It is likely that the changing of the guard in Washington will change some international arrangements, especially in an anti-China role. At the centre of the stage are the expansion project of Dukovany and the Three Seas Initiative
The handover of power in the White House, with Joe Biden taking over from Donald Trump, will influence foreign policy and the entire world power balance. New topics will be discussed, and old topics will be under discussion. Also, for the Czech Republic there will be issues to settle in its alliance with Washington: energy issues will be important, with the development projects of the nuclear power plant in Dukovany, and the Three Seas initiative. On the other hand, Prague’s stance towards the United States will also have an impact on relations with China, which are increasingly difficult, as they are with Russia.
American rhetoric towards central Europe will change with the arrival of the Democrat Biden in the White House, but one thing will remain the same as in the Trump era, both for Europe and for Prague: Washington will expect the support of its allies in the global rivalry with China. And on this point, the Czech Republic has already moved and has a head start. Prague has in fact signed a joint declaration with the United States in recent months, committing to select “only reliable and trusted hardware and software suppliers”, effectively excluding the Chinese company Huawei.
Furthermore, with Biden’s return to the White House, Europe and the Czech Republic will be able to count on renewed support for democratic values, regional initiatives, stability and the focus of the Atlantic Alliance. The Czech president Miloš Zeman also underlined these points in the long congratulatory letter sent to Biden.
“I appreciated your strong determination to strengthen the transatlantic link with the partners closest to the United States, of which the Czech Republic is certainly a part”, Zeman wrote. “I believe that during your presidency, as many times before, we will demonstrate that our countries are good friends and strong allies”, stressed the Czech head of state. He added that the United States is an important political and economic partner of the Czech Republic, especially for exports, a subject on which Zeman underlined that he did not like the economic measures decided by Trump such as tariffs on European imports. “I think it is clear that Europe needs America as America needs Europe”, and “the link between the Czech Republic, Europe and the United States is and will be solid and indestructible”, he added, while inviting Biden to Prague.
The same warm tones were displayed by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš who defined the US as “a key partner of the Czech Republic with whom there are strong ties in the transatlantic partnership and shared democratic values”. The statements were also confirmed by the outgoing American ambassador Stephen King, according to whom “relationships remain strong, because they are based on shared values and on what we have in common as people and as friends”.
With the arrival of Biden, however, it is the opinion of many political scientists, things will not simply go back four years, as in the days of the Obama presidency, of which the newly elected US head of state was vice-president. Biden will certainly put more emphasis on respecting the rule of law and the rules of democracy, with possible problems for Hungary. Democracy is an “existential” issue for Biden and unlike Trump, they will be pains for autocratic and sovereign governments. In this sense, Poland will also have its part to do in reaffirming ties with Washington. But there are still few certainties on the rest of the political structure of the new President.
What will change for Prague? The two main topics are economy and energy. On the one hand, where it stands on the Three Seas Initiative will be fundamental to the Czech Republic. The plan, born in 2015, aims to coordinate the energy, infrastructure and digitization efforts of twelve EU Member States in Central and Eastern Europe in the geographical area enclosed by the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Sea, and has a historical precedent in a Polish geopolitical project called Intermarium. The Three Seas Initiative, in which the Czech Republic has allegedly invested twenty million euros, has for now been left on standby and is viewed with distrust by Czech political leaders.
Biden, on the other hand, has repeatedly defended the project and the US Congress recently passed a resolution supporting US participation and economic support for the plan. The goal is to emancipate part of Europe from Russian energy dependence and for Washington is a way to counterbalance the Russian and Chinese influence in Central Europe with the promise of billionaire investments. The other side of the coin is the project to expand the Dukovany nuclear power plant. In this case, geopolitical interests are intertwined that involve world powers, including the United States, of course. Among other things, at the time Biden was vice-president in 2009, he came to Prague to support the aspirations of the American company Westinghouse in Czech nuclear power and took the opportunity to advise the Czech authorities not to buy nuclear technology from Russia.
The planned tender for the expansion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant has already become a “battlefield” in the chessboard of influence in Central Europe. The start of the procedures has been postponed from the end of 2020 to 2021 and consultations are underway with the European Union on the issue, which has heavy implications in terms of foreign policy, as well as energy policy.
The tender will be announced and organized by ČEZ, whose general manager Daniel Beneš declared that he did not consider it convenient to exclude the companies concerned from the off. The burning point of the story, in fact, is the presence, among the five preselected companies, of the Russian Rosatom and the China General Nuclear Power Group.
However, many Czech politicians are not of the same opinion as Beneš. The Senate has asked the government to exclude any Russian or Chinese company from the tender, a line also supported by national security bodies. Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček also agrees with the exclusion, claiming that “it is crucial not only for energy security, but also for the overall security of the country”.
And if the government clearly lacks a common viewpoint, time passes and a compromise solution is sought. The Ministry of Industry and Commerce has proposed four possible options for establishing the tender criteria: the first involves admitting all five companies; the second to exclude the Chinese and Russian, inviting only the American Westinghouse, the Korean Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power and the French EDF; the third strategy postpones the decision until after the 2021 parliamentary elections; the fourth, finally, would envisage a “3+2” model in which Russia and China could participate only in consortia of suppliers.
According to the Minister of Industry and Deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlíček, the fourth option is the best, “the most feasible”, and “it would allow not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it would guarantee a competitive race and a price reduction, while at the same time protecting the interests of national security”. However, the goal is to conclude the auction with the definitive contractor in 2024 and have the reactor operational by 2036.
It is clear that Prague will have to assert its national interests while facing the cumbersome interests and influences of the United States, China and Russia.
The figure of the head of the Czech counter-intelligence agency Michal Koudelka remains central in relations between Prague and Moscow. The Russian embassy described the words spoken by the number one of the BIS as “absolutely unacceptable”, following an interview in which he declared that “some operations of the Russian secret services can be considered to be terrorist attacks”.
Statements that confirmed what emerged from the BIS annual report which focused on Chinese and Russian intelligence activities, branding them as “the two main threats” of this kind to the country.
Zeman however lashed out against Koudelka again, stating that the BIS director does not fulfill his duties, he hides or does not provide information to the recipients required by law and discloses information that by law he should keep hidden. These are the criticisms that the head of state presented in the dossier sent to the government on the head of the BIS, whose removal he has been requesting for some time now. However, Koudelka still enjoys the favour of the Babiš government.
On the Russian front, the trip to Moscow of the controversial presidential consultant Martin Nejedlý also raised some discussion. Foreign Minister Petříček, evidently unaware of his visit to the Kremlin, asked to be informed about the reasons for the mission, also asking for an explanation to the public opinion, only to declare that the visit concerned the postponement of Zeman’s trip to Moscow.
Some media have speculated that the reason for the trip was precisely the tender for the expansion works of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, but Nejedlý made it known that he had to talk to Moscow about “issues related to presidential agenda, including visits between the two heads of state”. Upon his return, the entrepreneur and former director of Lukoil Aviation Czech did not provide details on the meetings, among which was the one with Yuri Ushakov, Vladimir Putin’s advisor for foreign affairs. Therefore, speculation remains about how much the Czech head of state, who has always been close to Moscow, wants to try to influence the fate of Czech economic and foreign policy with a pro-Kremlin agenda.
by Daniela Mogavero