Despite dissent Czech foreign policy retains broad consensus


It's been a couple of weeks since the new Czech government with prime minister Stanislav Gross survived a vote of confidence in the Czech Parliament. But the result was not a foregone conclusion. The slim majority of 101 votes out of 200, which the coalition enjoys in parliament, was endangered by several dissident voices within the ruling parties themselves. Apart from the criticism of the government's economic program, some also denounced its foreign policy. What was it that they disapproved of, and where is Czech foreign policy heading 15 years after the fall of communism?

Social Democrat MP Jan Kavan has been one of the best known figures in Czech foreign policy of recent years. He was foreign minister in the government of Milos Zeman in the late nineties and after finishing his term served a year as president of the United Nation's General Assembly. Now he is the best known critic of the current Czech foreign policy inside the governing coalition. He has heavily criticized Czech support for the US led invasion of Iraq. Even though he was one of the deputies who hesitated to give the government their vote of confidence, now he says that his criticism is based on details rather than the overall program.

"It was criticism within a basic consensus. The differences between my perception of the foreign policy and that of the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Svoboda is really in emphasis, in nuances. I put more emphasis on our work with our partners in the European Union, and we believe that a strong united Europe should be a partner to the United States. I don't put forward this kind of dichotomy; Europe or United States. I believe much more, as I said, in strong Europe, which will partner the United States and in that sense will be able to solve global problems, which also faces the Czech Republic."

Jan Kavan also believes that it is necessary to stress the relevance of international law. When promoting democracy in totalitarian countries it is still necessary to respect their sovereignty.

"Until you have a legal concept acceptable by the whole international community, how you can help these countries to respect human rights without violating their sovereignty, you have to tread very carefully, and from my point of view, fully respect the United Nations Charter. That brings me to the next point, which is full respect of multilateral international organizations, of which, I believe, the United Nations is the main pillar."

Jiri Sedivy, the head of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, thinks that Jan Kavan's outspoken stance is only a matter of the internal politics and that the rift should not be overestimated.

"I think that especially Jan Kavan's performance was very much driven by personal ambitions, by his effort to become more visible, and indeed it's also given by the fact that there is just a tiny majority of one vote in the Lower House of our parliament. That means that any dissenter or any dissenting voice is immediately amplified by the fact that he or she might not support the government in some of the key votes."

Jiri Sedivy believes that in spite of the fact that governments are changing and there have been several different foreign ministers in recent years, from a variety of parties, Czech foreign policy remains stable.

"Since the establishment of the country in 1993 there has been quite a remarkable continuity in the Czech foreign policy. This continuity is given by a number of factors; such as the size of the country, the geopolitical code or location of the country, and indeed also by the fact that we are still a post communist country, newly established country etc."

This view is also confirmed by the current foreign ministry political director Jiri Schneider.

"I wouldn't say there were changes in the priorities of the foreign ministry because even in the new platform of the new government, it recognizes a continuity of the foreign policy. We base our activities on the document which was approved by the previous government - 'The Conceptual Bases Of The Foreign Policy'. There are basically five or six areas, which are identified as priorities, and two are in a way connected with our efforts in nineties which were finalized by entering NATO and the European Union. Now we are focused more on using membership in the EU and NATO as a tool in our foreign policy."

Jiri Schneider refuses both criticism of Czech foreign policy as being too pro-American and criticism to the contrary.

"I think this is really an artificial problem. This is not the way we would like to perceive the whole problem. We stick to both European and Atlantic dimension of our foreign policy. We do not see that in total contradiction. These are two principal feet, two legs of our current foreign policy, and you can not walk only on one leg."

Martin Palous
Also the current ambassador to the United States Martin Palous does not accept the view that these two dimensions could be in contradiction and negatively influence one another.

"It's fair to admit that the whole world - or the western world - is still undergoing a great test, that the problems to be resolved today are not trivial ones. You have hardly any precedence in the past, the world after 9/11 has changed. Obviously, the current American administration has adopted certain strategy that can be discussed now, that has become a theme of a very heated public debate, but - for me as a diplomat - what is very important is to see that under any circumstances the relationship between the United States and Europe - between the United States and the Czech Republic - remain on the same level."

The government has been equally criticized by some right wing politicians for being too reluctant in expressing its support to the coalition forces in Iraq. Even though the differences in views on Czech foreign policy grow with differences within the political spectrum, most of the opponents of the current course, are keeping their criticism relatively muted, in the interest of stability and continuity. Whether this will continue in the longer run, remains to be seen.