Czechs and Slovaks not just providing aid to Ukraine but also “moral stance”, says expert

The Czech Republic and Slovakia are “showing a new way forward for Western democracies” with their response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. That is the view of Berlin-based political scientist Benjamin Tallis in an article published this week. I asked the security expert how specifically the two states were achieving this.

“There are a couple of things to highlight.

“One is in the material support they have provided to Ukraine.

“We are talking about weapons, and heavy weapons in particular, which they’ve been at the very forefront of doing.

“Also of course humanitarian aid, and in terms of taking Ukrainian refugees they’ve been in the first rank of countries dealing with that.

“But moreover it’s in the moral stance that they provide to go with it, and the reasons that they give for that.

Benjamin Tallis | Photo: Institute for International Relations

“You can see that in the statements of, for example, Prime Minister Heger in Slovakia, talking about how it’s Slovakia’s duty to help Ukraine.

“You can see it also in the rhetoric of Foreign Minister Lipavský in the Czech Republic – a very clear moral agenda and a very clear liberal democratic agenda that’s been put to go with the support that Czechs and Slovaks have provided.”

Not long after the invasion the Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, said that Czechs felt the threat of Russia more acutely than Western European states did, for obvious historical reasons. Is it only to be expected then that Prague and Bratislava would be so active in helping Ukraine?

“Certainly that fear is more acutely felt in Central and Eastern Europe.

“You can see, memories of 1968, for example, are still strong in the collective public consciousness and the collective memory of the two countries.

“But you can see that also in, for example, the response of Poland, which feels much the same.

“But that has not come with the accompanying let’s say moral high ground being taken.

“It’s without the idealistic agenda that you can see put forward by the Fiala and Lipavský, or by Heger and Korčok, or Jaroslav Naď, in Slovakia.

Jan Lipavský | Photo: Kateřina Cibulka,  Czech Radio

“So I think there’s a difference there as well.

“That basis ground of fear is certainly there, but this is not only about fear, this is about standing up for a different kind of geopolitics, a more progressive approach to geopolitics, that takes smaller countries concerns seriously as well – and tries to make an international order in which they can thrive.

“And that’s also something they see as being threatened by the Putin regime, a revanchist and authoritarian power in Europe.

“But they also see it as being threatened by the inaction of Western European countries, and potentially of other Western allies.”

You use a term in your article [] that I hadn’t come across before: neo-idealism. What is that?

“Neo-idealism is a mode of geopolitics that I think we can see emerging, including in Central and Eastern Europe, which goes beyond the standard model of liberal internationalism that we’ve seen in the last few years.

“It is based on the power of values, conceived as ideals, which we should strive for, even if they are imperfectly delivered, even if they remain ideals.

“They are the kind of things that are worth fighting for. So human rights and fundamental freedoms. Liberal democracy. Self-determination for democracies, so not having to be put in the sphere of influence of larger powers if you don’t want to. But above all the right of citizens to a hopeful future.

“There are different ways of achieving this, but what we can see is that in the Czech Republic and Slovakia politicians are increasingly talking in this way.

“Jan Lipavský’s rhetoric is very telling on this front.

“For example, his criticism of Hungary, saying Hungary after electing Viktor Orban for a fourth time needs to choose a side – it needs to choose whether it’s really part of the EU and part of NATO, or not.

“Because the kind of politics that Viktor Orban is espousing is anathema to what those institutions stand for.

“Neo-idealism also rejects something which we might have heard quite a bit about in recent times called realism; someone like John Mearshimer would be a proponent of that.

“Mearshimer would have rejected NATO enlargement as having been a reasonable thing to do, because it would have provoked Russia.

“Now this argument is nonsense, but what it particularly does is ignore the agency and the wishes of people in countries like the Czech Republic, who wanted to join NATO.

“Realists tend to see a world of great powers doing what they will, and the others must accept that.

“So they’re reduced to pawns in a greater game.

“Neo-idealism really fundamentally rejects that.”

The future of the Visegrad Four seems a bit uncertain at present, with Babiš having gone in the Czech Republic and Orban having been reelected in Hungary. Where do you see the V4 going now?

Viktor Orbán | Photo:  European People's Party,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

“I hope we’ll see it going away. It should have stopped functioning a long time ago.

“The V4 has been dead as a meaningful or good organisation for a long time.

“It’s been propping up the worst sides of Central Europe.

“And in practice it hasn’t really functioned, when we’ve had a V2 plus 2, or a V3 plus 1.

“But really this has to be the last of, and hopefully the death knell for, the V4.

“What is it good for? We might argue ‘absolutely nothing’.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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