Alexandr Vondra: a politician and diplomat shaping Czech history for a quarter of a century

Alexandr Vondra, David Vaughan, photo: archive of Václav Havel Library

2014 is a year of anniversaries: 25 years since the fall of communism, 15 years since the Czech Republic joined NATO and 10 years since the country joined the European Union. One Czech politician who was at the centre of all three of these events is Alexandr Vondra.

Alexandr Vondra,  David Vaughan,  photo: archive of Václav Havel Library
Born in 1961, the same year as Barack Obama, Vondra belonged to the younger generation of Czech dissidents in the 1980s. In 1989 he was spokesman for Charter 77, and he was briefly imprisoned for his activities as co-author of the influential petition, “A Few Sentences”. During the Velvet Revolution he was one of the founding members of Civic Forum. He became an advisor on foreign policy to President Havel, and then served as deputy foreign minister. At the time of the Czech Republic’s accession to NATO in 1999 he was Czech Ambassador to the United States. He organized the NATO summit in Prague in 2002 and then went on to serve as Foreign Minister, Minister for European Affairs and Defence Minister, a post he left in 2012 amid a row over the use of funds for the Czech EU presidency two years earlier. Mr Vondra is unusual in having been a close associate both of President Havel and of his successor and political rival Václav Klaus. He is a member of the right of centre Civic Democratic Party, founded by Mr Klaus.

On 9 April I chaired a discussion with Alexandr Vondra hosted by the Václav Havel Library, during which we discussed everything from his impressions of Bill Clinton and the role of President Havel in the enlargement of NATO to the tragic current developments in Ukraine. For the rest of this programme, we’ll be broadcasting an edited version of the discussion.

I began our conversation with a dispatch sent to Washington from the US Embassy in Prague that was leaked by Wikileaks. The dispatch describes Vondra as “the United States’ closest ally on the Czech political scene”. So is this an accurate description?

“I don’t know. It’s always difficult to qualify myself. It must be done by others. But yes, I’m a friend of the United States, I have always been during my entire career because of two things. Primarily I have always had a huge admiration for the concept of American freedom, of American republicanism. I love the United States, so for me to be there as ambassador was one of the best times of my life. I found a lot of inspiration. That’s very good for somebody who was raised in the Czech atmosphere of scepticism. You come to the United States and see an entirely different approach to almost everything…”

… the opposite of scepticism. So there is an element of naivety as well…

The White House,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“…but it is not just about myself. You know, my three children were growing up there, coming to the first grade, so they have seen an absolutely different interrelationship, for example, with the teachers. If really somewhere the elementary school is the playground where the kids are learning to compete and are not tortured by the teachers, it’s the American school. The kids are experimenting, for example, painting apples blue or things like that, and the reaction in the US is: ‘Great, explain to me, how did you develop this idea?’ Coming back to the Czech environment, the reaction to such experiments was: ‘Are you stupid? It’s nonsense.’ They constantly downgrade your self-confidence and then the Czechs are not able to compete in the world. So that was one thing: love for the American way of life. Secondly, I love the country. It’s different. You know, if you love nature, it’s fantastic to discover the American West, to discover Alaska, and I am deeply convinced that the Europeans and the Czechs in particular in this salami position between Germany and Russia vitally need the American presence in Europe and security cooperation. So there was also a political logic behind it.”

It sounds quite romantic, the picture you are painting.

“Of course. Maybe I don’t look like a romantic, but I am a romantic.”

And this is something that maybe brings us back to the days of Tomáš Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, whose wife was from the United States.

“His seminal works are full of influences of American philosophy, the American concept of revolution, the Protestant tradition of American thinking.”

But isn’t there a problem that you can also trace back to Masaryk, in that one thing that the American model of democracy doesn’t solve is the problem of competing national groups living together on the same space. This is a problem that Masaryk was unable to solve, partly because he lacked a model to follow.

“The American republic is based primarily on an idea. It was created by people who were escaping Europe, facing various types of oppression – because of religion, economic poverty or whatever. They escaped to the New World to establish something better. It’s basically an ideological concept. So the United States is an entirely different concept from the Czech Republic, Germany, France or whatever.”

You’re a member of a political party – the Civic Democratic Party – that is Eurosceptic, so does that mean that you don’t think the American model can in some way be imported into Europe.

