Czech foreign policy in spotlight as Havel doctrine questioned

By bne IntelliNews December 1, 2014

Robert Anderson in Prague -


Twenty-five years after Vaclav Havel led the Velvet Revolution that brought down Communism in Czechoslovakia, and three years after his death, the former president’s long shadow over Czech foreign policy is finally being seriously questioned for the first time.

Within the past two years, a new populist president and a Social Democrat-led government have begun to sketch out a new foreign policy that tries to balance Havel’s support for the US and concern for human rights with the country’s economic interests. This has sparked outrage from the opposition, the media and the diplomatic establishment.

This domestic battle is being played out as Nato and the Czech Republic face their most severe geopolitical challenge since 1989 in the Russian aggression against Ukraine, raising the stakes for the country’s foreign allies.

There was a serious clash at the EU summit in August when the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Cyprus refused to back stronger sanctions against Russia, only to back down a week later. It was “not impressive,” according to one Western diplomat in Prague.

As Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka prepared to visit Washington on November 18-19 for the unveiling of a bust of Havel in Congress, diplomatic sources told bne IntelliNews that there were frantic efforts to head off a threatened snub by US officials. In the event, Sobotka dutifully paid homage to Havel’s legacy and was rewarded with a longer than planned meeting with Vice President Joe Biden.

Lone voice

The Czech Republic’s difficulties illustrate the problems that small European countries have when they try to change foreign policy and forge a distinctive stance that differs from the US line.

“The US does not allow anyone to oppose them, even if their own policy later changes,” says Jan Kavan, a former Social Democrat foreign minister, recalling US anger over Social Democrat opposition to siting a US anti-missile radar in the Czech Republic, even though these plans were subsequently abandoned by the incoming Obama administration.

Havel instinctively followed the US line as president, partly as gratitude for the US’ vocal opposition to Communism, but mainly because he viewed US and Czech interests as identical on the big issues.

What was distinctive about his foreign policy was its emphasis on human rights, stemming from his moral stature as a dissident, but also consciously harking back to Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the founder of Czechoslovakia.

While Havel was president, his personal commitment to human rights and his close ties to the US enabled the Czech Republic to punch above its weight in foreign affairs. Yet the country never won the human rights credentials of, for example, Norway or Sweden, precisely because it remained too close to the US.

Havel lost much international credibility by backing the controversial US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (when the then Social Democrat-led government was split). He also tended to focus on human rights abuses in far-flung Communist countries such as Cuba or Burma – where Prague had little historic connection or influence – and said little about arguably much greater crimes closer to home, such as Israeli killings in occupied Palestine.

His foreign policy had already lost much of its force under his rightwing successor, Vaclav Klaus, who like Milos Zeman, the current president, prioritised Czech economic interests during a period of the global and then Eurozone financial crisis.

At the same time, the automatic Czech identification with US foreign policy took a battering from US President Barack Obama’s switch of focus from Europe, and his cancellation of the missile shield policy, which had become a totem for the Czech rightwing. “Czech Atlanticists have become disenchanted and disorientated,” Pavel Barsa, a researcher at the Czech Institute of International Relations, told an IIR foreign policy symposium in Prague in November.

The result was a foreign policy that was still lauded by the media and the diplomatic establishment, but which had never had much popular domestic support and had now lost much of its political backing. “Havel’s foreign policy is no longer supported by any significant political force now,” says Kavan, who battled constantly with Havel while he was foreign minister.

Rethink and reset

In a sense, therefore, the new Czech government is starting a long overdue discussion on how to rethink a foreign policy that is increasingly divorced from political reality.

Under Petr Drulak, the wonkish deputy foreign minister who used to head the IIR, the foreign ministry plans to draw up a new blueprint before Christmas, which will then be discussed with parliament.

Though Sobotka has been reportedly pressing Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek to remove Drulak – and in Washington gave him a public dressing down by insisting that the country’s human rights policy would not change – he still enjoys the foreign minister’s backing.

The idea is to refine the concept of human rights, as Zaoralek explained to the IIR symposium: “A discussion about [human rights] does not mean the destruction of the principle.”

