Czech deputy foreign minister: This is not just a war against Ukraine, it is a war against the West
The Czech Republic has taken up the rotating presidency of the EU Council at an exceptionally difficult time, when the war in Ukraine is re-writing the world order and states in close proximity of Russia are scrambling to join Western structures. In an interview for Radio Prague International, Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Dvořák spoke about the need to maintain EU unity in the face of Russian aggression, prepare for a drop in living standards and the importance of keeping the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership states on track for EU admission.
“The situation is pretty challenging and the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the views of many West European politicians. I think President Zelenski changed their minds with a single sentence when he said “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition” [in response to a US offer to get him out of the country safely]. From the information we had before the war started, Kyiv was expected to fall in 72 hours. Well, that didn’t happen. Now we are in our 150th day, or thereabouts, and I am a little bit afraid that some politicians were slightly disappointed, because they expected that in three days it would all be over and it would be “back to business” as usual. And that didn’t happen because of the courage of President Zelenski and the Ukrainian people, and now all of us have to understand that the situation has completely changed. I really think that that single sentence “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition” changed the history of the 21st century. This is something we need to face and understand.
￼I really think that that single sentence “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition” changed the history of the 21st century.
“It is the beginning of our presidency and of course the war changed our plans. The new government took office in December 2021 and at the time there were some projects and priorities prepared by our predecessors. But everything changed –nobody had thought about Ukraine and the end of 2021 – so we had to rethink our priorities and now the main focus is on the reconstruction and stabilization of Ukraine and the resilience of Europe and its democratic institutions. Now we understand better how much we are under threat and in danger –our values and what we believe in.”
There is now a scramble to join Western structures –not just NATO (Finland and Sweden) but the EU which the post-Soviet republics and the Western Balkan states all want to join. Moving NATO and EU borders closer to Russia is likely to antagonize it further – but what would be the risks of not taking these countries into the democratic fold of nations?
I think that all of us – not only the states in Eastern Europe but Western Europe as well should now understand much more what we are fighting for.
“The situation is brand new and we have to change our opinions and vantage points. Of course this situation has helped the EU ambitions of the countries of the Eastern Partnership program like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia who have been granted candidate status, although Georgia with conditions attached. But we cannot forget about the Western Balkans, because this is a region where Russia is trying to get more influence than before. I hear about frustration on the part of some Western Balkan states over the focus on enlargement in the Eastern parts of Europe and not on them, because they have been waiting for a really long time. They think ‘Why Ukraine” and I believe they cannot accept as an answer “Because Ukraine is fighting a war with Russia and you should wait until Russia invades your country, so that you too can get EU candidate status” [laughs]. ”
We cannot forget about the Western Balkans, because this is a region where Russia is trying to get more influence than before.
“That is clearly not a good answer, on the other hand, I do not understand this present situation as something that weakens the ambitions of the Western Balkans, just the opposite. I think that all of us – not only the states in Eastern Europe but Western Europe as well should now understand much more what we are fighting for. This is something that maybe Mr. Putin did not expect at the start of the invasion. I believe that he wanted to change Europe –and he did, but in a different manner than he expected. So many things have changed and we still have not seen an end to the changes. ”
It may be a long war. Is it possible that the Eastern Partnership countries, the post-Soviet republics, may be given priority over the Western Balkans for strategic reasons?
Ukrainians are fighting and dying for the values we share. And to be absolutely fair, they are dying for us as well because if they should fall we will be next, in danger of being invaded or at least attacked by Russia.
“Everything is for a strategic reason. But we have to understand and underscore that Ukrainians are right now showing to all the world that they are really committed and are ready to suffer for the values that we share in the European Union, values that are the cornerstones of our society – democracy, liberty, human rights etc. They are fighting and they are dying for them –which we are not. And to be absolutely fair they are dying for us because if they should fall we will be next, in danger of being invaded or at least attacked by Russia. So I think that Ukrainians are able to show their ability and willingness to respect and adhere to EU values and rules. That is why they have the right to candidate status now. Once again, I am not saying that I expect Kosovars and Albanians to have to suffer and have their own war with Russia before they get EU candidate status, but we have to understand that this is a different situation. The situation is different in Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkans.”