Photo: European Commission
“The United States is not the only ideological project. The European Union is also an ideological project. I don’t want to make any parallels here, but the Soviet Union was also an ideological project. That’s what the European Union and the United States have in common. And we call ourselves realists, not sceptics. Realism means that we can achieve what is possible now, but we should be careful about pushing something into a situation that the general European public is not ready for.”

The government that you were a member of, under Mirek Topolánek, was not only Eurosceptic. Mr Topolánek was often overtly hostile towards the European Union, topped up also by the language President Klaus was using when talking about the European Union…

“Speaking about Klaus, it’s more difficult, but you should differentiate. There are the various Klauses in the course of time. There was Václav Klaus as prime minister, who signed the application to the European Union – it bears Klaus’s signature. And there is the current Klaus, who even speculated recently, I noticed, that the best thing we can do is to leave the European Union. But you cannot find any statement like that from the Civic Democratic Party. He is not a member of the party.”

But the question I am asking is not about the shifts in Klaus’s views, but rather how you can constructively move the European Union forward when at the same time you are cultivating within society the idea that the EU is something undermining our interests and limiting our sovereignty.

“It took those who were leaving Europe to build something better in the United States 200 years to get ti into a consolidated democratic state. There were wars – there was a civil war in between. It was not easy. And the argument here is that the European Union is a very diversified area, full of very diversified societies.”

If you compare the three previous governments in which you served and the impression they made within the European context with Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, they seem worlds apart. He is also fairly Eurosceptic – like you he is also a Euro-Atlanticist – but he has also done a great deal to mend fences with Germany, actually encouraging Germany to play a more active role in Europe, which is a quite unusual and brave thing for a Polish statesman to do, and he also did his best to cultivate better relations with Russia – far more successfully than the previous Polish government.

Radoslaw Sikorski,  photo: archive of Polish Senate,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“I know Radek Sikorski very well. We are friends. I have a lot of admiration for him. Yes, he had an era of strong Euroscepticism when he was working in the United States. It was the time when I was there as the Ambassador. At a certain moment, which correlates, I would say, with the appearance of Barack Obama, he maybe reached the conclusion that we should not any more rely on the United States and made a decision to play a role in European politics. So he has made a meaningful and, I would say, dramatic shift in his rhetoric. You know, Radek is not an idealist. He accommodates his views, opinions and rhetoric according to what best serves him and Poland. Maybe for him it’s easier to make this kind of a shift, because to be a Pole means to play a power-play. The Czech cannot have this aspiration because of many reasons. You can have this aspiration on an individual basis but not as a Czech representative because you will not find support in the nation! One of the differences between Czechs and Poles is the ability of Poles to keep together. I could observe this even outside Europe, in the United States. When we were trying to achieve NATO enlargement for the Poles it was easy because they stayed together – the trade unions, the Polish-American organizations, but the Czechs are very individualistic. You know, our contribution to the success of NATO enlargement was that we have individuals, like Havel. We brought Havel. They brought the Polish community, they did not bring Walesa!”

I would like to ask you about the time when you were Czech Ambassador in Washington, which was at the time of the Clinton administration. He was president when the Czech Republic joined NATO; it was also the time when he led the bombing of Yugoslavia, which was highly controversial here in the Czech Republic. What were your impressions of Clinton?

“To put it simply, a very good impression. He was a great president. Maybe he was not a major thinker, but he was a man who listened to others and was open-minded in his concepts. So he was able to respond to what he heard and, last but not least – and that’s important in politics – he had charisma. You could disagree with him on some issues. I’m not a Democrat, so I would find areas where I would disagree with him, but quite often I saw that the people who were opposing him were suddenly almost defenseless because of the energy of this special charisma, and in Europe I think he should be credited for this idea of NATO enlargement, because he made a decision against the bureaucracy which was subordinated to him, in response to the tragic events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Secondly, he was able to work together with the Republicans and thus achieved a kind of consensus within the American society. “

At that same time, Václav Havel was a very significant figure representing this country in the eyes of Americans.

“Absolutely. The most important – and we should thank him forever for his role, because he has something in common with Clinton in his ability to listen and react to the situation.”

