Opinion polling reveals the Czech public holds a characteristically divided / balanced set of views the Russo-Georgian war: majorities disapprove of both Georgian intervention in South Ossetia and Russia’s response, with predictable splits on left/right lines and the usual swathe of ‘don’t knows’.
As elsewhere, the first issue who was more at fault. The centre-right governing coalition, the centre-left opposition and most Czech commentators, while not absolving the Georgians, saw the Russian response, as sinister and excessive and advocated a fairly robust response. There were, however, no immediate and dramatic gestures of solidarity with Georgia along the lines of the lightening visit to Georgia undertaken by the Polish and Baltic presidents. One person certainly not going to join them in the plane was Czech President Václav Klaus. After an initial period of silence and a vague early statement about his ‘deep concern’, Klaus came out firmly against the Georgians, who he felt had provoked the conflict by embarking upon a foolish military adventure.
Klaus has a record of criticizing (potential) Western intervention supported (at least lukewarmly) by many others on the Czech centre-right. He was against both NATO intervention in Kosovo and the Iraq war. So his contrarian position in opposing the centre-right government led by the party he himself had founded – he is now publicly at loggerheads on the issue with Prime Minister Topolánek – was not a total surprise. Even so some of the Czech press struggled slightly to find reasons for Klaus’s position. Pure egotism? The generous deals with Russian oil companies to publish his writings denying global warming? In fact, Klaus has had fairly consistent views about Putin’s Russia for some years and there is a kind of method in his madness. As his published writings over several going back several years highlight that while he doesn’t think Russia is anything like a normal democracy and doesn’t much care for its authoritarian state capitalism, he doesn’t see it a threat to Europe if left alone with its now rather narrowly defined sphere of influence. If it was, of course, that might imply the need for (God forbid) a more integrated European foreign and security policy, rather than a fight for Czech national interest against a German-dominated EU. And that would never do, would it?
As carefully explained by the high-flying young Social Democrat chair of the Czech parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Jan Hamáček, in an interview with the business daily Hospodářské noviny, the Czech Social Democrats have a similar but more nuanced position, stressing the need for a realistic and pragmatic approach to Russia, rather than counterproductive confrontation; a clearer sense of the dangers of US hegemony and the potential usefulness of Russia (as well as China and a strong EU) as part of a more multipolar arrangement and a more frank admission of the inconsistency of the West’s position in endorsing Kosovan independence (just recognized by the Czech government). Interestingly, Hamáček seems to hold out hope of democratization in Russia, suggesting interestingly that the Kremlin’s tame opposition party Fair Russia might transform itself into a rough and ready form of social democratic party if engaged properly by the Socialist International.
All Czech political forces, whether for or against the stationing of a US anti-missile in the Czech Republic, denied that the Georgian crisis had any bearing on this issue as, despite Moscow’s threatening noises, it was not directed against Russia. The Czech Communists, predictably, had a pro-Russian position, reflecting both predictable political reflexes and anti-Americanism.
A second issue was just how Czechs should understand Putin’s Russia, its intervention in Georgia and its place in the world generally. This debate was conducted in shorthand form in a contest of historical analogies. As the conflict coincided with the 30th anniversary of the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, there was much consideration of parallels between Russian military intervention in Georgia and Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. As most writers noted, there are some obvious flaws in the analogy. In 1968 the USSR and Czechoslovakia were allies in the same military alliance with an agreed relationship (Soviet leadership), similar – and very ideologically defined – political systems. The Prague Spring was a reform project not a geo-political clash over territory. As Klaus and were quick to point out in 1968, Czechoslovakia had not pre-empted intervention with its own military action.
Others, such as Christian Democrat ex-foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda (now head of the government’s Legislative Council), saw Georgia 2008 as worse than Czechoslovakia 1968 because of the bloodshed and scale of the damage caused by Russian forces in Georgia and its not being part of a Russia-led military, political bloc. However, a deeper parallel picked up by several ex-dissident several commentators, was that regardless of exact parallels (or lack of) both 1968 and 2008 a betrayed an essentially imperial Russian mindset and a foreign policy bent on dominating small nations in its perceived sphere of influence. Václav Klaus, however, countered that, there was a difference between the ‘expansionist communism’ of Brezhnev’s USSR (hard to see, how ‘defending socialism’ in Czechoslovakia was expansion, but let that pass) and contemporary Russia or the Russian people. Implicitly, he suggested (in an interview with Komersant Daily, later reprinted in Czech on the Klaus website) his fellow Czechs were just a bit Russophobic.
However, Václav Havel, who roundly condemned the Russian side, saw the conflict as stemming from a more deeply grounded confusion of Russian identity about their country began and ended – a classic confusion between nation and empire, although he did not put it in these terms. This was an interesting perspective as it echoes the thinking of Czechoslovakia’s founding president Tomáš G. Masaryk, who wrote a long philosophical-historical treatise on Russia and Europe in the early years of the last century (translated into English as The Spirit of Russia), although Masaryk was curiously absent from most of the debate, perhaps because his conclusion that Russia is historical and civilizationally different from the West and poorly fitted for liberal democracy is an unspoken shared assumption of all participants in the Czech debate.
