As the new Czech government was sworn into office last week, a pressing question for Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s cabinet is whether to join a growing international boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Earlier this month, Fiala said he understood the reasons why officials from the United States, the United Kingdom and several other English-speaking countries will boycott the games that begin in February.
He said his incoming top team would make a decision on the Czech response through a collective vote.
The person likely to lead the campaign is Jan Lipavsky, the Czech Republic’s new foreign minister, who has publicly stated that he backs a diplomatic boycott, which will see politicians and official delegations shun the events in Beijing, even while Czech athletes still participate.
Jakub Janda, director of the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy, says it is “highly probable” that Czech officials will boycott the games, a view supported by other sources who spoke to Euronews.
It’s most likely that Lipavsky and other ministers won’t travel to Beijing for the Winter Olympics, but the second stage would be to declare an official diplomatic boycott of the Games, said Richard Q. Turcsanyi, a senior researcher at Palacky University Olomouc.
Lipavsky’s office didn’t respond to questions posed by Euronews.
Will the Czech Republic take a tougher stance on China?
European leaders were expected to discuss the boycott at a European Council session last week. Analysts reckon that several EU states that have recently taken a hard line on China, such as the Czech Republic and possibly Slovakia, will boycott the Games even if the rest of their EU neighbours don’t.
Turcsanyi expects the Czech Republic to now take a “tougher stance” on issues surrounding China and Russia, marking a return to a foreign policy agenda shaped by the presidency of Vaclav Havel, a liberal champion and the icon of anti-communist protests that led to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
On China, Lipavsky will champion a tougher approach as he has been one of the most consistently outspoken politicians on this issue during his time in parliament, said Filip Sebok, a project manager and research fellow at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank.
He will likely find support from a cross-section of the Czech political establishment. In June, the Senate passed a resolution calling on the government not to participate in next year’s Winter Olympics in China. And the “values-based” foreign policy espoused by Lipavsky will be “popular” among diplomats and bureaucrats within the Foreign Ministry, meaning he is unlikely to have few disputes with his staff, Turcsanyi said.
It could also be popular with the Czech people. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found Czechs held the third-least favourable view of China amongst the surveyed European countries. The parties of the new coalition government all campaigned at October’s general election on the promise to lead a pro-Western and pro-EU foreign policy, with a stronger emphasis on defending democracy and human rights across the world.
Will the coalition parties all be on the same page?
“For the new government, it will be important to demonstrate its pro-Western and democratic attitudes - often emphasised during the electoral campaign - and China and Russia might prove essential for doing so,” said Ales Karmazin, a scholar at Metropolitan University Prague.
“'Western values' have served as a trendy label in Czech politics,” he added.
What remains to be seen, however, is to what extent Lipavsky will be cautious or risk-averse, said Sebok. “A lot will depend on the internal dynamics within the new coalition.”
Prime Minister Fiala’s three-party Spolu alliance won the majority of votes at October’s general election and quickly formed a coalition agreement with the liberal-centrist PirStan alliance. Together, the new coalition government controls 108 of the 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, a rare majority for a Czech government.
One problem, however, is the weakness of Lipavsky’s party, the Pirates. The third-largest party after the 2017 ballot, it went into October’s election as part of the PirStan alliance expecting to make gains. But it won just four of the alliance’s 37 seats, making it the smallest of the five parties in the new governing coalition.
Because of the Pirates relative weakness in the coalition government, Lipavsky may try to compensate by being very active in setting the agenda, said Sebok. If that’s the case, he added, Lipavsky could get his way on a boycott of the Winter Olympics, yet it could create some friction within the government further down the road.
The other problem is Lipavsky’s lack of foreign policy experience, Turcsanyi said, adding that all his years of experience was in parliament, where he served as vice-chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee and the defence committee. Lipavsky, 36, has never held a post within the Foreign Ministry, nor has experience of being a diplomat.
Another possible point of contention is whether Lipavsky so early in office is willing to start a spat over this issue with President Milos Zeman, one of the loudest pro-China advocates in Czech politics. Earlier this month, Zeman intimated that he would reject the nomination of Lipavsky.
It has been reported that Zeman was opposed to the nominee’s anti-China and anti-Russia agenda, as well as their difference of opinion over Zeman’s desire to move the Czech embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
However, it was revealed on Tuesday that Zeman had agreed to Lipavsky’s nomination, meaning Fiala was able to get all his first-pick candidates into the cabinet, an early victory for the new prime minister.