At that time, Mr Klaus, who was chairman of the House of Deputies, was opposed to the bombing of Yugoslavia and the intervention in Kosovo…

Václav Klaus,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“Klaus internally, I would say, inside his soul, was even against NATO enlargement.”

Why was he opposed?

“I think, intellectually, he is something like a libertarian. He is a strict economic liberal who does not believe in the role of the state. The security issues are almost irrelevant. It’s free trade, free trade, free trade! You know, I do not like Obama. I think he is a catastrophe for Europe. I do not see any leadership, I do not see any knowledge about European history. His interest is in entirely different corners of the world. Clinton did understand Europe. But to imagine that the president of the United States will be Ron Paul or his son Randy Paul, as a representative of this libertarian thinking, would be even worse for us. He would lead the United States to total isolationism, completely ignoring the world role.”

Very famously, two weeks before becoming Czechoslovak president at the end of 1989, Václav Havel called for the dissolution of all the political blocks – both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Do you remember talking to Havel about it at that time?

“I think it’s a myth that he would take a policy of equidistance towards the Warsaw Pact and NATO…”

But he did say it on 16 December 1989.

“Yes, but I think that once he became president he was feeling more and more responsible. Secondly, you have to understand that there were certain tactics, because the prime goal of the Czechoslovak government and diplomacy at that time was to get rid of Russian troops on our territory, to become a really independent state. Certainly, to provoke with NATO membership would not have been the best way to achieve this primary goal. But Havel was the first statesman from Central or Eastern Europe who showed up in the headquarters of the North Atlantic Alliance. It was in March 1991 and he openly declared that NATO should open its doors to others.”

Havel was also consistently the most interventionist Czech politician during the Yugoslav wars…

“Havel did not so much provoke the countries like Slovenia and Croatia to go their separate way, but once it happened and once the war broke out, Havel was the one who strongly advocated that the West should do something to stop the war and to protect the people and their freedom. That is certainly true and in this he had a different political concept and different opinions, from, for example Jiří Dienstbier [Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, 1989-1992] or Václav Klaus.“

At the time of the first Klaus government, when you were deputy foreign minister, were you playing the role of mediator between these different forces?

Václav Havel | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio
“Yes. We had the President Václav Havel, we had the Prime Minister Václav Klaus. On some issues they were like day and night or sun and moon, and we were responsible for the foreign policy of the country. You know, if you are a big power, you can have different views, but in a smaller country you have to follow one road.”

Klaus very much represented the party-political model while Havel’s political model was based more on individual responsibility.

“I don’t agree that this was a major disagreement. You know, Havel perfectly understood that a normal, standard democracy is not viable without political parties. That’s anarchy. He disliked Klaus, that’s for sure, but at the same time he understood that the parties must play a role. And Klaus’s role was that he was the builder of one of the two major political parties. So they both had to be realist despite all the disagreements. But the real disagreements were about real things: for example, Yugoslavia and some aspects of the economy. So those fights were about very particular issues. Yes, Havel had a strong opinion that in democracy civic initiative and the role of the NGOs are crucial. Klaus was opposed.”

Where do you stand?

“Of course we need a civil society. Without a civil society, without the NGOs, the political parties cannot exist. On the other hand I agree with Klaus that you need political parties. Otherwise it is anarchy.”

What do you make of politicians like Andrej Babiš, who is now the Czech finance minister? He has not emerged through the party political system but as a multi-millionaire magnate. Do you think that is dangerous?

“I think that is very dangerous. I think we are at the most dangerous moment in the last 24 years, because it’s not a political party. It’s a private project of one man who has vast amounts of money and owns the mainstream media.”

Why is it happening? It seems to be a trend all over Europe. Look at Italy, for example…

“The trend is that there is a certain mistrust towards traditional political parties. You could see this in Italy, you could see it in the Netherlands or France or elsewhere, but you could never see a role like that of Babiš. Berlusconi was not the same type…”

Why? In what way?

“For example, the media. He owned two entertainment channels, while Babiš has the ownership of the mainstream media, those who are leading in opinion-making. So, they have a direct impact on the political scene. That was not the story of Silvio Berlusconi.”

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Do you think that the Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka is strong enough to be a counterweight to Babiš?