Everybody understands – at least I hope so – that our biggest strength lies in unity.
Just a few years ago there were question marks hanging over the future of Europe, post-Brexit, there were fears that other countries would follow suit. Covid and this war have bonded the EU strongly, but how strong is it, in reality? Because Europe is looking at a number of lean years – when the EU member states will get poorer. Will there be enough solidarity then to pour a lot of money into the post-Soviet republics and the Western Balkans?
I like to say that I prefer to have a few degrees less in my apartment as long as I have an apartment. Ukrainians don’t have this choice.
“Don’t you have an easier question? No, but, seriously, I try to be optimistic and I think there is reason enough for optimism. The European Union is now moving together, working together, it is more closely united. Everybody understands – at least I hope so – that our biggest strength lies in unity and I believe that Mr. Putin did not expect such a united reaction. Of course, we have to prepare for the eventuality that this unity may weaken and it will get worse and worse, especially in public opinion, because the longer people suffer from the impacts of the war, the less they will be able and willing to accept this situation and not only in our country but in other states where politicians may misuse the situation and they will attack anyone who is supporting and helping Ukraine. The trouble is – and this is something I am a little bit afraid of – that we are a society that takes freedom for granted –but it is not, and we also take our living standard for granted. And maybe we will have to suffer a little. But I like to say that I prefer to have a few degrees less in my apartment as long as I have an apartment. Ukrainians don’t have this choice. They are suffering and they are dying, not just because of the cold in winter but because of the bombing and everything. So, to simplify my answer, I would say: this is our choice –to have a slightly less well- heated home or no home. And I am not sure if there is a politician strong enough to send this message to everyone and, even worse, I am not sure if the population will be willing to accept it.”
Assuming that the expansion process takes place what will it create? Will be see a two-tier Europe? And how viable is Macron’s vision of a two-tier Europe?
I feel a little bit ashamed as a Czech, because maybe our behavior in the European Union in the last 30 years is one of the reasons why some politicians and part of the population is skeptical regarding further enlargement.
“I am definitely not fond of the idea of a two-tier or three-tier Europe. I just returned from a lunch with two ambassadors from the Western Balkans and they asked me about the future prospects, spoke about their hopes and so on. And I asked them – do you think that your ambitions are now somehow lower because of Ukraine’s candidate status? And they said no, not at all. But I told them, you know I feel a little bit ashamed as a Czech, because maybe our behavior in the European Union in the last 30 years is one of the reasons why some politicians and part of the population is skeptical regarding further enlargement. I am sorry to say that several times, when I asked people abroad if it was not time to open the door to the Western Balkan countries, they retorted – do you really wish to have a new V4? It is hard to answer that. Because many times we behaved as troublemakers, going against every principle of solidarity and the principles on which the EU is based.”
Have we not managed to reinstate ourselves a little, by our response to this crisis? I am not talking about Hungary, which is now isolated, but the others?
“I said the V4 – but each of those four countries was at some point in history the biggest trouble-maker. Right now it is Hungary, but this is not about Hungary. It is about the “spirit of Easterners” which we are bringing into the Western society, which is not very well accepted – of course it is not.
“Another example – I had a very nice chat with the Turkish ambassador here in Prague –he used to serve as the minister for enlargement in Turkey – and I said I was sorry they are having to wait so long for membership. He said –you know what, we already understand that even the way to the EU is a huge benefit for us. We are learning how to behave, how to work, how to manage the society on our way to the EU, on our way to meeting EU standards. He said it is something like when you go on a diet. The doctor says you can’t eat this and you can’t eat that. And after a few weeks you suddenly start to feel better – even if you are not healthy yet. And maybe this is something we should promote with respect to the Balkan states –say, look your road to membership may take a decade, but it gives you time to learn to follow the rules and learn to be a proper member.”
