Controversial Czech-Russian Forum in Prague examines academic, archival access issues

Miloš Zeman

The Czech-Russian Discussion Forum, a new annual platform created by the two countries’ respective presidents, met for the first time on Thursday, in a Prague session closed to the public. The aim is to promote open discussion on a wide range of topics, including bilateral relations and chapters in their shared history. The Forum has, however, been derided by a number of Czech public figures as a potential propaganda tool for the Kremlin.

Miloš Zeman | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio
During his official state visit to Russia this past November, Czech president Miloš Zeman and his counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to establish what is now called the Czech-Russian Discussion Forum, with its first meeting to discuss seemingly innocuous topics such as fostering greater cooperation between universities and better access to Russian historical archives.

But the Zeman-Putin initiative was met with deep suspicion by a number of prominent Czech public figures– including three former ambassadors to Russia, academics and Charter 77 signatories – who in an open letter warned that the forum would bring nothing positive to this country and merely serve as a Kremlin propaganda tool.

Following a press conference coming after the closed Forum, I spoke with Ondřej Ditrych, director of the Prague-based Institute of International Relations (IIR), which co-organised the event along with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

The first of the day’s two panel discussions focused on “Industry 4.0”, educational reform, furthering “academic mobility” and opportunities for joint project in the humanities. The second panel, Mr Ditrych said, addressed some thornier issues relating to academic research and integrity. As for the controversial surrounding the Forum, he said it was unfounded.

Vladimir Putin | Photo: Archive of World Economic Forum,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“The second panel was dedicated to the search for, let’s say, a deeper understanding of key historical moments. So, we had a few presentations of milestones in the history of the 20th Century, like the Munich [Agreement] of 1938, but I would say that the leitmotif of the debate was how to study history, and how to do that with limited access to resources. There again was a fair exchange of views and experiences shared on the Czech side, from the side of the Czech historians about their encounters with Russian archives.”

Speaking of Russian archives, was today’s forum in any way about concrete, further cooperation or opening of access to those archives?

“Well, I think it would have been unreasonable to expect that after a few hours of debate that there would be some sort of tangible success in terms of agreement on opening certain archives, or improving the access. But I think that what Czech historians would like to see in order to be able to study these historical periods and what kind of obstacles they face, this was articulated very clearly. That was an important part of the discussion. But it was also about the prospect of doing something together, and having previously unpublished documents published.”

There was some resistance to having this meeting – there was an open letter signed by former Czech ambassadors to Russia, some former dissidents and others who are concerned the Forum could somehow be an opportunity to further Russian propaganda.

Ondřej Ditrych,  photo: archive of IIR
“Well, I do understand the personal motivations of people who signed this open letter, but I also have to say that I believe there was a certain confusion or misunderstanding about the purpose and the objective of this forum.”

“First of all, this forum is not taking place outside the context of very complex relations that the European Union has with Russia. And there are multiple levels at which these relations in sort of a selective way, a selective engagement, are being conducted. And the objective of opening this forum was to have a relationship at another level – of people to people. I mean we have contacts at the civil society level, of course; we have, albeit limited, political dialogue now. But the idea here was to have experts, in this case historians, educators, coming together and sharing their views, experiences, in a frank and open way.”