“I’m afraid that he is very weak. We can see this every day. He’s not able to counter him and it’s very dangerous. “

For two years you were Defence Minister of the Czech Republic. I remember the statement you gave when you first became minister in 2010, that you wanted an army with “less fat, more muscle”. To what extent did you succeed at least in beginning that process?

“With a much lower budget we were able to honour all our real commitments. So the number of troops in Afghanistan even went up in 2010-11. Now it is being decreased, because everybody is decreasing the number of troops. We are leaving.”

The Defence Ministry was in a mess when you inherited it. I remember at the time talking to one diplomat from a NATO country, who said that of all the newer members of NATO that he was working with, the Czech Defence Ministry was the most opaque.

“I would differentiate between the armed forces on the one hand and the ministry.”

You were in charge of the ministry…

“We reduced the number of bureaucrats. We reduced the number of departments, so we rationalized the ministry itself. In fact, it’s a never-ending story. On the other hand I have nothing bad to say about the Czech soldiers. They are fantastic. They are totally different soldiers compared with twenty years ago.”

What sort of Czech army can be useful to NATO today?

“We are facing a new Russian expansionism. There are no doubts about this. So we should concentrate on the defence of our territory, because this Ukrainian destabilization could spill over into the Baltic States, for example. Latvia has a large Russian minority and we have a commitment to defend Latvia. We don’t have a legal commitment to defend Ukraine, but we do have a commitment to defend Romania, we do have a commitment to defend Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania and we do have a commitment to defend Poland.”

So are you suggesting that at this stage [9 April 2014] NATO should be deploying troops on its eastern borders?

Photo: CTK
“Yes, I think we should seriously think, for example, about a stable air-defence protection because right now they [the Baltic States] don’t have any supersonic aircraft, so yes, I think the West must react to what has happened with Ukraine.”

In a recent article you stated that NATO should start measuring Russia by the same yardstick that Russia uses to measure other countries. Isn’t there a flaw in that argument, in that it implies that we should be defying the rules of international diplomacy in the same way as President Putin? You’re suggesting a kind of tit-for-tat approach.

“No, I’m not recommending an eye for an eye. That is certainly not the case. However, I’m warning that we should get rid of certain illusions. Those things which are happening now should lead us to a certain realism. First of all, we should decide the duties which we are willing to bear and then we must do everything to protect them.”

President Zeman recently said that if Russian troops cross the border into eastern Ukraine, NATO should offer Ukraine military support. Do you agree with him on that?

“It’s a nice statement. I love this statement, but we should not measure things by statements, but by the will to act, and if there is not a will to act – and I don’t think it is up to Miloš Zeman – then we should be careful. It’s a tough situation.”

What should we do?

“The minimum programme is to defend NATO members. I spent a lot of time with the Ukrainians in 2004. I visited Kiev and other places maybe ten times in a year. I was helping Yushchenko, when they were getting ready for the elections. Then the elections were stolen, so it caused the Orange Revolution. Again I was coming there, helping them. They had some chance. I don’t want to criticize them, because you cannot expect a miracle to happen in the course of three or four years. But a lot changed in 2008. Until 2008 the West was somehow on the offensive, setting the agenda, and the Russians were mostly reacting. But since 2008, the economic crisis came, which has led both Americans and Europeans to become very inward-looking. There was the fight for the Lisbon Treaty after the Irish referendum. So the Europeans have spent all their energy just to protect the Eurozone and we are starting to lose the East. The Ukrainians and Georgians came to Bucharest for the NATO Summit in the spring of 2008, getting ready to enter into the so-called Membership Action Plan, but the Germans and the French did not want to offer guarantees to those two countries. And then Putin interpreted this as a green light. So that’s how the war in Georgia started. It was easy for him in a small country. So he grabbed one quarter of its territory. He started to press the Ukrainian government, raising the prices of oil and mostly gas…”

That’s what was, but what should we do now?

“I don’t have any miracle prescription here. I spent three days in Brussels last month. I talked with NATO Secretary General Rasmussen and with a lot of Americans and Germans. The Italian foreign minister was there and she was asked the same question you asked me. Her response was, ‘Oh gosh! We cannot go to war! What do you want us to do?’ So, that’s where we are now. “

For a video of the full version of this interview, go to the Václav Havel Library website: