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Prague still caught between East and West as Taiwan furore exposes ideological split

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The Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil gives a thumbs up to former President of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera after he delivered a speech in Taipei.
The Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil gives a thumbs up to former President of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera after he delivered a speech in Taipei.   -   Copyright  AP Photos
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If the Czech Republic’s relations with China had been fraying over the past 12 months, they have now hit a new low after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reacted furiously to a leading Czech politician’s visit to Taiwan.

Speaking during a state visit to Germany, Wang said that Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil’s arrival in Taipei this week, the highest-level meeting between Czech and Taiwanese officials to date, is “an act of international treachery”.

He added that Beijing “won’t take a laissez-faire attitude or sit idly by, and will make [Vystrcil] pay a heavy price for his short-sighted behaviour and political opportunism".

Whether this escalates beyond accusatory words between Prague and Beijing is unclear at this stage, but it comes as the Czech Republic undergoes a profound questioning of its foreign policy interests.

Not only does it lack consensus amongst political elites as to whether Prague should look west or east, but various groups are trying to steer the country’s international focus in opposite directions.

Zeman looks East

Since entering office in 2013, President Milos Zeman has reworked the country’s traditional westwards-looking foreign policy to foster better ties with China and Russia. In 2015, he promoted the country as a “gateway to Europe” for China and appointed as an adviser Chinese tycoon Ye Jianming, whose CEFC China Energy firm invested heavily in the country until Ye was arrested in Beijing in 2018 on corruption charges.

Zeman has also strived to develop closer ties to Russia, including his opposition to sanctioning Russia following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

But the last 12 months have seen a considerable backlash, as opposition politicians and locally-elected officials, led by the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, have taken it upon themselves to speak up against China’s human rights abuses and against Zeman’s closeness to authoritarian leaders.

Hrib, of the opposition Pirate Party, the country’s third-strongest grouping, has cancelled the capital’s sister-city relationship with Beijing, supported Tibetan independence and sanctioned the tearing down of statues of Soviet-era generals in Prague.

Other opposition groups are also trying to force change from outside government. Czech Senate President Vystrcil – whose visit to Taiwan this week has created headaches in Prague – is a member of the opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the country’s second-largest party in parliament, which is also campaigning for a tougher line on Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Czech public remains doggedly anti-China. A Pew Research Centre survey from last year found Czechs held the second-worst views of China amongst Europeans.

Sitting somewhere in-between the eastern-looking aspirations of President Zeman and the opposition group’s westward-facing impulse is Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ government.

Foreign policy

Because the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy, President Zeman has certain, yet limited, powers over foreign policy, says Ivana Karaskova, a China research fellow and a project coordinator at the Association for International Affairs (AMO), a Prague-based think tank.

“So while he is a political player to reckon with, foreign policy is done by the government, which has been generally, yet lukewarmly, pro-Atlantic and pro-European,” she added.

Indeed, Babis’ government has tended to side with Washington amid the international dispute over Huawei, the Chinese tech firm that the US government accuses of spying on behalf of Beijing. In December 2018, the country's cybersecurity agency, NUKIB, warned of the dangers of Huawei technology.

However, Babis’ government is sensitive about upsetting Beijing lest it affects Czech-Chinese trade, which was worth around US$30 billion (€25 billion) last year.

Another issue, Karaskova noted, is that Babis’ coalition government depends on the support of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia’s 15 parliamentarians, which further complicates its stance on Russia and China.

US posturing

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Czech Republic last month, he appeared keen to pull on the threads dividing the country’s political elite, stressing that the Czech Republic should recoup its strong pro-American stance.

Partnering with Russian and Chinese energy or technology firms, he said, will “undermine the Czech Republic's national sovereignty”.

Speaking before the Czech Senate, he castigated “the Chinese Communist Party’s campaigns of coercion and control” as potentially a greater global threat than the Soviet Union post during the Cold War, a comment intended to resonate in a country that was invaded by Soviet troops in 1968 during the reformist-communist “Prague Spring”.

A problem a century in the making

In many ways, the issue of whether Czech foreign policy should lean closer to Russia and China or towards the US is an existential question about Czech domestic politics, too. When Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, it considered itself the most “Western” in democracy and liberalism of newly-founded Central and Eastern European states, and publicly lauded its close relations with France and the US.

Woodrow Wilson, the US president at the time, was a major proponent of Czechoslovakian independence and Wilson City was one of many proposed names for Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia.

After decades of Nazi then Soviet hegemony, the country’s pro-Western orientation was resurrected after the fall of communism in 1989, which allowed for its so-called “return to Europe”. Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist dissident and Czech Republic’s first president in 1993 – following the breakup of Czechoslovakia that year – took a very dim view of the Chinese Communist Party and was resolutely pro-American.

The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union five years later.

This western-focused agenda was somewhat upended by the arrival of President Zeman and former Prime Minister Petr Necas, who in 2012 castigated the country’s traditional values-led foreign policy as “dalailamism”, a mocking reference to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, who formed a close friendship with Havel.

Today, however, Havel’s democratic, liberal and pro-Western views are undergoing a revival amongst critics of the government and President Zeman. The largest protests since the dissolution of communism in 1989 took place last November, chiefly against the Zeman’s allegedly autocratic style of leadership and Prime Minister Babis’ alleged corruption, which included investigations over his business dealings by the EU.

As such, anti-Beijing and anti-Moscow sentiment in the Czech Republic has become a means for people to express their support for democratic and liberal ideals within domestic politics.

“This will be a trip to honour the spirit of late Czech President Vaclav Havel,” Vystrcil said at a press conference after arriving in Taipei on Monday. The Czech Republic, he added, “will cooperate with democratic countries, regardless of whether someone else wants it or not.”

How Czech foreign policy is affected by his visit, however, depends in large part on whether the Chinese government follows through with the threats made by its foreign minister.

“China will first of all need to show a tough face in front of the domestic nationalistic audience and also to discourage other countries from following the Czech example,” says Richard Q Turcsanyi, programme director at Central European Institute of Asian Studies at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

“On the other hand,” he added, “being too hard risks further worsening relations with the EU which is a crucial international partner for China at the time of high tensions with the US.”

Sources told Euronews that they are unsure of whether Wang, who is on a two-week charm offensive in Europe, was speaking directly on orders from Beijing and whether the threats made against Vystrcil also extend to the numerous businesses that were part of his 90-member delegation to Taipei.

“The worst possible scenario would be a direct retaliation against Czech companies” or even expelling the Czech ambassador in Beijing, Vladimir Tomsik, which would most likely lead to similar steps from the Czech side, says Karaskova, of the Association for International Affairs.

Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, who had publicly criticized Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan, was forced to come to his defence and on Monday summoned the Chinese ambassador to Prague, Zhang Jianmin, to explain Wang’s comments.

“The trip has, of course, an impact on relations with China, but I think that has crossed the line,” Petricek said on Monday, referring to his Chinese counterpart’s threats against Vystrcil.