“We should have taken part” – analyst on Czech PM’s vetoing of V4–Belarus opposition talks

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová

The Czech prime minister vetoed a Polish proposal to invite a Belarusian opposition leader to Visegrad Four talks, which have taken place on Friday. Andrej Babiš said this would be too “hasty” and could give ammunition to Belarusian propaganda, adding that the EU should take the lead on the issue. However, his stand has been met with criticism. I asked Pavel Havlíček, an expert from Prague’s Association for International Affairs, if he felt the PM had made the right move.

“I don’t think so. I believe that we should have taken part in the meeting.

“The official justification was that this move was not coordinated and that it was not in line with EU thinking on this matter, that it was not pre-agreed with our partners and that the prime minister’s office prefers to approach this affair from the European perspective. That is understandable from a certain angle.

“However, the arguments are rather weak when we look both at the seriousness of the situation and the fact that Czechia is always mentioned when Mr. Lukashenko speaks about foreign Western powers that are ‘interfering’ in Belarusian domestic affairs. We are always in the centre of Belarusian and Russian criticism of this supposed foreign interference. From that point of view, we should have participated and taken part in this meeting.”

Alexander Lukashenko, photo: ČTK/AP/Andrei Stasevich

Mr. Babiš’s decision has come under criticism from several sides, with some people saying that there were ulterior motives. Do you think there is any truth in the criticism, or do you think that he really did just make that decision based on what he said?

“I think [his explanation] was the main part of the decision and it was confirmed by several sources from the office of the government as well as from the Czech embassy.

“However, obviously there are several of these voices basically saying that Mr. Babiš is trying to keep an open gate for other potential negotiations and other options on the table, including the possibility of having other negotiation channels if Mr. Lukashenko survives this crisis and stays in power.

This is actually also the position of other European countries. When the unofficial, closed discussions were taking place about whether to include Mr. Lukashenko on the sanctions list, several big EU players including Germany, Italy and France actually disagreed, simply because it is so uncertain from the European perspective whether Mr. Lukashenko will fall or stay. They basically tried to stay in the middle and, for example, not endorse [opposition presidential candidate] Tsikhanouskaya, as Lithuania did yesterday.”

You were talking about wider EU policy. I would just like to highlight that while Mr. Babiš did not meet with the opposition, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček did meet with Belarusian opposition leader Pavel Latushko. We talked about the situation in Belarus in August after the protests started. I wanted to ask you now, a month and a half later, about how you see the wider EU response. Has it been successful?

Pavel Havlíček, photo: Archive of Pavel Havlíček

“Yes. I would say that it has been a success to some degree. I would even claim that it has been rather swift, unlike, for example, in 2015 when the Ukrainian crisis was developing.

“From that experience we now see considerably more progress and the EU acting much faster.  EU support and action was resolute when it comes to the example of refusing the Belarusian elections and claiming them to be illegitimate.

“Furthermore, it also offered more than EUR 50 million in support to Belarusian citizens and it also suggested sanctions on specific Belarusians. However, at the same time, we now see the sanction regime being postponed. We can see that with the Cypriot veto, a result of their situation with Turkey. Therefore, we can claim both things are true. First, that the EU response has been rather rapid and resolute in a certain respect.

“However, it has also been somehow paralysed. This is particularly the case in regards to the sanctions regime.”

If we move to the situation on the ground in Belarus, Nobel Prize winning author and opposition symbol Svetlana Alexievich was apparently under threat of arrest this week, with some men coming to her house. The Czech Ambassador in Belarus Tomáš Pernický was among those EU ambassadors who personally visited her and offered support. Is there anything else that the Czech diplomatic mission ‘on the ground’, in Belarus can do?

“I would say there is and am very happy that the Czech ambassador to Belarus has supported Svetlana Alexievich. I think this was a very important demonstration of the EU’s engagement, its willingness to step up its activities and to be ‘on the ground’ so to say.

“I think there are a couple of more things that the EU can be doing. Among them is standing up for other imprisoned or persecuted demonstrators, or leaders of the opposition. We can already see this on the example of Maria Kolesnikova, where EU and Czech diplomacy can be really present on the ground.

“From the Russian experience we know that it is the presence of Western and EU diplomats at court trials is very important, in order to observe them, to get involved, to show interest and presence so to say. That is very important and I think we should do that.

“Furthermore, we should openly deliver on our promises of support for the peaceful and democratic protesters, whether it is medical or psychological aid. Basically we need to turn financial resources into concrete help for the people. This is exactly where Czech diplomacy in Minsk can do a lot of work.”