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Late Bloomers

The Czech weapons that have appeared in Azerbaijan might indicate that Central Europeans are finally learning the realpolitik games of the West.

by Martin Ehl 2 October 2017

In the Czech Republic, scandal looms. According to the dailies Hospodarske noviny and E15, Azerbaijan has been acquiring Czech-made weapons without the approval of the Czech authorities – apparently showing that the frequent visits to Baku have been bearing fruit.  


The weapons deal was revealed by the Azerbaijani military itself, through an uploaded YouTube video that clearly shows modernized versions of old Czechoslovak howitzers and rocket launchers, now produced by the private industrial company, Czechoslovak Group. The Czech ministries and secret services have played dumb, claiming their ignorance of any military transactions. It now looks is if the path of the arms went through Slovakia, where the Czechoslovak Group also has factories, and then on to Israel before ending up in Azerbaijan.


The journalistic investigation continues.


But there are few things we can draw from the case already.


First, there is still some Czech arms industry to speak of. After the regime change in 1989, this traditional Czechoslovak industry suffered badly under the human-rights-based policies of President Vaclav Havel, especially in Slovakia (Havel advocated much greater scrutiny over which countries received the country’s arms). It was one of the reasons some Slovaks never really warmed to Havel, as they felt he placed lofty aims over the suffering of those thrown out of work when arms factories had to downsize.


The artillery seen in the video is basically old socialist stuff with new electronics. It is exactly the kind of artillery that has been so successful in other recent conflicts on the outskirts of the former Soviet Union, such as in eastern Ukraine. For Azerbaijan, still in open conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabach, such weapons could prove more than effective.


The Czechoslovak Group, which centers its strategy on revitalizing old factories, is exactly the kind of thing local Central European politicians who stress national economic policies love. The Group has revived the Czech truck factory Tatra and some other factories that had been struggling to survive.


Second, Czechs, Slovaks, and others are regaining their abilities to sell arms all over the world in competition with Western companies, overcoming the moral issues that were attendant to Havel's political legacy.


Havel's policy was not to contribute to foreign wars. But markets from which Czechoslovak weapons had been withdrawn were immediately filled with Western offers – the same West that was simultaneously applauding Havel and others for changing the European political landscape. New democratic countries got some hard lessons in realpolitik and moral hypocrisy.


If you want to dig deep and look for the roots of recent populist and nationalist surges, this is one of the sources: closed factories, high structural unemployment, dissatisfaction, the hardships of economic transformation, and emerging political propositions from wild and wilder groups that form later into political parties.


And then there is the third view: How to cooperate with regimes like Azerbaijan? The kind that oppresses its opponents and bribes potential allies? On this subject there are also some lessons from Western democracies who teach their pupils one thing, while doing another themselves. You only need to check the German attitude toward sanctions on Russia over its role in Ukraine for an example.


The arms imports flowing into Azerbaijan are, according to different media reports from the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the result of the lobbying efforts of an Israeli company. Israel, overall, is providing Baku with weapons worth billions of dollars. And Israel has been applauded in the Czech Republic (and vice versa) as a major strategic ally, especially by Czech President Milos Zeman – known for his close ties not only to Moscow, but also to Baku.


The Czech Republic is in pre-election mode with parliamentary elections next month and a presidential poll early next year. Whatever emerges from the Azerbaijani case will be (mis)used in the final political battle. And it provides more ammunition, in this case figuratively, to those who doubt the state of liberal democracy in Central Europe and how it continues to suffer from corruption, weak state structures, and the influence of lobby groups with hidden interests.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

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