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An Inscrutable Ally

The Czech leader’s remarks on NATO and Russia are a source of worry and puzzlement in some quarters.

by Katerina Safarikova 18 June 2014

The Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, doesn’t have it easy. As leader of the Social Democrats, he has come under increasing pressure from his own party amid criticism of Russia by the Czech government. As prime minister of a post-communist state, he has raised eyebrows in some European countries for his tepid response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent offer for an enhanced NATO military presence on the Continent.


In the middle of these tugging strands stands a man more and more difficult to understand.


It would be too easy to label Sobotka a typical post-communist leftist who suffers from Stockholm syndrome: a politician who grew up under Soviet occupation of his country but still looks at Russia with admiration and holds an instinctive distrust of the United States. Sobotka is a youngster, only 42, and was about to finish high school when the revolution came.


But if he is no Russophile, he is no Westerner, either. His talk of the importance of belonging to the EU and NATO sounds more like lip service than true conviction, perhaps because Sobotka enveloped himself within the Social Democratic Party soon after graduation and never re-emerged. He speaks no foreign languages and isn’t interested in the outside world. He’s a policy wonk.


This leads to his rather bureaucratic view on current international affairs. In recent interviews, the prime minister defended his rejection of a more robust military presence of allied forces in Europe, saying that Russia isn’t a threat to the Czech Republic.


When reminded that Czech allies Poland and the Baltics may feel uneasy about his stance, he downplayed it, saying, “For our NATO allies, it’s important that we intend to fulfill our commitments on defense spending.” As if his comments didn’t really mean anything.


But there was concern in other European capitals about his comments, even if not expressed publicly. Some ambassadors called their counterparts at the Czech Foreign Ministry or their friends in the diplomatic corps to express their confusion and see what was going on, just as they had weeks earlier, when the Czech defense minister made comments similar to Sobotka’s.


The Social Democrats are torn apart by the Ukrainian crisis. Most of the pro-Russian older generation blames the West for causing the upheaval on the Maidan and fears retaliation from Russia should the Czech Republic step up its condemnation of Moscow. Last week, for instance, senior members of the party confessed to a Czech newspaper that the party is receiving “tens of letters and e-mails a day” from supporters and members angry with the “biased” pro-Ukrainian stance of Lubomir Zaoralek, the Social Democratic foreign minister.


It may be that the “tens of letters and e-mails a day” are written or at least motivated by the Friends of Russia, a small group of hard-core admirers of Vladimir Putin among Czech public figures and politicians, including some Social Democratic lawmakers. The party’s voters have never paid much attention to foreign policy and it sounds a bit strange they suddenly do now.


But in a way it’s irrelevant whether those voices are authentic or not. The point is, Sobotka reacts to them. In a recent commentary in the left-leaning Pravo newspaper, he called on voters not to worry. His government, in place since January, will pursue a “more prudent” policy toward Russia than its predecessor and will not “succumb to the propaganda machinery of either side,” he wrote.


But Sobotka stopped short of explaining the potentially huge implications of those words. Would the Czech Republic, for instance, be adopting a new policy toward Russia?


We are left to guess which comments are the momentary personal views of Sobotka, who is no savant at foreign politics, or just targeted messages for Social Democratic voters and/or the party’s opposition. Which words we should forget and which signal a broader policy shift, perhaps linked to other recent moves, such as dropping human rights objections to closer engagement with China.


Again, it would be wrong to dub the new Czech prime minister a Russophile, a kind of Central European Francois Hollande. What is correct to say, though, is that the messages from Prague give a very foggy picture lately about the direction of the country. Reason enough to watch out.

Katerina Safarikova is a journalist with Czech daily Lidove noviny and online news and opinion site Ceska pozice.

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