Russia Is No Upper Volta With Nuclear Weapons

MEP Alexandr Vondra is unequivocally in favour of helping Ukraine and its admission to NATO and the European Union, but only when the war is over. He is convinced that the Union will turn to the right after the European Parliament elections in 2024 and his group will become stronger. He also fears that if Donald Trump wins the US presidential election, he may be driven by a desire for revenge, which will affect the  policies he pursues.

Aureliusz M. Pędziwol: Four years ago in Wrocław you said: “I was a co-founder of Visegrad, so if someone smashes it, they will have to deal with me.” Aren’t you afraid that moment is coming?

Alexandr Vondra: No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember saying those words, but anyone who has built a house defends themselves when someone wants to tear it down.

What is the point of maintaining the Visegrad Group if Hungary, and soon probably Slovakia as well, is on the opposite side from the Czech Republic and Poland on the most important issue today, the war in Ukraine?

First of all, with Slovakia this is not true for now. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As far as Hungarian policy towards Russia is concerned, of course I fundamentally disagree with it. Budapest’s attitude is
the reason why our relations with Hungary have cooled down considerably.

This applies to Prague, but also to Warsaw, which does not like Viktor Orbán’s stance very much either. However, this does not mean that we will demolish Visegrad, which survived Vladimír Mečiar, survived Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš, and I think will also survive Orbán. We are united by geography. We are here in Central Europe, and it is always better to talk to each other than to allow ourselves to be divided against each other. We have paid for this more than once throughout history.

Besides, there are a whole range of issues where we have common interests. Western Europe has significantly changed its unreservedly open immigration policy, and a great deal of the credit for this goes to the firm stance of all the Visegrad countries. So we know how to identify areas of common effort.

Let us return to Ukraine. In the Globsec Trends poll, 51 per cent of Slovak respondents blame the West or Ukraine for the outbreak of war. Two-thirds of Slovak respondents believe that arms supplies to Ukraine provoke Russia and expose their country to war. The Czechs gave diametrically opposed answers, almost the same as Lithuanians. But couldn’t this change?

We have always had different perspectives on Russia. One important reason is the different experience of the 1968 invasion, which hit society and the intellectual elite much harder in Bohemia than in Slovakia.

After the outbreak of the war, the Czech Republic acted like Poland or Lithuania and started supplying arms to Ukraine while others were still hesitating. Was it the initiative of the government itself or an impulse from NATO or the US?

There was certainly no impulse from NATO or the US, because the Americans were hesitant themselves in those first days. President Biden even seemed to be giving Russia the green light to attack with some of his awkward statements.

In that case, what is behind the Czechs helping Ukraine in this way? 

The Czech stance stems from three impulses. The first is the before-mentioned memory of the Russian occupation of 1968 and the subsequent devastation of our country.

The second is the delight of some Czech opinion leaders with the determination of the Ukrainians, headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky, their resolve to defend their freedom and sovereignty from the first minute of this aggressive and unprovoked war. For me, this was absolutely admirable, right and worthy of our support.

Twice in their recent history, Czechs did not seize the opportunity to defend themselves, in 1938 and in 1968. If we failed twice, we will succeed now, at least in the sense that we will stand behind Ukraine as strongly as we can.

And the third impulse: leaders who took a very strong and unequivocal stand at the beginning of the war. Like Petr Fiala, who went to Kyiv with Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki and Janez Janša.
They were the first major politicians to do this when it was risky and required courage. It was so convincing that it had an impact on public opinion. The Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger at the time, who certainly cannot be lumped together with Robert Fico, also received the proposal to go with them. However, he hesitated and ultimately did not muster the necessary courage. I think he later regretted it.

What scenario of the war do you think is most likely? What are the chances of it ending?

I don’t know, I’m not a fortune teller. I think today nobody knows what will happen. It’s very good that we stand behind Ukraine, that we help it. Ukraine is going through hard times because its enemy is simply big and strong. Russia is no Upper Volta with nuclear weapons, as it used to be said. Ukraine is in a rough patch, and we politicians are expected to say that we will support it for as long as it takes. There is no other answer.

