Zeman’s support for Russia aimed at Czechs who don’t feel part of EU, says Jakub Janda of European Values

Jakub Janda, photo: Czech Television

Why have Czechs evidently lost some faith in Europe in recent years? Does the Czech Republic have core foreign policies? And are there any consequences for the country’s president and other officials not singing from the same hymn sheet on Russia? These are just some issues I discussed the other day with Jakub Janda, who is deputy head of the think tank European Values. But my first question for Janda was: What exactly do think tanks do?

Jakub Janda,  photo: Czech Television
“They can do a lot of things. The think tank idea started off during WWII when the Americans saw propaganda coming from Nazi Germany and from Japan.

“Their army needed some kind of unit of people who would be thinking about what to do in response to that propaganda. That’s when it started off, as a name I would say.

“But in today’s world think tanks are like NGOs, usually. They just put together people who want to think and write about some issues that they think are important. And there are different kinds of think tanks.

“European Values is non-partisan, which means we work with political parties but we don’t work exclusively for one.

“Second we are non-governmental, meaning the government hasn’t funded us. We do projects with the government and with the executive, but we are mainly not paid by the government. Therefore we can be independent.”

So how are you funded?

“In 2014 around 40 percent of our funding came from the Open Society Foundation, which is non-partisan, basically…”

That’s funded by the billionaire George Soros?

“That’s right. All over Europe they fund a lot of stuff which is focused on opening up politics, generally. We’ve had big projects with them on minorities and integration and immigration policies.

“About 30 percent of our funding came from foreign institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Parliament. Those are neutral institutions, I would say. The rest comes from other foundations.

“Also we have done several projects with the Czech government, so the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Government.”

Your name, European Values, clearly shows what you guys are all about. In recent years, Czechs seem, to some degree at least going by opinion polls, to have lost faith in European institutions compared to immediately after the Velvet Revolution and in the run-up to EU accession. Why do you think there has been that decline in faith in Europe?

“I would say it’s mainly been because most Czech political parties and Czech politicians don’t really understand European politics, they don’t take an interest in it. And therefore they don’t speak about European politics.

“I don’t only mean EU politics, but international politics and European politics in particular.

“That’s a very big problem, since the leaders of the country don’t pay attention to it and don’t see how important it is for such a small country as the Czech Republic.

“Therefore the public can’t be in the same boat with them. This is a general problem, which I would say is systematic.

“The other problem is that we’ve had really strong political figures, such as former president Václav Klaus, who was really against anything called EU. Therefore he has, let’s say, shifted the discourse in a negative way.

“And there hasn’t been anybody really strong, really publicly visible, who would be able not only to defend it but even to speak about what is important for the Czech Republic, as our national interest.

“So it’s a kind of a systematic problem of our leaders, I would say.”

But hasn’t the economic crisis also been a factor in this? I think the downturn in faith in Europe followed the crisis.

“It has, definitely. Another issue is that we don’t pay with euros and we’re not members of the eurozone. So the problem of Greece and others hasn’t really been our problem.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“If you compare it to Slovakia [which has the euro], they are a lot more interested in Greece and the possible ‘Grexit’.

“It hasn’t affected us in a realistic way. But it has affected the polls.

“And it [the loss of faith] wasn’t only about European institutions – it was about other institutions as well, and approval of the government and Parliament as a body.

“So it’s not only about the EU, because honestly Czechs have very little knowledge about the EU.

“That’s the biggest problem of our politicians. Because when the politicians don’t speak about it the media don’t cover it.”

The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, is often accused of being pro-Russian. Why do you think it is that he takes the relatively non-mainstream position – in Europe – on Russia?

“It has several roots, I would say. One would be his feeling of admiration for the kind of ‘strong hand’ that Vladimir Putin possesses.

“Putin is able to be really hard on his country’s journalists and civic society.

“That’s something that Miloš Zeman admires. He publicly says that he likes it. Not in the sense of how Putin does it, but he likes doing it himself, in a Czech context. That’s the first thing.

“The second is a populist argument, I would say, in the sense that he knows that about 30, maybe 40, percent of the Czech public is really neutral, not really feeling part of the West or part of the Western political culture – feeling what liberal democracy is all about.

