Czech Foreign Policy: Shift in the Values?

Over the last couple of months, the Czech Foreign policy attracted substantial attention of both domestic and foreign media. This concerned not only the reaction to President Miloš Zeman´s official visit to China, but also the ambiguity of the Czech political elites towards sanctions imposed on Russia in reaction to the conflict in Ukraine. To discuss these issues, as well as the position and role of the Visegrad Group, Vera – Karin Brazova from The Virtual Forum for Visegrad+ Studies met with Petr Kratochvíl.

During his official visit to China, President Miloš Zeman mentioned that he envisages a reset of the Czech-Chinese relations and – quite controversially – that he did not come to teach human rights lessons but to “learn how to boost economic growth and stabilize society” instead. How do you assess the visit of the Czech President to China?

There are several dimensions to this question. First of all, we must distinguish between the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the one hand, and of the President on the other hand. The approach of Mr. Zeman can only hardly be justified – if we look at the interview given by him to the Chinese state television, it did really exceed standard courtesies. His statements were unnecessary and did not contribute to anything.

However, this is only a small fragment of the Czech – Chinese relations and, in my opinion, not even the most important one. Much more important is to look at the actual changes in these relations which are taking place behind those visible events portrayed by the media. There has been a shift in the values on the side of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thus, the conflict here is not between a set of values based on human rights and economic interests, but between two conceptions of human rights. This is the most crucial aspect which, in my opinion, is still somewhat lacking in the debate on this topic in the Czech Republic.

Could you elaborate on the ideational shift on the side of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Let us look at the definition of human rights during the previous governments and how they are defined now. Instead of the previous government´s reduction of human rights to political rights only, the ambition is to cover all of the so-called three waves of human rights (i.e. including economic, social or environmental rights). Of course, we can discuss in how far this approach is practically present in Czech foreign policy. It is too soon to judge whether this shift is only a rhetorical one or whether there will be a real change e.g. in the projects financed by the MFA. For me, personally, this change does not indicate a turn away from the human rights as it is often erroneously claimed.

Having said this, you would not probably agree with the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Schwarzenberg, who claimed that the Czech foreign policy has deflected from Havelian ideals of human rights towards following economic interests?

I cannot agree with this assessment at all. In fact, where human rights are concerned, the current Government is more forthcoming than the previous one. See e.g. the Policy Statement of the Government which – in the area of human rights – is more vigorous than the previous documents. I must admit that I am not an expert on China, but I do not see any such shift away from human rights in the Czech policy towards the Russian – Ukrainian conflict which is actually the field of my expertise. Let me repeat – I think that what is going on is rather a reformulation of human rights.

Mentioning the Russia – Ukraine conflict, how would you assess the attitude of the Czech Government towards this conflict and towards the sanctions imposed on Russia?

What is characteristic of the current situation is that the Czech position is very fragmented. It reveals that in the Czech political sphere, at least four different positions towards the sanctions exist. The first of them is best characterized by the position of President Miloš Zeman – let us call it pro-Kremlin position. It accepts the Russian rhetoric, claiming that Russia is not involved in the conflict in Ukraine and that no Russian soldiers are present on the Ukrainian soil. Politicians of this persuasion reject sanctions altogether. On the other side of the spectrum, there is a position of “political hawks” – represented especially by the TOP09 party – which claims that sanctions are all right but insufficient. Here, the need for tougher sanctions is stressed, along with further steps, such as military cooperation with Ukraine, etc. Between these two extremes, two other positions can be found: the position of “multilateralists” and the one of “pragmatists”. A typical representative of the latter one is the Prime Minister or the Minister of Finance, Andrej Babiš. They do not loudly protest against the sanctions, yet – due to their ties to the economic lobby – they seek for exceptions from the sanctions and call for their early removal. Finally, we have here the position of “multilateralists” which is the position e.g. of the Minister of Foreign Affairs who says that the Czech Republic should belong to the EU mainstream. The sanctions are approved of and seen as an efficient tool which definitely should stay in place. To sum up, the scale of the Czech political attitudes towards the sanctions on Russia reaches from the President, through the pragmatic and multilateralist approaches of the ministers, to the “hawkish” position held by the opposition and, interestingly, also by most of the Czech media.

In your opinion, is it a good thing for the Czech political scene to be so fragmented?