As an analyst, I would add that Ukraine needs to set itself some achievable and realistic goals. But it is not up to us – now I am speaking again as a politician – to advise Ukraine on what goals to select.

The Czechs have taken in a record number of Ukrainian refugees. Would there still be room for more if a new wave started arriving?

I think there would still be room in our hearts. The question is whether we have the capacity to admit them. Should such a situation arise, we would have to deal with it. If I were to extrapolate from the experience of countries that have been able to absorb large numbers of immigrants, such as Israel, I think some reserves still exist. But it always depends not only on the possibilities, but also on the public mood, on the ability to face it with an open mind and with empathy.

So far the Czechs have been able to do that, but of course society has a right to be tired. It is also a question of resources. More for one person may mean less for another. So there is a lot of explaining to be done here.

Are you in favour of Ukraine joining NATO and the EU?

I am in favour of Ukraine’s admission to NATO. But this will only be realistic when the war is over. Now let’s help Ukraine wherever possible. Also militarily, by supplying weapons. However, admission to NATO will only be possible when everyone agrees. The crux of Alliance membership is Article 5. Admission now would mean questions in the parliaments of the member states as to whether their soldiers are prepared to fight for Ukraine. I think that at least a few members, by no means only Hungary, would not be ready for such a debate.

And when it comes to membership in the Union, I think this process will not be easy at all, and there will be very difficult negotiations ahead of us. But I am in favour.

And what will the relations with Russia be like after the war? Will the West go back to business as usual?

Business as usual is out of the question. On the other hand, Russia is where it is and will stay there. Nobody is going to move it anywhere.

It could fall apart.

I don’t think it’s realistic to hope for what perhaps some in Poland dream of, namely that Russia will break up into separate states. Moreover, that could bring more questions than answers and a whole host of other problems.

Russia will remain an important and influential country. And you will have to talk to it, bearing in mind that this country is capable of ruthlessly pushing its imperial interests.

And how do you assess Polish-Czech relations? I keep hearing that they are great, but I remember the recent dispute over the lignite mine in the border town of Turów. If it wasn’t for low prices in Poland, Czechs wouldn’t visit their neighbours. How do you see it?

I don’t see it badly at all. I think that Czech-Polish relations are actually better than at any time in recent history. And it is not true that Czechs only go to Poland for shopping. This year the Baltic Sea was one of the very popular destinations for Czech tourists, certainly not because of cheap shopping. Turów is an example of a genuine dispute that has been resolved. This agreement brings a lot of good
to the people on our side of the border, new waterworks are being built. In fact, it is an example of how Poles can resolve difficult disputes today.

However, the key thing, that is efforts to help Ukraine, would not have been possible without Poland. Poland deserves great credit and thanks for this.

And what is it like in the European Parliament? Who do you talk to there? With MEPs from your faction, the Law and Justice party, or also with others?

Of course, I work a lot more with Law and Justice, as it is the largest national group in our European Conservatives and Reformists group. We have similar, and sometimes identical, views on many issues. But there are also some where we differ. On economic issues, we are probably more liberal. For me, Poland is important, which is why I also talk to Poles from the other side, from the Civic Platform. For example, with Radek Sikorski, with whom we are in the Delegation of the European Union to the US.

One thing is constant for us: Poland is a key neighbour. We have to cooperate with all the parties in Poland that want good relations with the Czechs.

The majority of Czechs are against the switch from the koruna to the euro, but many Czech companies have already done so using the existing possibilities. Three of the four parties in the coalition are in favour of the conversion, but your ODS is divided on the issue. And what is your opinion?

That we should not rush. I would wait until the Eurozone has successfully gone through a second crisis, as big as the one a decade ago. Then it will be sensible to discuss it. For now, I consider it premature.

Over the past year, exporters have been pushing to adopt the euro as the koruna has appreciated. But this has now stopped, and in recent weeks the koruna has weakened somewhat. I don’t think it is still such a hot topic. Sweden or Denmark have been quite successful without the euro, so I don’t see why the Czech Republic should rush into it.

And the example of Slovakia?

