15 years after the accession of the Czech Republic to NATO – searching for the security paradigm and political agreements

This year is the 15th anniversary of the significant event when the Czech Republic entered into NATO. Although the security issue is not an eminent topic for Czech society, it still is a “tremendous spectre from the past”. According to the historical context of the 20th century it is nothing unusual when the Czech nation always looks back to Czech historical milestones, such as losing sovereignty during 1938-1939 or breaking the national integrity in 1968.

In this spirit there have been numerous political and security concepts of Czech foreign policy established after 1989. The main protagonists of the Czech policy at that time were Václav Havel and Jiří Diensbier. Their vision of aligning the Czech Republic on the International level of OBSE based on a unified and cooperative Europe without NATO or the Warsaw Treaty. The withdrawal of the Soviet Union’s army and the dissolution of the Warsaw Treaty were the first steps to fulfil their vision. However, disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union along with the end of the Gulf War showed the necessity for such security organisations which could protect not only the stability of Europe, but also its surroundings. The Czech political representation has realised this weakness and that is why the Czech foreign effort mainly focuses on the Euro-Atlantic structures.

In the first phase it was clear that the issue of aligning former USSR satellites into NATO would take longer for many reasons. At first it was due to the complexity of the international security climate. The USSR was breaking apart and had started losing its influence in the Middle-European region, so the Russian attitude towards NATO’s enlargement was crucial. The new candidate states had strongly refused the right of veto from the new ascender of the USSR. They were convinced that entrance into NATO was their free will, but on the other hand everyone realised that it would be very shaky to underestimate the Soviet shadow. The key priority was to “normalise” the Czech-Russian relations without the rancorous historical connotation through the Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation between the Czech Republic and the Russian Federation signed by Václav Havel and Boris Yeltzin at Prague in 1993.

The puzzled conviction based on NATO’s potential membership caused a lot of heterogeneous emotions from the Czech political representation at that time. The right-wing political parties were relatively set for an accession to NATO, even when Václav Klaus was (at least in the beginning) a little bit “sceptical” on the Czech security issue and preferred the international economic dimension. There were also no such outlined intentions from the political opposition of the left-wing parties. The Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) chose a very conservative position according to public opinion. The final decision of the ČSSD was conditioned on the national referendum, which they paradoxically abandoned even though the impulse for accession into NATO came during their political mandate.

The first stress test for the Czech Republic after accession was to show its commitments to NATO’s campaign towards the former Yugoslavia. While the voice of Václav Havel and his followers were openly inclining to support NATO, the government was quietly uncertain about the issue. At last the Czech Republic decided to solve the conflict in a diplomatic way. In May, the leadership of NATO presented a political document of the Czech-Greek peace initiative to solve the crisis in Kosovo. Unfortunately, the text of this initiative was based on compendium of previous solution proposals which did not result in a greater response. Also, these signs of Czech efforts gave rise to doubts rather than build solid credibility. It would not be the first time, nor the last time, the leaders of the Czech country could not agree on a unified position on world events.

The first years of Czech membership were rather groping. The poor economic situation in the military sector and limited reforms for strengthening of the armed forces gave rise to new concerns. The structural changes started in 2001 at the post of the Ministry of Defense where Jaroslav Tvrdík was elected as the new head of the Ministry of Defense. This step resulted in significant turnover on the recruitment of new armed forces, as well as attempts to professionalize and improve the relations with NATO. Moreover the involvement of the Czech army (AČR) into the fight against organized crime and international terrorism created the potential to bring back the security level on hot spot political debates. This was also one of the reasons why ČSSD got credit and won in the parliamentary elections in 2002 which was so far the first and last time when security topics significantly helped towards victory in the parliamentary elections.

The difficulty of the economic situation escalated more after the series of floods in 2002, when the ambitious and progressive reform projects towards the reorganization of an armed forces were subsequently aborted. The reduction of the military budget caused the abandonment of the purchase of supersonic aircrafts and also inhibited some projects associated with the reorganization of the Czech army.

Despite these facts, the Czech Republic has been actively involved in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and Iraq with mixed results. During the involvement in Iraq, the Czech Republic has once again shown inconsistency in its foreign policy.

While the message from Václav Havel was for full support of the Iraq mission, the official statements of the Czech political representation on this issue were so confusing that nobody knows what kind of attitude is officially presented.

Another security issue that was moving the Czech political scene at the threshold of the millennium was the involvement of the Czech Republic in the U.S. missile defense project and the deployment of the radar systems. These opportunities have offered a new strategic potential for the Czech Republic due to closer military and economic cooperation with the USA. Although the impulse for establishing these negotiations has come during the reign of the former Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla (ČSSD), paradoxically his accentors were subsequently strongly against these kind of rapprochements. Even though US efforts to use the Czech Republic as a stationary platform for regional security were significantly reduced, afterwards the critique of the Czech’s willfull decision started once again.

In the last couple of years the evolution of the Czech security dimension could be characterized as a stagnation and budget cuts period. This phenomenon was inevitably realized across the rest of NATO’s members as a result of the economic crisis. However, the situation in the Czech Republic was subsequently accompanied by overpriced purchases and, moreover, the army budget has become as an emergency spare through which other state-owned sectors could be financed. The question is to what extent and how long the Czech Republic could sustain this self-destructive trend in the future. The new government is currently trying to focus its policy to historical legacy principles based on Havel’s vision like active membership in NATO and the EU or fighting against terrorism, including some references to cyber-terrorism.

The only political representative who could clearly define its visions is Miloš Zeman. His pronounced a stance against terrorism that is publicly well known, and so his appeal to the engagement of Czech troops on the Golan Heights indicates the aim of his foreign policy efforts. His pragmatic attitude towards Russia is related to the current events in Crimea which also reflects his inner conviction about the negative consequences of the Russian intervention, but at the same time he understands interests of “…the majority Russian-speaking population”. Zeman’s vision about the Common European Army which was firstly introduced last year at Humboldt University, and this year it was repeatedly reiterated in his speech on the floor of the European Parliament is also interesting. Even if it is, as he himself says, a „European dream“, he managed to open the debate about the inability of the European Union to play an adequate role as a major security actor without the help of the United States.

To conclude, it must be considered that the search for the security paradigm still continues and the Ukraine issue would be some kind of catalyst through which the Czech foreign attitude could transform itself into a more solid form. The question remains if the current government is still able and willing to change itself. However, the inconsistent attitudes and contrary statements of various ministers still raises doubts.

Author: Tomáš Kolomazník, CBAP