Other commentators, such as Lidové noviny’s Zbyněk Petráček, saw a better analogy in Czechoslovakia’s situation in 1918 in facing down Sudeten German ‘breakaway regions’ challenging the country’s internationally recognized territorial integrity at the behest of a revanchist neighbouring power, recently humiliated by losing an empire after defeat in war. For Russia read Germany, for Georgia read Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, in 1918, had had to send their army in to rebel minority regions to sustain the viability of their emerging democratic state, the Georgians in 2008 likewise. This recycled ‘Weimar Russia’ theme was taken up by the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg (independent nominated by the Greens) and also the line taken by the news magazine Respekt, which he co-owns. The parallel does have the slightly unfortunate implication that Putin is Hitler and the Putinist ideology of semi-authoritarian ‘sovereign democracy’ as powerful and hypnotic as Nazism, which I doubt is the case even in Russia, although I suppose one might see a certain analogy between the Reichswehr and the FSB as a kind of revanchist state-within-a-state. For Klaus too perhaps the situation had an echo of 1938. His address to Czech citizens on the 30th anniversary of the 1968 invasion pointedly highlighted the ‘Munich mentality’ (mnichovství) – excessive faith in distant Western allies in 1938 who, when push came to shove, would not risk war – supposedly also characteristic of the situation in 1968.
Another LN contributor, Michal Romancov, went back still further, seeing the resurgent post-Soviet Russia assertively starting to play political hard ball with other great powers as historically equivalent to Russian after its defeat in the Crimean War of 1850s. The, slightly more flatteringly, casts Putin as an authoritarian modernizer, although the analogy also fits with the dismissal of Russia by Western politicians as a ‘19th century power’ operating with crudely outdated notions of spheres of influence and zero-sum national interest with whom ruled-based co-operation is impossible.
And, of course, there is the analogy of the ‘New Cold War’. This was taken up LN commentator Zbyněk Petráček but not many others and, as so often, seemed basically intended to dramatize the seriousness of the perceived threat and accent a few points, rather than suggest we should all start worrying about Putin’s tanks rolling through Prague. The key points of the ‘New Cold War’ tag seem to be that the new dividing line running through Europe and an ideological (perhaps these days one should say ‘values-based’) conflict with Russia making seemingly small states and statelets, rather important; and that as we were in it, we (the West) should try and win it. This is essentially the thesis of Edward Lucas’s book of the same name, although, revealingly, there seems to be no Czech translation out and the English language edition(s) to have little reviewed in Czech. (Although I thought the book rather overstated its case when it came out, but now seems unnervingly and prescient.). The New Cold War view also has the advantage of avoiding sticky issues of being consistent over territorial integrity and international law, as it stresses that, at bottom, the West is still a camp of liberal democractic goodies while Putin and sundry post-Soviet semi-authoritarians have the wrong values and the wrong system. The logic of this view in relation to Georgia might , to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, be that Saakashvili might be a unpredictable sonovabitch, but he is our sonovabitch and a more democratic sonovabitch than the current occupants of the Kremlin toboot.
The Czech government has sent humanitarian aid to Georgia and seems inclined to add to its voice to those urging the opening of a clear path to NATO membership for Georgia. Schwarzenberg has also questioned the appropriateness of the Russian hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. But most Czech politicians and commentators even of strong pro-Georgian inclinations don’t have the stomach or inclination or ideas to fight a New Cold War, even rhetorically. The Czech political tradition is one of caution, pragmatism and an engrained (but perhapsexaggerated?) sense of their weakness. Writiing Lidové noviny Luboš Palata, normally a rather sober and measured commentator on Central European affairs, did issue a ringing and most unCzech call to arms (quite literally) demanding that NATO peacekeepers should be sent to Georgia. Calls to send in the marines are not a sentiment you read every day in the Czech press. Perhaps he’s been spending too much time in Poland…
As BBC4 screens Paul Devlin’s superb 2003 documentary Power Trip about efforts of the American energy company AES to bring some semblance of commercial logic to power generation in Georgia amid the corruption and unrest of the last days of the Schevardnaze, era, history seems to repeat. Another Georgian one-time reformer and darling of the West, President Saakashvili declares a state of emergency in the face of persistent opposition demonstrations, which he sees a coup in the making and the police deal with violently. In Devlin’s film the AES people try hard but basically get nowhere – well connected oligarchs and Mafiosi get power for free; ordinary people get power cuts, but routinely steal electricity by bypassing meters; and leading journalists who report the country’s murky criminalized politics-cum-business get shot. In the end Western turbo-capitalism and post-Soviet mafia kapitalizm inadvertently combine and they leave the country in the wake of the Enron scandal and sell up to a Russian state-owned energy giant. Saakashvili, it seems, is being sucked down by the same vortex, failing to deliver to enough people quickly enough economically, unable to root our corruption and, no doubt, tempted to use the same mix of corrupt clientelism and authoritarian methods that tarnished Schevardnaze, reputation as a star reformer, architect of Gorbachev’s new thinking in foreign policy and man of Cromwellian rectitude when he was party boss there in the late Soviet era. And, of course, there are the neighbours, or perhaps I should say the Neighbour, Putin’s Russia with the EU perilously far away and far out of sight.
Various media report that Saakashvili has called early elections in January. Without falling too much for the conspiratorial notions that politics in the post-communist region(s) is always choreographed from abroad, are we seeing the unfolding mechanism of a sort of anti-coloured (bleaching?) revolution?