Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 32
3 May 1999

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
A Nuclear Umbrella for
a Fair-weather Ally?

Andrew Stroehlein

Czech whinging over the Republic's NATO obligations has continued during the past two weeks, hitting yet another new low as both Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Foreign Minister Jan Kavan flatly refused to send Czech troops on any future land offensive against Belgrade. Out of step with the government and notably isolated on the issue, President Vaclav Havel told CNN in Washington that Czech troops would undoubtedly assist NATO ground operations. Meanwhile, a company of 140 soldiers from the Polish Army's Podhale Infantry Brigade set out for Albania to bolster Allied forces there by guarding NATO command posts.

One had hoped that the Czech Parliament's impressive approval two weeks ago of a resolution allowing NATO transports to refuel and pass through the Czech Republic would have solidified the Czech political class around NATO to some extent (see article in last week's CER). But that seems more and more like wishful thinking.

Public opinion, in the complete absence of respectable leadership, still shows little support for NATO's just action. About half the population still rejects NATO's air campaign and is even more negative toward the use of ground forces.

Of course, NATO doesn't do much for its image in the eyes of this rudderless new member-state. Bombing TV stations makes it appear that NATO is afraid of something, and foolish missile misses do nothing for NATO's cause or citizens' confidence in NATO. Such events, demonstrating, let us hope, nothing more than incompetence, tarnish NATO's image not just in the Czech Republic, but all over the world. And the longer NATO's politicians persist with their wishful thinking that they can avoid a ground war - whether though KLA help, winning the "propaganda war," continued bombing or Russian peace plans - the more this ineffective style of war will continue to cause embarrassing "mistakes" and public relations headaches for Brussels and Washington. The sad truth is that the sooner the ground war occurs, the fewer lives will be lost in the long run.

Still, the Czech public started out with a rather negative attitude toward NATO, and the bombing has only intensified that feeling. Oddly for a nation in which the the international community's most infamous snub, Munich 1938, is still remembered as if it were yesterday, Belgrade's suppression of Kosovars' rights to self-determination doesn't seem to cause much indignation within the Czech Republic. It appears that the Czechs are now the ones who are disinterested in that "distant land, about which (they) know nothing."

Still a politics of one man

For almost three years now, the Czech Republic has muddled through politically without an elected majority government, and the current Social Democratic government ridiculously holds only 74 of 200 seats in the all-important Lower House of Parliament. The government only exists at all because of support from the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), with whom the Social Democrats agreed a dubious "Opposition Agreement" after last summer's elections. As the ODS, after a fratricidal split at the end of 1997, is little more than a cult of personality around one person, this bipartisan arrangement effectively means that the country's course of development is overwhelmingly dependent on former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, a man concerned far more with his own power than with the plight of Kosova or even the continuing political malaise in his own country.

Blaming NATO for the refugee crisis after the start of the bombing was only the beginning for Klaus. Though not invited to the recent Washington Summit, Klaus was sure to be noticed there in the associated wanna-be flotsam and jetsam, getting himself seen with any Western doubters he could find in the wings to justify his own apparently anti-intervention stance at home. For Parliamentary Speaker Klaus, who is the key figure in Czech politics no matter what chair he sits in, this approach reeks of cynical, opportunist populism.

Rather as Eurosceptic Conservatives in Britain always seem to forget who signed the Maastricht Treaty with all its commitments to European Monetary Union and common defence and foreign policies, supporters of Klaus's new NATO-sceptic line ignore the fact that it was the Klaus governments of 1992-1996 and 1996-1997 that laid all the groundwork for the Czech Republic's entry into the North Atlantic Alliance.

"Oh, but that was when we thought we might be attacked and wanted protection," you can almost hear. "We never thought it would mean that we'd have to help others who are under attack."

The infamous hero of "populist privatisation" in the form of a coupon scheme that promised to enrich millions of individual Czechs in the early 1990s, Klaus is now making the populist most of public doubt and apprehension over NATO in recent weeks.

Mixed signs

Thankfully, however, the situation in Prague is more complicated than this - but only just. At a stretch, one could read mixed signs in the approach of the Czech political class.

After Havel had openly supported Czech involvement in a NATO ground action, the Social Democratic government had acted quickly to tone down the President's language. Foreign Minister Jan Kavan declared that Czech troops would not take part in a ground assault and tried desperately to spin Havel's words to mean support for a post-ceasefire peacekeeping force. Later in the weekend, Havel seemed to oblige Kavan with more compromising language, and Kavan, eager to downplay any disunity, was hoping for a meeting of minds at the weekend to clear up any misunderstanding.

Opposition parties, including the ODS, were quick to side with Havel in the dispute, though many of their members had been criticising a ground assault for weeks. According to the news agency CTK, a straw poll of parliamentary representatives agreed with Havel. However, the ODS, the Freedom Union and the Christian Democrats were all more likely to be motivated by a mistrust of Kavan and a knee-jerk opposition response than any true support for Havel's moral position.

And a moral position Havel certainly had. His speech in front of a joint session of the Canadian Parliament on Thursday, 29 April 1999, whether its message proves true or not in the long run, will certainly go down in history as one of the most important speeches of the turn of the century. Havel said that NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia heralded a new era for international relations. The new philosophy was based upon an ethical position in which national sovereignty could be violated in the name of protecting people.

According to the Reuters report, Havel proclaimed: "This war gives human rights precedence over the rights of states... I see this as an important precedent for the future... It has now been clearly stated that it is not permissible to slaughter people, to evict them from their homes, to maltreat them and to deprive them of their property... This is probably the first war ever fought that is not being fought in the name of interests, but in the name of certain principles and values."

The Czech government was hardly willing to be so visionary: despite Kavan's efforts to put the disunity issue aside, on Saturday 1 May, Prime Minister Milos Zeman brazenly used the conflict with the President to the government's political advantage in front of the doubting Czech public. Zeman claimed that Havel was informed of the government's anti-ground troops policy long before the President left for Washington, implying that the President's words were little more than idealistic rhetoric.

Nagging doubt

Unfortunately, anyone with any experience of the Czech political scene must be sceptical about these "mixed signs" between the President, the government and the opposition. Most of the political speech in the past week seems like a ruse by politicians wishing to play a pathetically simple double game of feigning support on the international scene while pandering to isolationism (or worse) at home.

Primed by populism, lacking leadership and swamped by sycophants, the Czech political class are trying to sell the country an illusory "one-way alliance" in which Czechs supposedly gain the benefits of NATO protection but pay none of the costs. Havel, although he remains much more popular than the government, is only one sensible voice among many.

Last week, this column expressed the hope that broad, multi-party Parliamentary approval of NATO's use of Czech soil for Alliance transports would be the turning point for a new foreign policy unity within the Czech political class. Now, it seems that that vote could turn out to be more an aberration than the beginning of clear-thinking in Prague.

In preparation for sending Polish troops to assist in Allied operations, Polish Defence Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz was quoted as saying, "By becoming a NATO member on 12 March, Poland joined an alliance whose objective is not only self-defence but also building peace in Europe."

It is hard to imagine any Czech politician accepting such grave political responsibility in such uncompromising terms.

Andrew Stroehlein, 3 May 1999


Back to the
Andrew Stroehlein Archive
main page

Back to Central Europe Review


Articles galore
in the

Find out more about our Virtual Internship Programme


Book Shop


Music Shop

with your comments
and suggestions.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved