The Czech-Russian relationship is fragile, but not as icy as it seems
On May 14, the Russian government issued a decree officially classifying the Czech Republic with the United States as two “hostile states” of the Russian Federation. The Czech Republic’s listing came in response to the Czech government’s accusation that Russian military intelligence was behind the explosion of an ammunition depot in the Czech village of Vrbetice in 2014, killing two people. Although Czech politicians were informed by the Secret Service of Russia’s involvement in the logistics of the explosion, they withheld the information from the public and reportedly planned to use the accusation as leverage in conversations with Moscow.
Nonetheless, after leaking the information, Prague took a firm stand and ousted a number of diplomats and staff from the overcrowded Russian embassy. Since then, the Czech Republic has received political support for its position at European Union level and also at the annual NATO summit in mid-June.
Although relations between Prague and Moscow may appear to be at their lowest since the end of the Cold War, other incidents are mounting, including the dismantling by the city of Prague of the statue of Soviet general Ivan Konev, who led the ‘Red Army on the Eastern Front during World War II – the Czech Republic’s political and public support for such a state of relations should not be taken for granted.
Politically, friendship with Russia is advocated by Czech President Milos Zeman, who is known for his affinity with Vladimir Putin and his idiosyncratic views on “Western” cultural wars, proclaiming last year at the Ambassador’s residence American in Prague on July 4th. the celebrations that “black lives matter” is a racist slogan and that “all lives matter” to him.
In this sense, the president expressed a foreign policy strategy of “various directions” – that is, the ambiguity of Czech identity (whether it belongs to the West or to the East ) coupled with the geographical location at the heart of Europe must be used pragmatically to serve as a bridge between the great powers and a diplomatic link on the Washington-Moscow-Beijing axis.
Zeman has actively visited China and Russia during his last eight years as president, but his enthusiasm for these two states has locked the doors of the White House, which he desperately needs to visit to prove that his vision strategy is viable. The current Czech Ambassador to Washington, a former close advisor to Zeman, was clearly tasked with negotiating a visit to the White House. While the Polish and Hungarian leaders met with Trump in the White House, the formal invitation to Zeman was not extended.
In terms of fostering support among the Czechs, Moscow has historically been inclined to use and manipulate the Slavic affinity narrative between Eastern Europe and Russia, which has facilitated the mobilization of parts of the target societies into for a closer partnership. Today, the emphasis on the notion of shared identity based on a common ethnic origin is put aside but revolves mainly around mutual conservative values and constitutes the main source of soft power that Russia maintains in its relations with the United States. Czech public. In the context of a progressive European Union, too “neo-Marxist” for voters and right-wing politicians and too individualistic to the detriment of the community for the left, Russia presents itself as the traditional society where things are still “normal” “.
Of course, this narrative hardly appeals to the majority of Czechs, but these portrayals are nonetheless vibrant on various disinformation websites, who then live their own lives on social media and end up getting caught by more mainstream media platforms. . Moreover, the importation and biased interpretation of the cultural wars of the United States and Western Europe into public debates in the Czech Republic not only serves the political goals of the country’s conservative parties, but also undermines confidence and l attractiveness of the “West” and facilitates the acceptance of said Russian narratives.
The bottom line is that Czech society is far from a consensus on what kind of relationship it wants to maintain with Russia and that there will always be significant upward pressure on political elites to balance cultural and political influence. western with that of the east. Parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic are scheduled for October this year, and parties that clearly push for repairing ties with Russia and loosening ties with Western partners are set to win up to 20% of the vote. In short, there is imminent political clout to initiate a rapprochement with Russia following the current state of desperation in the relationship.
Reconnecting with Russia constructively, of course, is not a negative prospect. The problem, however, is that it increasingly seems that working with Russia is either a binary choice – or to fully engage with Moscow and start severing ties with Western partners (as Viktor Orbán seems to be doing), or remain firm with the West and completely detach from Russia. Given the structural pressures, no common ground for the small Czech state seems viable and the issue is therefore increasingly controversial politically.
Jan Hornat is a researcher in the Department of American Studies at Charles University in Prague.