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The new Polish trend of the Czech foreign policy, between success at the European summit and disagreements with Russia and China
Meanwhile, President Zeman praises “the excellent state of bilateral relations with Rome”

Among the completion of the Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) which was a success for Prague, and the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic around the world, with all related restrictions and the crisis of the world economies, along with the frictions with Russia and China, there is a new trend that opens up for the Czech Republic’s foreign policy involving neighboring Poland, with the controversy over the Turów coal mine. Like others, it’s a theme to be followed and a leading-edge matter even in the following months.

Poland

After Warsaw’s decision to extend the mining permits for another six years and expand the coal mining area of Turów on the border with the Czech Republic, Prague began to make itself heard and requested the European Commission to intervene in the dispute.

The main concerns – firstly, those of the residents in the Liberec region, the closest to the border – are related to the pollution of the aquifers and the other environmental consequences. This is why the Czech government asked Brussels for assistance after Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček requested more information directly from his Polish counterpart, Jacek Czaputowicz, with no success in obtaining it.

The concerns of the Czech municipalities at the border could, among other things, turn into a further matter of controversy between Poland and EU, which already challenges many of the reforms of the Polish conservative government in terms of rule of law. The Czech minister for environment Richard Brabec, who has also apprehended the possibility of appealing to the European Court of Justice, announced that he has appealed to the Commission to be able to protect the rights of the Czech citizens and the environment of the region from further noise pollution and smog. Thus, the bilateral matter became one of a European dominion and competence and this is proved by the fact that even the Commission for Petitions of the European Parliament has asked the Commission to take more incisive measures against Poland.

Moreover, the Turów mine supplies coal mainly to the nearby and highly controversial power plant, the impacts of which have been felt for decades even beyond the border. An electrical plant, which could remain operational until 2044, and whose fumes simply do not comply with the Green New Deal signed by the EU and its members under the presidency of von der Leyen and the agreements that foresee the disposal of coal by 2030 in the entire EU.

Russia

We moved from the open controversy on the removal by Prague of the statue of the Soviet hero, the marshal of the Red Army Ivan Konev, along with so many formal protests from Moscow, to one sentence, arrived from Kremlin that says everything about the relations between Russia and the Czech Republic. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman of Kremlin, called the relations with Prague “shrouded by clouds”. For Peskov, whose words are a direct representation of Vladimir Putin’s thoughts, the relations between the two countries “have been recently damaged by known events and some hostile measures taken at the level of municipal authorities and central government”.

Among other matters, Peskov spoke to journalists after the arrest of Ivan Sofron, a consultant of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, accused of having transmitted secret information to Czech agents in contact with the CIA. This is another element that contributed to clouding the bilateral relations between the states during the last few weeks.

Obviously, Prague doesn’t intend to close the door on Moscow and this is demonstrated by the fact that the Czech Foreign Minister has shown willingness to start bilateral consultations, “but not so far as to see a mutual will”. A feeling expressed also by Premier Andrej Babiš himself.

Nevertheless, the possibility of a round table where the two countries would try to solve their disputes still stands and the task of mending and reactivating the negotiations has been entrusted by the Czech government to the Director of the Foreign Affairs Department in Prague Castle, Rudolf Jindrák. He is a highly experienced diplomat, the right-hand of Miloš Zeman for foreign policy, and former ambassador to Hungary, Austria and Germany. Jindrák immediately began to work on this matter and confidently declared that the future negotiations with Moscow will have to cover “the whole spectrum of Czech-Russian relations and not deal only with the latest controversies”. Judging by the first impressions, he seems to be the right man to deal with such a thorny matter.

China

The most recent of controversies is the future visit of the President of the Senate, Miloš Vystrčil, to Taiwan, due at the end of August and beginning of September, that openly questions the policy of “one China”, so dear to Beijing.

The decision of the second state office, representative of the ODS opposition, to organize a visit to Taipei leading a commercial delegation was severely criticized not only by China, but also by Miloš Zeman. The presidential spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček commented on his personal Twitter account: “This trip can be compared to a visit to the Donetsk Republic. It would be an open support for separatist forces, would violate all bilateral political commitments and undermine the political foundations of future cooperation between China and the Czech Republic”.

On the other hand, this is the official distancing of the Castle: “President Miloš Zeman merely notes that the visit of the President of the Senate to Taiwan was supported neither by the head of state nor by the government or even the foreign minister”.

The Chinese ambassador in Prague, Zhang Jianmin stressed that on his part he did not understand “the reason why the Czech Republic and China would risk destroying the bilateral relations that are in the interest of both parties”.

Italy

After the “misunderstanding” and the small crisis linked to transport of masks from China and blocked in the Czech Republic, the relations between Prague and Rome have risen to higher levels and this is shown by the particularly warm and congratulatory letter that President Zeman has addressed to Ambassador Francesco Saverio Nisio on the occasion of the Italian Republic Day, on June 2. In this letter, delivered to 20 Nerudova Street by Ambassador Rudolf Jindrák, Head of the Foreign Affairs Department in the Castle, Zeman confirmed his intention to visit Italy next autumn, obviously if the Coronavirus pandemic allows it. In the letter, the Czech President showed his appreciation “for the excellent state of Italian-Czech bilateral relations” by expressing his certainty that this visit will help deepen the relations between the two nations. Finally, he did not fail to express his condolences to the Italian victims of Covid-19 and pay tribute to those who worked on facing this epidemic.

European Union

There are two elements of interest on the EU front and the seldomly idyllic relations between Prague and Brussels. On one hand, according to Babiš, the victory on the share of EU funds destined for the Czech Republic in the next seven-year budget. On the other, a potentially divisive matter, namely the project to expand the Czech nuclear power plant in Dukovany along with the risk that the contractor in charge of the operator may be Russian and Chinese.

Regarding the EU budget, Prague will receive € 35.7 billion (four billion more than during the previous seven-year period) to which other Recovery funds will be added, with € 15.4 billion that can be borrowed on advantageous terms. “The outcome of the summit was certainly positive for the Czech Republic and I am happy about it”, concluded Babiš after the intense negotiation in Brussels, which lasted almost five days.

As for Dukovany, this is a matter strictly linked to the Eu policy, because in addition to a possibly new interference of Moscow or Beijing in European energy assets, Brussels doesn’t welcome the increase in percentage of the atomic energy in the mix of the Czech Republic. While awaiting for the tender, which should be launched within a few months, it’s known even from now that the Russian Rosatom, leader in this sector, and the Chinese General Nuclear Power, as well as the American Westinghouse, along with the South Korean Knhp and the Japanese-French Mitsubishi Atmea are in the race for the big contract. For the EU, and clearly for the US as well, entrusting such strategic infrastructure to China or Russia would certainly be a mistake and both Brussels and Washington will do whatever it takes for Prague to keep it in mind.

by Daniela Mogavero