We are falling…

This is the second part of Karel Hvíždala’s discussion with the Czech-American political scientist Michael Kraus. “Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman are not safeguarding Czech national interests. Rather they are causing the country an embarrassment”, he argues.

If we look at Europe we can see that the West only practises the politics of repeated appeasement. Meanwhile, central Europe – with the exception of Poland – seems to have an understanding of Putin. What has caused this situation?

There is no simple answer. It is a difficult question, but I would mention a few factors that are related to this. Firstly, it is a natural human trait, a tendency of favouring peace at any cost, not thinking the worst, and hoping that the danger will somehow pass away. We can apply an ancient wisdom against this inclination: “If you want peace, prepare for war”. For example: in 1938, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not only someone who naively trusted Hitler. He was also someone who went to Munich to deal with a man who already held all the trump cards. During the inter-war period, Britain, in contrast to Germany, neglected making investments into the military to the extent that it was unable to stand up to Hitler on the Continent. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Hitler thus primarily corresponded to a relationship of force. France was even worse off. If a strong France had existed in a coalition with a strong Britain, Hitler would have most likely not dared to initiate the war.

A second factor, that has manifested itself not only in the Czech Republic but also throughout Europe, is a phenomenon which Václav Havel described in his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ as: “… the general reluctance of people in a consumer society to sacrifice some of their material security for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity. The willingness to resign to ‘a higher purpose’ when faced with trivialising temptations of modern civilisation and their acceptance of the attractions of mass indifference.”

How would you explain this clearly to readers?

Havel had in mind people running away from any responsibility, the unwillingness of consumer society to sacrifice some of its ‘temptations’ on the altar of freedom and fight for shared values. This is indirectly related to Patočka’s words admired by Havel: “… there are things that exist, that are worth suffering for…” If our freedom (in close conjunction with democracy) is a value worth defending, we should act accordingly in advance, before we lose it. It is interesting that in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, the Polish Ministry of Defence recently offered to provide military training to all those who were interested. On the first day, the 1st of March 2015, one thousand people enrolled into the programme. Moreover, there are reportedly around one hundred home defence groups in Poland, which consist of about 80,000 volunteers. In Poland, there is a strong national awareness that the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine is a direct threat to their country. In central Europe, or more specifically in the whole of Europe, Poland has the most extensive (and the saddest) experience with Russia, alongside the Baltic states.

Why do we pretend as though we are unable to relate to their experience? Is it also the reason as to why the West has a weak stance to the Ukrainian conflict, and that it does not have enough money to help effectively? And also that at the same time it has to confront the Islamic State?

I agree that the financial assistance to Ukraine is vital. The economic condition of the country was already very weak before the onset of last year’s crisis; and now it is substantially worse. Regardless of this, I do not think that a lack of money is the main issue. In February 2015, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank approved financial assistance for Ukraine that added up to almost 20 billion dollars, and the European Union promised in 2014 a further 15 billion euros, whilst a number of countries, including the USA, are providing bilateral support. The main problem is that no financial aid will be adequate or effective, unless it is accompanied by a number of necessary reforms, for instance those that would emancipate the Ukrainian state from the systemic corruption and energy subsidies. These are the challenges that have yet to be resolved.

In the Czech Republic, the last two presidents have been evidently pro Russian. Minister Mládek has acted in a similar manner. The Social Democrats, including the Prime Minister, have very unclear attitudes, as does Babiš’s movement ANO 2011. Meanwhile the only defence against Russia is the unified European Union, which are managing to break with these acts. Were you expecting that after November 1989 such a thing would be possible?

Our pro-Russian presidents are anomalies in Europe and NATO. When President Zeman defines the Russian invasion of Donbas as a ‘civil war’, he will be seen as a ‘useful idiot’ to Moscow. Whilst the Czech president has repeatedly proclaimed that he does not believe that Russia is militarily involved in Ukraine, Putin has personally confirmed that this has been the case. No wonder that the Kremlin-controlled Russian media dedicate a lot of attention to both Zeman’s and Klaus’ statements. According to The Economist, Miloš Zeman had 16, 552 references in the Russian media between October 2012 and February 2015, whilst the German President Joachim Gauck had only 481. Klaus’ position towards Russia is now drawing closer to the ultra-right nationalist types of Marine Le Pen in France, who explicitly supported the Russian annexation of Crimea. In March 2013, Klaus became an associate of the major US think-tank, the Cato Institute; however, due to his subservient defence of the Russian aggression towards Ukraine, the institute quickly parted ways. Leaving aside the question as to whether Klaus or Zeman are drawn to the East by their own unsavoury past, Russian corruption or their admiration of Putin’s authoritarian ways (so typical of themselves), they are certainly not defending Czech national interests. On the contrary, they are undermining the unity of both NATO and the EU and are causing their country a disgrace.

