Czechs, Germans put on brave faces as Chancellor Schroeder cancels visit

Grhard Schroeder

Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on Thursday he had called off a visit to Prague next month, amid a deepening row in Central Europe over Czechoslovakia's post-war Benes decrees. The decrees sanctioned the expulsion of around two and a half million ethnic Germans - known as Sudeten Germans - in laws approved by the Allies. Now, sixty years after President Benes put his signature to the controversial decrees, they are still causing friction between the Czech Republic and its neighbours, as Rob Cameron explains.

Mr Schroeder's announcement ended weeks of speculation over the planned visit - the Czech and German media had cast doubt on whether the German Chancellor would still visit Prague amid this latest dispute over the Benes decrees. The dispute erupted in mid-February, when the Czech Prime Minister Zeman told Austria's Profil magazine that Sudeten Germans had been "Hitler's fifth column," a comment which caused anger and dismay in both Austria and Germany.

Mr Schroeder appears keen to avoid being dragged into the row, telling German television on Thursday that he had cancelled the trip because of a "heated debate" and saying he did not think a "rational discussion" was possible ahead of Czech parliamentary elections in June. Sabina Sparwasser is the deputy press spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry.

"We have discussed all of these things during the recent visit to Prague of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Those irritations and misunderstandings have been cleared up, but that point was made and understood and we have agreed on a direction of our bilateral relations. There has been full understanding and full agreement on both sides that it would be better to postpone the visit."

The Czech government is also attempting to smooth the diplomatic waters, refusing to give any reasons for the postponement. Spokesman Libor Roucek insisted Czech-German relations had not been damaged by the affair.

"The visit has been postponed, and that's the situation where we are now. We agreed that we won't give an official reason, and that's where we stand. Mr Schroeder and Mr Zeman, if you remember, last summer they met three times within one month - Mr Schroeder even joked during a press conference in September that his wife was complaining that he was seeing more of Zeman than her. So we can say that in spite of this postponement, it won't change anything about the high quality of Czech-German relations."

So both sides attempt to put a brave face on things, but few would deny this is an unhappy time for Central Europe. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have become embroiled in their own dispute over the decrees, which also approved the seizure of property belonging to ethnic Hungarians. With elections in all four countries - Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany - later this year, it's probably not the last time the decrees will be used as a means of generating political capital.