But in a way the EU has tried to do that, because the promise of getting candidate status was meant to motivate them to do better. Yet the annual reports on the Western Balkan states have been rather critical of the state of the judiciary, media freedom, corruption and so on. So how much progress have they made –and is it sufficient, in view of their ambitions?
“It is different. Each of these countries is different. You know I am a big fan of the Western Balkans. I am an honorary citizen of Kosovo. So I may not be very objective [laughs], but I am a big fan of enlargement to the Western Balkans. On the other hand, I cannot help but see that they are still not able to fulfil all of the criteria. They are still on their way…and I hear from them – we are willing to learn, we are willing to go in this proper way and we know we have a lot of problems still. The problem –as I see it – is that they think they are doing enough for some kind of progress and we are not ready to sometimes close an eye and give them a little bit of hope. To say –you are on the right way, this is a good result, now you have something, like visa liberalization for Kosovo, for instance. Maybe I am not tough enough, but I would prefer to give them a little bit more hope.
“I can tell you one personal experience. I just returned from Kosovo two or three weeks ago and I was absolutely amazed by how far the country has progressed in what I would call “hardware”. New roads, new buildings, new airport, everything. It seems like a regular southern European country -Turkey, Italy…So that is the hardware, that is easy to change – but the software – it was worse than it used to be. I was back after 17 years and I had meetings and chats with Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovo leaders, Kosovo government party, Kosovo opposition party –everyone – and I had never before heard so much skepticism and frustration.”
Skepticism about what?
“About the future of the country and its European prospects. They are more and more frustrated, and what is even worse and very significant is that young, talented people are leaving in massive numbers. It is the same with Montenegro – people are losing hope for the future, hope that they will be successful. Right now Montenegro has a new government which is very pro-Western, pro-democratic and they are afraid that if we are not able to help them, to deliver something for their people, they will lose the position again.”
And Montenegro is one of the frontrunners, so things must be even worse elsewhere…but I think one of the reasons why many Western leaders are cautious when it comes to the Western Balkans is because there is so much emotional baggage, so many dormant problems, that could flare up into conflicts if you have a populist leader, or nationalist sentiments –how do you think the EU can help resolve that? You talked about software and the way people think – do you think that in ten years’ time these people will say – “I am a citizen of the EU” and that will override nationalist sentiments? Because the scars of the war are still fresh, this generation still remembers….how can that be overcome?
“Once again, very tough question” [laughs].
You lived in Kosovo. You have written a book called “Kosovo Under My Skin”.
The scars of the war will heal with the next generation, when a Kosovo guy falls in love with a Serbian girl and they will have children and their families will start a business together – small steps are needed.
“I left Kosovo in 2002, but even back then I said that we should look, as a bright example, at the relations between France and Germany. They were enemies forever….and now because of business they are close and –which I think is very important – for a generation there was no war between them, no violence, no killing. And what I see as hope for the Balkans is to keep this region in peace for as long as possible – for at least one generation. The first generation is not able to adopt. You know, I remember my mom, she was afraid of the Germans her entire life, because she saw the German tanks, she survived the Second World War and the Protectorate. For her Germany was an enemy – no discussion! I felt the same about the Russians. I have seen Russian tanks here. And they killed my friend. So I am first generation. I am influenced by the past. I am “sick” in this respect, but maybe my children and grandchildren will be different, they do not have these sentiments towards the Russians –unless they continue what they are doing right now! So what the Balkans need is to keep the peace for as long as possible and to stop every single sign of violence and war. That might help after one generation…when a Kosovo guy will fall in love with a Serbian girl and they will have children and their families will start a business together – small steps are needed.”
But the mentality is different too, I think. Because I cannot see any of those states engaging in something like the Czech-Slovak Velvet Divorce, when we parted so amicably. In the Balkans emotions run high all the time!
“Our Velvet Divorce was also because Havel is not Milosevic! But you are right, we are of a different nature. We are not fighters, we prefer a more tranquil environment. But what I would like to add to the situation in the Balkans is that we have to help them economically, with money, helping build an infrastructure, everything. As I said this is hardware, it is easy to repair, it is easy to build. The software is much worse and it is a long-term project. And what we are facing there is Russian interests.”
