Guns or butter? Communists demand Czech Army budget cut in view of Covid-19 crisis

Photo: ČTK/Josef Vostárek

Communist Party MP Jiří Dolejš is demanding the Czech Army’s planned budget to be cut by 10 billion crowns, and the savings put into an emergency reserve fund that could be drawn on to alleviate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. He has signalled that otherwise the minority government, which relies on Communist support, could be in for a heated battle over the 2021 state budget.

In exchange for its tolerance of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s government, the Communists have won some major policy concessions and funding battles. But thus far, they have failed to leverage their power as political kingmakers to scupper deals for example to buy US military helicopters.

The Communists’ sabre-rattling has intensified along with the second wave of Covid-19 infections. In a Czech Radio debate on Wednesday, Jiří Dolejš, a member of the parliamentary budget committee, argued for at least a temporary reduction into military investment, regardless of commitments to NATO to steadily increase spending through 2035.

Jiří Dolejš | Photo: Luboš Vedral,  Czech Radio

“We are not talking about ‘taking money from the Army’. We do want to postpone specific big projects due to the current extraordinary crisis. The defence budget is now 70 billion crowns and has not been fully spent. I understand that the military plans to spend more and more every year. But I think it can pause for a year. And it’s not that the Army will being helping in the health care sector. Hospitals don’t need artillery or new American helicopters.”

Jan Řehounek, an MP from Babiš’s ANO party who also sits on the parliamentary budget committee, takes the opposite view. He argues that if the state budget only counted on military hardware, he too would question it. But it is mainly about increasing the Army’s capability, whatever the challenge the country faces.

“Recent events show that we need the Army for many things that do not fall within its main role, that of defending our country. So we should not touch the 2021 defence budget. What’s more, we’re not talking only about big purchases but about increasing capabilities, which we need not only for defence but to battle the pandemic.”

Already for 2020, about 3 billion crowns were trimmed from the defence budget, Řehounek says, while arguing that postponing contracts would undermine the Czech Republic’s credibility with its NATO allies and military suppliers and have a “multiplier effect” on domestic industries, leading to job losses.

Mi-35 helicopter,  photo: archive of Czech Army

For his part, Dolejš argues that few NATO allies are meeting their commitments and the Czech GDP is projected to decrease as much as 8 percent in annual terms due to the coronavirus pandemic and no one can predict what 2021 will bring.

The “guns and butter” debate is a perennial one for the largely unreformed Communists, a pro-Moscow, anti-NATO party, that with the election of Andrej Babiš as prime minister in 2017 gained a say in government for the first time since 1989.

But support for the party has dropped steadily in recent elections, and Dolejš stopped short in the Czech Radio debate of stipulating any quid pro quo or outright threatening to pull support for the Babiš government over the defence budget.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis has led the government to repeatedly increase the projected gap in public finances for 2020 – going from 40 billion crowns in February to over 500 billion crowns. The Finance Ministry’s 2021 state budget draft has a projected deficit of 320 billion crowns.