On Charles bridge in Prague
Jiří Pehe

-Analysis-

PRAGUE — From a geopolitical perspective, the Czech Republic is a case apart. After four decades of being "abducted" to the East (as writer Milan Kundera, for one, described the era of Soviet communism), it has spent 30 years as part of the West, first as part of Czechoslovakia, with its Velvet Revolution, and later as an independent state and member of both NATO and the European Union. But in recent years, part of the country's political elite and a large part of society have repeatedly questioned our affiliation with the West.

From 1989 to 2003, under the presidency of Václav Havel, the division of Czech society and politics in terms of the geopolitical grounding was not so obvious. Havel clearly had a pro-Western orientation. Under his leadership, Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic earned a worldwide reputation as defenders of human rights, one that was built on the intellectual heritage of the pre-1989 dissident community.

The political and economic transformation of the country after 1989 happened almost naturally under the slogan "back to Europe," in a broader sense understood as "back to the West." Just a few years after the fall of the communist regime, the country officially began negotiations to join NATO and the EU. And although some voices in the fringes of the political spectrum questioned this orientation, there was a broad political consensus on the correctness of this path.

The first indications that this consensus may not last at the highest levels of Czech politics appeared in the form of Václav Klaus's "Eurorealistic" views. As prime minister and then chairman of the Chamber of Deputies, he criticized the EU as an over-bureaucratic, socialist project. And although he did not directly question out entry — he initially said that "we have no alternative to membership in the EU" — he did spread skeptical views to parts of the society that actually began to question the Czech "return to the West."

During his presidency (2003-2013), Klaus also began to pursue a pro-Russian policy that deviated from Havel's more straight-shooting relations with the Kremlin. Whereas Havel would chide Russia for its excesses, such as with the war in Chechnya, Klaus repeatedly defended Russia's controversial foreign policy, including its aggression against Georgia in 2008.

When taking office as the current president, Miloš Zeman formally presented himself as a pro-European politician. Unlike Klaus, he even had the flag of the EU flown at Prague Castle. And yet, all his subsequent actions have essentially diluted the country's pro-Western orientation. In international diplomacy, he wanted to present himself as a "bridge" between the West and the East — as a kind of link between Western democracies, especially the United States, on one hand, and authoritarian Russia and Communist China, on the other.

Russia openly threatens some Czech politicians, while the president is silent.

If Zeman had positioned himself as a pro-Western politician, offering his services to the Western allies as a representative of a country that knows the "East" very well because of its past, it might have been useful. Instead he followed the pro-Russian attitudes of Klaus, to the point that after the Russian occupation of Crimea and the aggression in eastern Ukraine, he became the main "pro-Russian" voice among the NATO and EU members. He also became the main advocate of lifting sanctions against Russia.

On top of that, Zeman began to forge a significant pro-Chinese policy. Although he initially defended it as economic diplomacy efforts, it gradually became clear that he sees this policy as an alternative to our alliances with Western democracies.

Zeman failed with his offer, addressed mainly to the White House, to become a "bridge" between the powers. Instead, while declaring himself to be Donald Trump's counterpart in light of their shared anti-immigration and social-conservative attitudes, he received a political slap from Trump when the U.S. president ostentatiously ignored Zeman's efforts to pay the United States an official visit.

The result of Zeman's policy is both his growing isolation among Western politicians, as well as an unfortunate further weakening of pro-Western attitudes among the Czech public. Moreover, the current government of Prime Minister Andrei Babiš basically follows Zeman's foreign policy.

This not only opens the door for Russia to build more nuclear reactors in our country or for China to export Huawei's scandal-tainted technologies to us, but also for the growing assertiveness of both powers in Czech territory. Russia openly threatens some Czech politicians, while the president is silent and Babiš only invokes general reservations about state sovereignty.

Prime Minister Babiš followed the policy of the previous government, which joined the other countries in the Visegrad alliance (Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) during the migration crisis in rejecting immigrants and fighting against refugee quotas. Due to growing disputes with the rest of the EU mainly over migration, the Czech Republic has gradually distanced itself from the Western democracies, especially Germany, despite a strong economic dependency.

At the same time, all this was paradoxically accompanied by a kind of growing economic nationalism, which fundamentally rejects the adoption of the common European currency.

While the previous government's inclination towards other Visegrad countries was more of a strategic nature, as the country would find it difficult to sound the rejection of European migration policy alone, Babiš raised cooperation within the Visegrad group to a "value" level. He ignores the attacks of Hungary and Poland on the principles of the rule of law and democracy mainly because he is sometimes at odds with these values himself.

As an oligarch investigated by the EU for possible misuse of subsidies, together with the leaders of Hungary and Poland, Babiš belongs to a group of Eastern European politicians who see the EU primarily as a dairy cow, instead of a political and value ally.