I don’t know where the argument comes from that Slovakia is better off than we are. Inflation has nothing to do with the euro, it is rising throughout the West and the East. We lost cheap Russian natural gas and that is why it was higher in our country. So I don’t see any advantage in Slovakia having the euro and us not. Maybe with one exception, that when someone from there visits a eurozone country, they don’t have to exchange money.

But he or she is also not afraid that this trip might become more expensive.

But the euro has nothing to do with that. I have no doubt that when the immediate consequences of the energy crisis have passed, the Czech central bank will continue to act decisively and the koruna
will remain the stable currency that Czechs trust in. We have always trusted in it. Even under the Bolsheviks, with the exception of the crazy currency reform of 1953, Czechoslovakia did not plunge into an inflationary spiral like Gierek’s Poland or Kadar’s Hungary.

I therefore see no reason to treat the euro as a geopolitical lifeline to save us. I perfectly understand that this is how the Baltic countries perceive the euro. But I don’t see a security factor for us in it.

Next year there will be Euro elections. How much will the Union change after them? In what direction will it go?

I firmly believe that the European Parliament will have a better composition than it has today, which has been the greenest and most left-wing for as long as I can remember. Second, we have perhaps the worst European Commission in history. The Commission has always been an ally of the smaller and medium-sized countries, a guardian of the integrity of the rules of the game, making sure they are respected. The current commission is styling itself as a kind of imperial government that wants to impose its will on others. And this really must stop.

I am counting on the right to grow stronger at the expense of the green left, and I am counting on our group to increase in number, so that we can take third place. So I expect the next European Parliament to be more realistic.

Next year there will also be a presidential election in the US and it looks like it will again be a duel between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. What might this mean for Ukraine, Europe and the Czech Republic if Trump wins?

I don’t know. I make no secret of the fact that I have some concerns. I’m somewhat afraid that more than anything else Trump might be driven by a desire for revenge on the American political scene. And when something like that sets the tone for politics, of course it can also have consequences elsewhere.

Finally, a personal question. You were a friend of Václav Havel, his advisor when he was President of Czechoslovakia. But you also served Prime Minister Václav Klaus. How did you manage to
reconcile fire and water, Havel and Klaus?

In that crucial period, from 1990 to 1997, when we were seeking to anchor ourselves in NATO and the European Union, when we were debating key democratic and economic reforms, the foundations were well laid. The fact that we had both Havel and Klaus proved to be a blessing for our country.

Yes, clearly, it was something of a yin and yang principle. They disliked each other, they competed and disagreed with each other. But they also had so much state-building wisdom in them that they were able to work together in the interests of the country. This was something that, for example, Ukraine did not have the capacity for after the Orange Revolution, when Yushchenko and Tymoshenko waged an internecine war against each other and buried the revolution in ruins.

I suspect, however, that Václav Havel was closer to you.

As a person, of course he was. But this is not about hanging out together in a café or a tavern. In democratic politics, people don’t choose their buddies. It is the people who vote, and we have to work with those they have elected. This does not mean that we should cave in when they elect a dictator. But despite all the criticism of Václav Klaus, it cannot be said that he was a dictator. He was a free-thinking man who left space for people. He was clearly on the side of freedom and not some kind of dictate.

Alexandr Vondra

Alexandr Vondra (1961), signatory and one of the spokespersons of Charter 77, and member of the Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity, was President Václav Havel’s foreign policy adviser (1990-92), deputy
head of Czech diplomacy (1992-97), ambassador to Washington (1997-2001), government plenipotentiary for the NATO summit in Prague (2001-2002), Minister of Foreign Affairs (2006-7), European affairs (2007-9) and Defence (2010-12), and senator (2006-12). Since 2019, he has been a Member of the European Parliament for the Civic Democratic Party ODS, of which he has been Vice-
President since January 2020.

Aureliusz M. Pędziwol

Aureliusz M. Pędziwol is a journalist, Central European correspondent for the Polish edition of Deutsche Welle, previously correspondent for 20 years for the Viennese business daily WirtschaftsBlatt, also worked regularly for the weekly Prager Zeitung and a number of regional newspapers in the German-speaking zone, as well as several Czech press outlets. He primarily writes about the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as Austria and Eastern European countries.

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