“Gentleman’s agreement” with China at center of political scandal in Prague

Lubomír Zaorálek, photo: CTK

The scandal surrounding a recent visit to Prague by the Dalai Lama has turned the spotlight on Czech foreign policy and the strings attached to the country’s strategic partnership with China. Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek on Sunday accused the culture minister of having breached a Gentleman's Agreement with China that Czech cabinet ministers would refrain from official contacts with the Dalai Lama.

Lubomír Zaorálek,  photo: CTK
The Dalai Lama is a frequent visitor to the Czech Republic, but never before has his visit made such an impact on the domestic scene. His official reception by Culture Minister Daniel Herman angered the president and reportedly resulted in Herman’s uncle, Holocaust survivor George Brady being taken off the list of nominees for a state award on October 28. The allegations, which Prague Castle has denied, divided the political scene and led to a partial boycott of the official celebrations marking Czechoslovak Independence Day at Prague Castle, in favour of a separate celebration on Old Town Square.

Now the storm of controversy has moved to the Office of the Government. Defending a declaration which the country’s top officials issued to reassure China that Prague fully respected the country’s territorial integrity, Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek said it would not have been necessary had one member of Cabinet –Culture Minister Herman – respected an unwritten agreement in the cabinet that its members would refrain from official contacts with the Dalai Lama. He indicated that this was part of the deal with China.

Daniel Herman,  photo: CTK
“If he [Daniel Herman] had kept his word, none of this would have happened. He was free to meet with the Dalai Lama privately. All that was expected was for Mr. Herman to stick to the conditions of the agreement, but he breached them in a way that no one else has, not even President Obama.”

Prime Minister Sobotka and Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, both confirmed the existence of such an agreement, and the prime minister noted that as a member of the cabinet Culture Minister Herman should have considered whether his actions were in line with the government’s official policy.

Minister Herman claims he made no promises to anyone.

“I did not break any agreement, because I never made such a commitment – it goes against my conscience. It is as if someone asked me not to meet with the Pope.”

Dalai Lama,  photo: Tomáš Adamec
With news of an unwritten understanding with China officially confirmed by the foreign minister, the center-right opposition parties TOP 09, the Civic Democrats and STAN, want the conditions of the country’s strategic partnership with China made public. STAN has demanded a special session of the Senate at which the matter would be debated and TOP 09 and the Civic Democrats are pushing for a special session of the lower house on the declaration which they claim degraded the country as no other since the fall of communism.