Coronavirus is just another illustration of how the country perceives cooperation.

In the eyes of most Czech politicians, with the exception of some opposition parties, the EU has become a purely economic project that we support only if we can benefit from it. The ease with which the Czech Republic radically cut contacts with its European neighbors at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis is just another illustration of how the country perceives cooperation and coordination of activities with its Western counterparts.

Indeed, most European countries eventually closed the borders to foreigners — also due to Brussels' lack of powers to coordinate a common European response to the epidemic. Czech reaction, however, was extreme: It banned, for example, the departure of its own citizens from the country.

Human rights values ​​and the rule of law have proved to be a thin shell. And although the independent judiciary eventually forced the government to act in accordance with the law, the ease with which most people and politicians accepted even the most absurd restrictions suggests that 30 years after the fall of the former regime, Czech society and politics have only partially became part of the once coveted West.

Near the Czech border — Photo: Steffi Adam/Geisler-Fotopress/DPA/ZUMA

The Czech Republic is a divided country in many ways. The way our economic transformation took place, as well as its geographical position, have gradually given rise to a largely globalized economy. The backbone of the Czech economy consists of large multinational companies that produce not only for the domestic market, but especially for the European market. Even many smaller companies founded by Czech entrepreneurs depend on exports, especially to European markets, where more than 80% of Czech exports go.

The Czech Republic is an example of a country that "goes on autopilot."

Even though the Czech Republic is economically dependent on exports and, as a specialized and non-self-sufficient country, also on imports, its politics remains extremely provincial and self-centered. Issues of international importance, as well as strategies for international cooperation, are omitted from general discussions, which should not be the case in a country whose economy is so globally integrated. Instead, Czech politics continues to focus on trifling disputes, and the prevailing tone of political discourse could be described as "post-communist."

In stable international and economic conditions, Czech political provincialism, pretending to be the "bridge" between the West and the East, is balanced by the fact that the country is ultimately driven by its internationally integrated economy, not a declining political class. As various rating companies have already noticed, the Czech Republic is an example of a country that "goes on autopilot." It is doing well economically not because of its domestic policy, but despite its domestic policy. Of course, being part of the EU common market makes it much easier.

The contradiction between the country's economic dependence on the global environment and its provincial politics, unable to accentuate the country's real international interests, cannot remain unresolved in the long run. In the end, it will be resolved to the detriment of the provincial, self-contained politics.

The coronavirus crisis, however, allowed politics that played a second role in the country's real economic interests to take the lead. And that can prove to be a serious problem.

In a situation where the Czech society has been increasingly confronted in recent years with the question of who we really are (West or East, or something completely unique), the temporary domination of a confused and inefficient political class with enhanced governmental powers is quite risky. Responding in a populist way to the habits and mental stereotypes of a large part of the population from before 1989, it is more "eastern" really than the "western."

Formally, the Czech Republic is anchored geopolitically in Western security and political structures, so attempts by politicians in the recent past to challenge this orientation have hit against institutional barriers and the main economic interests. But in a crisis situation, new opportunities opened up for those top Czech politicians who have been weakening or questioning our orientation to the West. The situation offers further proof, unfortunately, that the Czech public's democratic instincts are by no means very deep.

The temporary suspension of normal economic traffic, which naturally drew the country to the EU and to the West in general, untied the hands of these politicians. Decisions during a state of emergency on the construction of nuclear reactors, in which Russia in particular would like to chip in, or opaque purchases of protective equipment from China, might only be the tip of the iceberg of where the interests of the political elite — until now tied to the internal logic of the globalized Czech economy and EU rules — really lie.

Equally important is the fact that this post-communist, geopolitically unanchored (and in a way virtually non-Western) elite is not opposed by the public, part of which has undergone a major transformation and remains confused about our position in the world and strategic priorities. It is dominated by provincial self-centeredness, which, without real knowledge of the outside world, is guided by the motto "what is Czech is beautiful." In this mindset, the EU is often seen as an intruder that challenges the belief in Czech uniqueness.

The kitschy emphasis on how great and better than everyone else we are, as presented by the prime minister and other politicians, plays on this deeply provincial tone of self-satisfaction of a nation, of which a substantial part does not trust the outside world. Those same people, as it turns out, have no problems either living behind closed borders.

Fortunately, for a more liberal and internationally aware part of the society, the current political representation whose moment of "glory" came in the form of a state of emergency will face a major dilemma in just a few months. Either we'll integrate quickly back into the global economy and join forces with the EU to recover, or we'll face a long-term economic downturn. In face of the new problems, our best source of help will most certainly not come from countries like China, Russia or the Visegrad states, which a portion of our political elite, nevertheless, is betting on for reasons we can only guess.

This article was translated with permission by the author. Pehe is a political scientist and director of the New York University Prague.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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