The Czech Republic, NATO and Russia - what next?

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, second right, gestures as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left, talks with Greek counterpart Dora Bakoyannis, during an emergency NATO foreign minister meeting in Brussels, photo: CTK

On Tuesday, a special NATO summit designed to address the current crisis in Georgia, concluded with strong statements directed towards Russia. The current crisis appears to have solidified concerns that Russia is becoming a potentially dangerous re-emerging power. Eastern European countries, wary of past experiences have been particularly tough in their rhetoric against Russia, and now, a controversial defence shield located in Poland and the Czech Republic seems more certain as a result of the conflict. Dominik Jun spoke with Oldřich Bureš, a specialist on Russian affairs to asses the current situation. He began by asking him about the Polish decision to suddenly approve of US anti-missile rockets being housed on its territory:

Condoleezza Rice and Poland's Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski after sign an agreement to place a U.S. base of 10 missile interceptors in northern Poland,  photo: CTK
“Well, it is clear that the negotiations, which have been dragging on for a while have been helped by the recent events in Georgia. Maybe they might have left it for another month or two and maybe the United States might have been a little less forthcoming, especially when it comes to the stationing of the PATRIOTS for an indefinite period. Certainly we can see that the war in Georgia has impacted on the Polish-US negotiations, but in the long run, I think that the US and Poland would have reached an agreement anyway.”

And do you think that there is a danger that the credibility and unity of NATO and also the EU could be weakened by these kinds of unilateral agreements?

“There is definitely a possibility that both in the case of NATO and the EU, these divisions and frictions between old and new member states - plus the US position which is clearly more in line with the Eastern European countries – could cause problems. For example, during the NATO summit in Bucharest [held in Aril 2008] precisely the question of Georgian and Ukrainian membership of NATO, caused visible friction. The larger question is not Georgia or Ukraine, but how does the European Union and NATO want to deal with Russia? And this is a divisive issue both in NATO and the EU.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner,  second right,  gestures as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,  left,  talks with Greek counterpart Dora Bakoyannis,  during an emergency NATO foreign minister meeting in Brussels,  photo: CTK
During the NATO conference in Brussels that just concluded, there were various voices with regards to how to deal with Russia. On the one hand, some were pushing for restraint, others were pushing for action. What was the Czech position?

“The Czech position as with most other eastern European countries is that Russia definitely cannot be trusted; that it is a resurgent power now with strong nationalistic tendencies and that it is still very much Mr Putin who is in charge. And therefore, the only language that Moscow will really understand is the language of power. Whereas, the Western opinion – especially that of the the French and the Germans – is that yes, Russia is resurgent, but the solution is not to isolate or push Russia even further and that we should deal with them instead.”

However one takes it, there are still very strong economic ties between Russia and the Czech Republic – a lot of trade both ways. Is this conflict likely to jeopardize that? Or, conversely, will the strong level of trade limit the level of condemnation that the Czech Republic can target in Russia’s direction?

“On the economic side, I think that the negative impact on Russian business is already obvious. Lots of foreign direct investment has already been cancelled. Generally speaking, I think this will be the biggest impact rather than any official sanctions. Because nowadays, Russia is quite safe in that sense given the current prices of oil and gas and its dependence, especially on the big European countries – but also the Czech Republic – on these supplies.”

What is your prognosis for the future? Obviously there are different scenarios: will there be a new Cold War? Will we see Russia reducing gas and petroleum supplies to the Czech Republic and Poland and so on?

“I hope that we do not have another Cold War. I think that probably, the biggest victims of the current conflict will be the Russians themselves. After each such conflict, the regime which has already been heading away from democratic credentials will be moving further away from any notion of political liberalization. If there had been any hope that Mr Medvedev would be a slightly more liberal president than Putin, then that has now clearly gone. As far as oil and gas goes, I would argue that Russia is as dependant on Europe as Europe is dependant on Russia. So there will be the occasional playing around like the recent ‘technical reasons’ for reducing gas supplies to the Czech Republic, but in the long run, Russia needs the European market.”