATO entry has caused lingering problems. The intellectuals' refusal to get the citizens involved, to widen the public debate or to explain NATO entry to the people has only postponed the difficulties the chattering classes sought to eliminate. The debate Czech society should have engaged in fully years ago is only happening now.

Over the past six or eight years, there was never any wide-scale, Czech public debate on what NATO entry would mean, no realistic discussion of how much it would cost and no explaining the issue to the people. What the major news outlets pushed was simply "accept this, because the elite says it's good for you." Unlike in Hungary, where initial public ambivalence was confronted and eliminated by a successful pro-NATO campaign and referendum in November 1997, the opinion-making establishment in the Czech Republic blasted the very idea of a referendum on NATO. The media elites torpedoed the idea, because they feared that the public might "vote incorrectly."

Now, we see the backlash of the anti-referendum movement, and it is more clear than ever just what a lack of foresight those media pundits were suffering from. Had there actually been a referendum on NATO, the entire country could now say to itself, "Well, we voted for it, so we must stand by it." Without one, the Czech public's confidence in NATO is less sure and less stable. Quite simply, the Czech people do not feel as if they were part of the decision to join NATO, so, today, they feel less obligated to support NATO in a time of crisis. In the aftermath of the first bombing, Czech politicians - from the Social Democrats, to former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, to the Communists - were all stumbling over each other to politically capitalise on that public ambivalence and mistrust of NATO.

The lack of earlier public debate and the dearth of quality leadership from both the political and the intellectual classes has resulted in low support for NATO's efforts among the general public. Standing at 42 percent after the start of bombing, Czech public support for NATO air strikes has now fallen to 34 or 35 percent. Political bickering and an overall feeling of political rudderlessness has helped to drive public opposition to NATO's action from 40 percent to 48 percent.

Czech change?

Last week's vote in the Czech Parliament, however, may finally represent the introduction of some healthy principles into the Czech political scene. By overwhelmingly approving NATO's use of transport facilities, Prague's political leaders have taken a broadly non-partisan stand, and this sudden show of spine should dampen the strength of public doubts. The country has placed its bets: Czech politicians have voted to be in it - now, this country, too, must win it.

The strength of the decision in both houses of Parliament was as impressive as it was unique. In the 81-member Upper House, 57 of the 71 senators in attendance approved the resolution, and in the 200-member Lower House, 145 of the 181 representatives present approved it. Even former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who had sharply criticised NATO earlier in its bombing campaign, drove his Civic Democratic Party representatives to unanimously endorse the resolution supporting NATO. Joined by all Freedom Union and Christian Democratic representatives as well the vast majority of the Social Democrats, those in favour were opposed primarily by the unreformed, pro-Belgrade Communists. Such a broad consensus on a single parliamentary vote has rarely been seen in Czech politics.

One hopes that, now, having made the vital decision - and so definitively - to accept their obligations to the Alliance, the Czech political elites will rally around the matter and continue to show unity on this issue. In time, we could come close to something approaching a normal political situation as in other countries, where major foreign policy matters are considered more important than day-to-day issues and are put above petty party rivalries. The sheer strength of interpersonal bitterness on the Prague political scene has prevented this from happening thus far, but this vote may have just provided the laxative which Prague's political constipation demanded.

This episode could, indeed, mark a real turning point in Czech politics. It may have been the decisive event that will finally establish as normal the concept of foreign policy unity on the Czech political scene, and politicians may start applying it to other matters of vital state importance, such as EU entry. I'm not holding my breath just yet, but the possibility is there.

And, if not...

But even if the Czech parliamentary vote on NATO support does not represent a new chapter for Czech politics in general, it does at least represent a new chapter for the public debate on NATO and the war. Four of the five parliamentary parties are now committed to the war effort, and their leaders will have to cease using the Kosova issue as a way to score political points against their local rivals. The broad political consensus should also bring about a reversal of the downward trend in public support for NATO.

Perhaps thankfully, however, a rise in public support for the war effort is not totally dependent upon Czech politicians changing their ways. The establishment of a rather backstage war role for the country will likely lead to greater public ease with the NATO campaign. While Hungary will probably bear an increasing burden in this war, the Czech Republic will merely be a transit country for the foreseeable future. This safer, more secure role should go a long way to alleviate Czech misgivings towards NATO's action in Yugoslavia.

Andrew Stroehlein, 26 April 1999


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