And Russia will use whatever it can – such as the fact that the Serbs hate NATO for having bombed them….
“Exactly. And Russia knows this may be the last chance to keep their power there. And that will be very hard to break. Right now they don’t have much time because they are busy with Ukraine and don’t have time to focus on the Balkans. But we have to understand that this is not only competition or a fight between Serbs and Croats and Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs and Bosnians and so on – it is the same as in Ukraine – this is the West against Russia – or better said, Russia against the West.”
So it is extremely important to help the Western Balkans and the post-Soviet republics because it is a tug-of-war over influence in the region and their future.
“Exactly, but we have some degree of skepticism on the part of some European states – it is happening too far away for them to care. Just another example – how many of us were interested in the fate of Syria? How did we react to their problems, refugees etc…I do not need to go into detail. It is too far, it is not our business. And for people in Belgium, Holland maybe, the Balkans are too far – as long as it does not affect them directly –which it is not, so far, or maybe they just don’t understand that it is.”
So maybe it will be an uphill battle to maintain the EU solidarity that we see now?
“I don’t like to be pessimistic or skeptical. I think we are on the right way –especially because Mr. Putin sent us a very strong message that we should do that. So far it is working and I am really amazed how strong we could be in this united power, but there are some signs already that maybe it is not forever, our unity could be destroyed pretty easily, mainly after this summer, even if Covid does not come back, we will have huge problems with energies, everywhere, with inflation etc, etc. and then someone will come and say “it is just because of Ukraine, because we have the refugees here” but the proper answer is that it is because Putin started this war. And it is not a war against Ukraine, it is a war against the West -against democracy, liberty and all the values that I already mentioned. And that is hard to explain, because people from the western parts of Europe do not have this personal experience. I have seen the Russian occupants here in our streets, but for them this is still something “behind the Iron Curtain” . They don’t care that much. So far it is fine –they feel some responsibility, solidarity, human compassion, but it could be destroyed very easily, I am afraid.”
So this will be one of the big tasks for the Czech presidency –to keep putting this message across?
“That’s right. We are able to send it and Thank God we have a government and prime minister and foreign minister ready and willing to do that and we understand how difficult and dangerous a situation it is. We cannot lose the Western Balkans or Georgia. We have to help them and we have to keep them on track, but it is definitely not easy.”
As you said, negotiating EU expansion will be a daunting task and there is only so much you can do in six months, so what is the Czech Republic’s goal, how far would you like to see it taken?
“For me, I see a nice perspective in visa liberalization for Kosovo. I am a little bit afraid of what is going on in the relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. I don’t understand the last development at all. I don’t know what is going to happen. From my point of view there is a real danger that two governments will fall without any real agreement on any progress. Both governments could suffer because of the negotiations, because they will not be accepted by the population. It would be a good price [laughs] to lose two governments and have an agreement, but I fear it would be two governments down and no agreement at all. Membership for Albania-maybe. But you know we are just a presidency, we are not governors…our duty is to manage the negotiations and to find a compromise.”
Finally, a personal question – what kind of Europe would you like to see for your children and grandchildren?
“You are speaking to a father of three and grandfather of four [laughs] so it is something that is interesting for me and something I think about very often. As I mentioned, for me a very important value is peace, peace and love, they go together. And I believe that the Europe of the future will be democratic, with huge respect for human rights of each and every single individual and without any murders or invaders –either inside or near the border.”
Martin Dvořák is a seasoned Czech diplomat and politician. He has served in the United Nations Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), acted as political advisor to the Provisional Authority (CPA) in Basra and Deputy Director of the Donor Coordination Department of the Council for International Coordination (CIC) in Baghdad, business counselor at the Czech Embassy in Washington DC., served as Czech Consul General in the United States and Czech Ambassador to Kuwait and Qatar.
In the year 2000 he published the book “Kosovo Under My Skin”
Czechia currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Follow us for all the main news between now and the end of the year.