“He’s speaking to this electorate. This electorate helped him to win elections in the past. So I think he’s doing part of his – I’m not sure if his, or somebody else’s – campaign for 2018, when there’ll be another election.”

Is there any consequence or cost for the Czech Republic when its policy on Russia is so unclear. You have Zeman, who’s relatively pro-Russian. You have [Foreign Minister Lubomír] Zaorálek, who’s quite against, or at least he’s more like the European mainstream. And you have [Bohuslav] Sobotka, the prime minister, who’s more kind of on the fence. Is there any consequence of that mixed position?

Miloš Zeman,  phoo: Filip Jandourek
“There are several consequences. One is, let’s say, the international brand of the Czech Republic, which definitely… we are being seen as another Hungary, as another ally of Putin, in the eyes of our European and American allies, which isn’t good. But that’s only about surface.

“The other issue is that the Czech Republic, or even the prime minister and the government, cannot really take strong or deep positions on anything that our country could be doing with Ukraine, with the Kiev government.

“Not only in terms of giving them weapons, but in helping them with development aid, for example.

“They can’t do these things when the president is so strictly against it. He’s publicly saying he’s against it.

“Therefore the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs, who both have a really Western stance, have to spend a lot of time speaking to the president.

“They are spending a lot of efforts, not to persuade him but only to stop him from saying those things.

“There are so many lies he has already said in the previous year. This really doesn’t help the Czech position in the European context.”

Your think tank European Values is avowedly Havelite. On your website you declare Havel to be one of your inspirations. We’ve read a lot in recent times about how Czech foreign policy has become more “pragmatic” under the current government, especially in terms of having a friendlier attitude to China. Some people say that the government has abandoned the country’s principled foreign policy tradition, stretching back to Havel. But was Czech foreign policy ever really so principled. Or was there just a kind of mood music, with Havel meeting the Dalai Lama or whatever?

“There are so many aspects of this. I would look at some of them. First, there has been a lot of support from the Czech government for human rights activists around the world. There still is.

“The question is whether the current minister of foreign affairs, and his deputy minister, Mr. Drulák, aren’t going to crop the budget for these activities.

Dalai Lama,  Václav Havel
“That’s not known yet, but right now there still is a lot of support for these activities.

“Regarding support for human rights, some members of the government really support it and are continuing in this trend. But some of them aren’t such as [industry and trade] minister Mládek.

“But regarding Havel’s position, or Havel’s legacy, let’s say, on our foreign policy, I would say that we still have it, in the sense that [finance minister] Mr. Babiš and the prime minister talk about Havel’s legacy.

“So that’s good and if we continue with that, it will be all right.

“Definitely the president isn’t on the same side. He’s on the side of the road. He doesn’t support it.

“The other issue is whether we are principled. It’s not only a question of human rights, but of being principled over for example Crimea, of the annexation and occupation of some Ukrainian territories.

“Havel would never have done it but our president is currently doing so – he’s supporting the Russian case. That’s a point where he’s lacking it, in a sense.”

Is there any core Czech foreign policy? It often seems to me that they simply react to what’s happening in Europe. They follow the mainstream European line a little bit slowly, a little bit behind the main movers but still following them in such a way as not to be totally left behind. But they will never take a first step on anything.

“That’s right. We haven’t taken the initiative on any issues. If we have done, it wasn’t positive but was really negative, in the sense of what the president and Minister Mládek have been doing.

“We’ve been really reactive, you said it right.

“But if you’re asking what are the cores of Czech foreign policy, I would say that some of them are really stable.

“One is connection to the US, which this government is supporting really well, including supporting T-TIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership].

“The other would be supporting the State of Israel and the strong connection with Israel. This government is continuing that tradition. They’ve had some G2G summits, so no changes there.

Photo: archive of Czech Government
“The other would be, this government is trying to get us kind of into the European mainstream. That may seem metaphoric in a sense, but it has a lot of implications in practical policy.

“So in a sense it’s been much better than the Nečas administration; they were really, really negative in EU policy.

“But the current government is at least not blocking some EU policies. That’s a first step. I wouldn’t expect anything else in a year. It takes some time to see some changes at least.”