I also asked how you saw the future in 1989.

After November 1989, I believed that we would learn from our own experience and past. The security of the Czech nation and state has always depended on international relations, which makes us existentially dependent on what is happening on the European continent. The fate of central Europe is that it is located between Germany and Russia. In the twentieth century we were unfortunately the first to experience life under two different totalitarian regimes. When I was undertaking research for my doctoral thesis on Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and World War II, I spent a lot of years looking for relevant material in the archives that would demonstrate how the Western powers put us into the Soviet sphere of influence after the war. I was shocked when I was forced to conclude that we had got there primarily by our very own efforts.

Could you tell us in particular which materials you came across?

For example, when the Allies discussed the post-war arrangements, including the fate of Poland and the Baltic states, at the conferences in Tehran and Yalta, the Czech Republic was not mentioned or dealt with. The Beneš government in exile was trying to avenge the Munich agreement and from 1942 it had become the most pro-Soviet government amongst the Allies in London. In order to sign an agreement with Moscow in 1943 regarding postwar co-operation, the Beneš government distanced itself from the Polish government in London, and also dismissed British protests that an agreement with Moscow would be premature, and would also destroy the solidarity with a Central European ally. Subsequently, the Beneš government became a mouthpiece for Moscow in London, complying with all their wishes, and was the first to recognize the Soviet-instilled and communist-dominated Polish government in Lublin, and (without the permission of the Czechoslovak Parliament) accepted the Soviet annexation of Carpathian Ukraine (which was also approved by a quickly-organized ‘referendum’ under the supervision of the KGB). It was no coincidence that Edward Beneš was the only top pre-war statesman in Central Europe whom the Soviets allowed to return to office after the war. In March 1945, the acts of Beneš and his government culminated in accepting in Moscow without any protest the so-called Košice Programme of Government, under which the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia occupied all the strategic ministries. In reality, this was a carefully planned and camouflaged break-up of democracy; it was a programme of ‘Sovietization’ designed by Gottwald under the watchful eye of his Soviet masters who condoned or edited each sentence (as we learnt in the 90s from the declassified Soviet materials). Therefore, let us call it correctly the Moscow Programme of Government, and not a Košice Programme. Demystification requires calling things by their correct name. Likewise, the Soviets did not have to publicly interfere in the internal affairs of postwar Czechoslovakia. Their strategy was implemented by the leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia that was entirely beholden to Moscow, in cooperation with the democratic political elite, which, due to their own ignorance and illusions regarding the Soviet system, mystified the general public.

But Beneš was like this. Friedrich Torberg wrote that Beneš was already in 1938 proclaiming: ‘better Hitler than the Hapsburgs’. In the same vein, Beneš must have thought ‘better the Soviet Union than the West’. He simply could not forgive them for having turned their backs on Czechoslovakia. But what is it like today?

Sometimes I feel as though the situation is repeating itself. We have been allowed to join two organizations, the EU and NATO, whose creation is closely linked with the attempt to prevent the recurrence of totalitarian regimes and catastrophes that have damaged us in the last century. Despite the various justified criticisms and the shortcomings, these two institutions are amongst the most effective organizations of its kind that history has ever seen. We can either contribute to their improvement and growth, or their decline and destruction. It seems that so far we have been more successful with the latter. The first and fundamental responsibility of those temporarily entrusted by their electorate with leading a country is to take care of the security of the state and its citizens. Our post-November 1989 elites (political, media and intellectual) clearly failed to raise society’s awareness of how important are the international consequence of our domestic affairs. Even more alarming is the fact that the state leadership either lacks the sufficient differentiating capacity or the political courage to clearly define who is responsible for the war in Ukraine, who is the victim of the war, and why Moscow’s actions threaten European stability and the security of our country.

Does this signal the end of the current state of democracy and the rise of authoritarian regimes firstly in central, and soon to follow, the rest of Europe? Karel Schwarzenberg surprised me at the start of 2015 by his pessimistic remark that he was unsure as to whether our country would survive this century. Do you hold a more optimistic view, or share his concerns?

Today, unfortunately, the collapse of the EU or NATO cannot be ruled out. Such a development would certainly support the emergence of authoritarian regimes throughout Europe, and fatally weaken Czech prospects of preserving freedom and independence.

Translator: Natalie Rybova


published: 15. 5. 2015

Datum publikace:
15. 5. 2015
Autor článku:
Karel Hvíždala