It is not a bad thing when different positions are held by the government and by the opposition. But it is almost hard to believe that the three key political actors influencing the foreign policy (i.e. the President, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs) cannot find a common voice, despite the fact that all of them draw from the social-democratic tradition. Two of them are actually members of the Social Democratic Party and even belong to the same reform wing within this party. I would understand the differences if there was a French-style cohabitation between the President and the Government. But this is not the case. Here, the split among the three key foreign policy actors is justifiable neither in conceptual nor in ideological terms.

Recently, Prague was visited by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Grzegorz Schetyna. An important point on the agenda was also the common position of the Visegrad Group (V4) to the crisis in Ukraine. We have already mentioned the fragmentation of the Czech Republic. In the international context, the Czech Republic seems to be rather reserved towards the sanctions on Russia, while Poland represents the very opposite. Allegedly, both the Czech and the Polish side have agreed that the V4 should have a common position on this matter. According to you, is this realistic at all?

Well, it is absolutely unrealistic. They have agreed that the V4 should have a common position but not on what this position should look like. But to clarify something, I do not think that the Czech Republic and Poland are the exact opposites. Within the V4, it is Hungary and Poland representing opposite and incompatible positions. This is sad particularly because after the EU entry, the Visegrad cooperation has been successful especially with respect to the Eastern neighborhood. Now it becomes apparent that – in relation to Russia – the difference between the Polish government and Orbán’s regime is almost insuperable, in spite of the Polish diplomacy´s benevolence towards the excesses in Hungary. On the side of the Hungarian diplomacy, I do not see any large effort to overcome these differences. In other words, however much I am fond of the V4 framework, I must say that it does not work quite well these days.

Having said this, does the V4 cooperation still have any purpose?

Certainly yes. The neighboring countries are our key strategic partners. This means that the cooperation definitely has its purpose. I even believe that it can become relevant again with respect to the Eastern Europe, in particular the relations with Ukraine. The discord among the V4 countries is about the attitude towards Russia, not towards Ukraine as such. If we were to discuss the relations to Ukraine or other Eastern European countries, such as Moldova or the countries of Southern Caucasus, general agreement among the V4 countries exists. So, I think that the V4 definitely has a future, but Russia remains a stumbling block for them.

Generally, if we look at Central Europe and its relatively small countries, how can these contribute to solving the Ukrainian crisis? And can they contribute here at all?

I would say that they can. Poland plays an essential role here. Even countries such as Germany do acknowledge that this is an area where Poland has a historical experience, large expertise and personal connections stronger than the large countries of Western Europe. The key question is, however, more general. Sooner or later it will be inevitable to open the issue of differentiated integration in Europe. It is obvious that this is not an exclusively EU-internal question. Poland still builds on the premise that the Eastern Partnership as such and now also the DCFTA signed with Ukraine will lead to the full EU membership of Ukraine. This is an indefensible position. At the level of the whole EU, if there was a referendum, e.g. in Austria, Ukraine would not have the slightest chance of becoming an EU member. Thus, the question of differentiated integration must be re-opened and clearly communicated to Ukraine. Formerly, we used “strategic ambiguity” as a tactical advantage – telling Ukraine neither that the door to the EU is open, nor that it is closed. This is unsustainable under the current conditions. Ukraine needs to be offered something tangible, over-reaching the free trade zone. For sure, however, this will not be the full EU membership.

Speaking about the EU, the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, has recently criticized the EU for its reaction at the beginning of the  Ukrainian crisis. In his words, the EU should have reacted differently and in a more flexible way. Since there is a new EU Commission starting from November this year, what direction should it take with respect to Ukraine? Should it continue with the present policies or should it reflect that some steps might have been wrong?

To avoid misinterpretation, I would like to say that the crisis was not caused by the inaction or the lack of action of the EU. It was caused mainly by Russia and partially also by a very bad political and economic situation in Ukraine. These are the root causes of the crisis. The EU’s failure lays in its inability to timely recognize the depth of the crisis.

I do not think that the direction taken by the EU is wrong. The asymmetrical free trade zone is – in the long term – beneficial for Ukraine. However, there is a deep social crisis and the free trade zone could have a negative impact upon the population in the short and medium term. The EU does not pay sufficient attention to this problem, nor do Ukrainian political elites care much about the impact on the weakest parts of the society. In combination with energy supplies cut-off in winter, this could immensely reduce the popularity and legitimacy of the new President and of the Supreme Council. These are the issues that the EU should address.

The interview with Petr Kratochvíl was published at on 4th December 2014.

About the author: Doc. Mgr. Ing. Petr Kratochvíl, Ph.D. is the director of the Institute of International Relations and the Czech foreign policy is one of his areas of interest.