Foreign policy will continue to focus on human rights, but will aim to be more consistent, as shown by Zaoralek’s recent visit to Israel, where he met with the Palestinian side and dared to criticise the settlement-building programme. The Czechs have long been an EU outlier on policy towards Israel, but now pledge to be more even-handed in their approach. “Policy based on one-sided anti-communist 'humanism’ risks being perceived as expedient and will lose credibility,” Drulak wrote in a commentary for the leftwing website Denik Referendum in January.

Secondly, the concept of human rights will be broader than just political rights – embracing social, economic, cultural, environmental and gender rights. “We have to look at the entire concept of human dignity,” Drulak told the IIR symposium.

Thirdly, it will be more focused on countries where the Czech Republic has some potential influence. The thinking is that there is no point antagonising China by gestures such as meeting the Dalai Lama, but it is worth funding Czech NGOs that work in Belarus.

Most controversially, the policy will be integrated with the promotion of Czech economic interests, and aimed at achieving concrete results, rather than being pursued for its own intrinsic worth.

Drulak argues that there need not be an inherent conflict between human rights promotion and Czech economic interests – for example, Prague can use economic aid and advice to help countries develop, this can improve their respect for human rights, and eventually it will also benefit Czech companies.

Rather than ostracising countries, dialogue should be maintained. “We have to find a way to criticise without just shutting the door,” he told bne IntelliNews.

Break with the past

However, rather than emphasising the continuities with Havel’s foreign policy, Drulak has publicly presented the shift as a conscious break with his legacy. This has triggered fierce resistance from the country’s foreign policy establishment and worried the US.

At the foreign ministry, which is the greatest believer of its own rhetoric about the country’s human rights mission, the new stance has led to resignations and demoralisation.

Critics argue the new stance risks destroying the country’s reputation as a human rights crusader and staunch supporter of the US. “Why should we change [our foreign policy], why should we make our allies doubt where we are heading?” said Petr Fiala, head of the opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), at the IIR symposium.

To allies, the shift is made even more confusing by the way the country now presents three foreign policies, that of Zeman, Sobotka and Zaoralek.

The president, who according to the constitution is a key foreign policy actor, has bad personal relations with both the premier and the foreign minister, and in any case by nature often shoots from the hip. He belittles human rights concerns and appears to almost seek out dictatorial regimes for visits. He has called the conflict in Ukraine a “civil war,” criticised Western sanctions, and recommended the country’s “Finlandisation” (an agreed neutral status between Nato and Russia).

PM Sobotka, on the other hand, has tended to flip-flop between resisting further Western sanctions on Russia, and then trying to patch up relations with the US.

Zaoralek himself has pursued an unexpectedly tough line on Russia, encouraging the West in the hope that the Czech Republic can still be relied upon to fall into line, despite the discordant noise. “When they have to step up to the plate in Nato they always do it,” says a Western diplomat in Prague.

But Zaoralek has a weak base inside the Social Democrats and a new round of tougher Western sanctions on Russia could make him a scapegoat for party unrest.

The timing of all this internal debate could not be worse, with Ukraine painfully highlighting the divisions. “It is dangerous to rebuild the ship while it is sailing, especially when the sea is not calm,” Jiri Schneider, Drulak’s predecessor as deputy foreign minister, told the IRR symposium.

The result is – as during the 1999 bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo conflict and the 2003 invasion of Iraq – that the Social Democrat government is struggling to pursue a coherent independent foreign policy.

Backing the US at least made the Czech Republic feel important – even if in recent times it has had little real influence – while bravely following its own path risks either irrelevance or accusations that is toadying up to Moscow. Unlike neighbouring Hungary, which under Viktor Orban parades its rebellion, Czechs still seem too tied to the US to strike out on their own.

All this confusion risks accelerating the slide in Czech diplomatic standing since Havel’s departure. As Zaoralek plaintively told the IRR symposium, for small countries foreign policy continuity and consensus are vital: “If we want to push something through we have to be unified in our position, it is imperative.”


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