Russian deputy PM’s visit spurs speculation over thaw initiative

Alexander Zhukov, Václav Klaus (right), photo: CTK

Russia’s deputy Prime Minister arrived in Prague for talks on Monday amid frosty Czech-Russian relations following a tit-for-tat spy row. Speculation has been high in the Czech capital about what concrete steps Alexander Zhukov might take to ease the current strains. But is the anticipation about a possible diplomatic thaw is well founded?

The visit by deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov has raised some eyebrows and a lot of questions in the Czech Republic. The visit comes barely a month after Moscow expelled two Czech diplomats in retaliation against a similar move when Prague accused two Russian officials of spying. Recent relations have also been soured by the willingness of the former Czech centre-right government to host a US anti-missile radar which Moscow says is a threat to its security.

Alexander Zhukov, Václav Klaus (right), photo: CTK
Speculation about whether Zhukov’s visit includes some concrete proposals to patch up relations strained by the recent spying row have been heightened by the fact he is holding talks with both caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer and President Václav Klaus. He is also due to meet the ministers for foreign affairs, defence and industry.

Petr Kratochvíl is deputy director of the Prague-based Institute for International Relations and its specialist in Russian affairs.

“It is quite surprising he is meeting with the President and Prime Minister given his relatively low political rank. Because what would be more common would be that he meet with his counterpart, which is the minister for industry and trade. So there is something strange about it.”

Mr Kratochvíl believes the fact that Moscow is still acting the injured party in the recent spying row and Mr Zhukov’s insufficient weight within the government to spearhead a major initiative means that not too much should be expected or read into the visit.

Added to that, he says the current Czech caretaker government has no remit for major diplomatic moves and Czech-Russian relations have in any case become a delicate political point in the pre-election sparring between the two main Czech political parties. The right-wing Civic Democrats have accused the leader of the left-wing Social Democrats of cosying up to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Mr Kratochvíl sees the main purpose of Mr Zhukov’s visit as being a regular economic and industrial cooperation meeting held between the two countries.

“My explanation would be that it is just basically, simply related to the meeting of the Czech-Russian intergovernmental economic commission. And Zhukov is the one who usually leads the Russian delegation.”

The Czech government said that economic and energy cooperation were the main issues discussed after the meeting with Prime Minister Fischer on Monday.

In spite of the hum drum economic issues immediately at stake, Mr Kratochvíl says results could bear fruit in the form of warmer general relations.

“This commission always tries to focus on the more pragmatic aspects of mutual cooperation. And it is true, if you look at the level of economic cooperation – of course now it is different because of the crisis but before – even at times where the pension was really high and politicians did not really talk to each other, economic cooperation worked quite smoothly. Bilateral trade has been growing for a very, very long time, the foreign direct investment of both sides had been growing up top the start of the economic crisis. So yes, there is some potential for calming down the tense situation now.”

So if it is too early to talk about from Russia with love, the conclusion of the deputy prime minister’s visit might at least mean the long term love-hate relationship is tipped a bit towards the former.