The two Countries come closer and move away from each other: on the one hand, Russian influence and Czech energy dependence, on the other, the negative experience of the past century.
Like a prism, with more colours and shades, relations and sentiments between Prague and Moscow in the last decades, have reflected the trend of international politics, especially in the Central European arena, and are still fluctuating.
A relationship that unites the two countries and at the same time, moves them apart. On the one hand the relationships and dependencies on energy, on the other, disagreements on a large number of international political and diplomatic issues. Finally, the increasingly close economic relations, also due to the presence of a massive Russian community living in the Czech Republic. If we were to split the facets of the situation, one could say that on the one hand there is the Czech Republic of Vaclav Havel and on the other that of the current president Vaclav Klaus. Representative of two ways of visualizing and interpreting relations with Moscow, yesterday and today.
From being a conquered and dominated land, in the last decades, Prague has become a “relocation” place for the Russians: lots of big businessmen, but also many small business entrepreneurs and young students. Then in 2010, the Czech capital became the backcloth and symbolic stage for the signing of the Start Treaty for the reduction of nuclear weapons in Russia and the USA. At the same time, the Czech Republic tried, on and off, to break away from Russian influence, first by engaging with the European Union project, then by seeking to join the U.S. missile shield project, and finally by challenging Moscow internationally on the Russian-Georgian crisis. But, in all these occasions, in Prague, the two Czech political sides confronted each other. A striking example of this was afforded every time President Klaus travelled to Russia to meet the leaders of the Kremlin. Meetings during which Klaus always refused to have an interpreter, showing off his fluent Russian.
The Czech head of state, who defines himself as a “European dissident,” has always been welcomed with open arms by the Russian media. Klaus is part of that political array in the Czech Republic that is not concerned about presenting itself openly as pro-Russian and using this pro-Moscow position as a flag, especially in contrast with the EU, accused by the Czech president of having expansionist aims on Czech sovereignty. Instead, speaking of Russia, Klaus has said “its political system and freedom are now of the highest level since the last two thousand years. Words that have gained increased approval from the Russian media. Moreover, it was the Czech president in 2006, who railed against a group of American and European intellectuals, including Havel, for criticizing, in an open letter, the democratic standards of Putin’s Russia.
Or in 2008, when – during the Russian/ Georgian crisis – Klaus attributed the greatest responsibility to Tbilisi and the president of Georgia Mikheil Saakašvili.
An attitude that, in hindsight, has not increased significantly the political weight of Prague compared to that of the Kremlin. On a visit to Moscow in 2007, when Klaus tried to reassure Vladimir Putin on the non-belligerency of the U.S. space shield, the Russian president just smiled coldly: “For us it is quite clear that the Czech Republic will have no control on the use of the radar”.
As always, on the other side of the fence, since the years of the Velvet Revolution, the former president Vaclav Havel, after taking part in the liberation of the country from communism, has continued opposing attempts by Moscow to restore its influence on Prague. “The era of dictatorship and totalitarianism is not over,” he also declared recently, referring to Russia. “It ended in the traditional form that we experienced in the Twentieth century but now, much more sophisticated ways have been conceived in order to control society”, he stated on the anniversary of the Revolution. Havel has also signed the open letter that was sent to Obama in which he asked the U.S. not to abandon Central Europe, because the end of the Cold War does not guarantee that the Countries of the area are “safe”.
However, in terms of relations between the two Countries, we have to open a separate chapter on energy. Klaus, in fact, during his last visit, called on the Russian energy companies to invest in the Czech sector, particularly for the expansion of the Temelin nuclear power plant. An issue that could further increase Czech dependence on Russia as regards electricity and fuel in general.
The cause of the Russian siege on the Czech energy sector began in the nineties, when Klaus, who was then Prime Minister, supported Russian oil and gas imports instead of those from Norway. The child of this agreement is the massive presence of Lukoil in the Czech Republic. The Russian company has also won 20% of deliveries to Prague International Airport. An influence that, according to Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, is risks becoming very soon “from an economic issue to a political one”. A crucial moment could derive from the Temelin tender, where the Russian Atomstroyexport is considered by some observers to be the favourite, compared to the French Areva and the U.S. Westinghouse. The deal is worth nearly $ 30 billion. Start up of operations in 2020 – and it is interesting to know how it will end.
By Daniela Mogavero