Czech-Polish relations have not always been as good as they are today. The prime ministers are meeting more and more often during bilateral visits, clearly marking a new opening in our Central European relations.
Until recently, the priority of the government headed by Beata Szydło was Budapest. However, since the beginning of this year and with the exchange of the Polish Prime Minister, the foreign policy has gradually begun to shift.
Mateusz Morawiecki clearly prefers developing a relationship with Prague and the Czech Prime Minister, Andrei Babiš. That being said, the time of Babiš’ rule might already be coming to an end. Although he survived the vote of no confidence, his coalition partners declared that they are ready to vote for accelerated elections.
Czechia is Poland’s second largest trading partner after Germany. That is why this new opening, apparently built to a large extent on the personal sympathy of the premiers, should be used to the maximum.
There is “chemistry” between both politicians despite the long history of dispute and even the commercial war regarding Polish food in Czechia; the economic success of which has directly affected the food sector, the lion’s share belonging to the Czech prime minister, himself. However, Poland should also act with caution.
The burden of familiarity
The problem is that in the face of new reports on the financial operations carried out by Andrei Babiš, and above all the mysterious kidnapping of his son, these relations may be a burden for Prime Minister Morawiecki just as the continuation of dialogue with Viktor Yanukovich had its political price for President Bronisław Komorowski.
Bearing in mind the problems of the main players in the Czech politics, Polish politicians must remember that they are dealing with a rather peculiar set of political partners. So, as Poland builds up this neighbourly relationship, Poles should keep a long-term perspective that goes far beyond the current presidential administrations and parliamentary sessions.
Unfortunately, we are increasingly seeing instances from both prime ministers that do not meet the standards of leadership expected by democratic societies. Their terms of office may last for a long time, but contrary to common opinion, the Czechs are able to pro-actively test the defence of their democratic principles.
A history of protests
On Saturday, November 17, the Czechs flocked to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the powers that be and to commemorate past protests.
79 years earlier, the Nazi occupiers suppressed students’ protests by force. Exactly 50 years after that, the people of Prague burst into the
streets to demand truth, democracy, respect and dialogue, and at the same time to express their support for Vaclav Havel – the would-be president. Protests can be considered living monuments to democracy, whose message from time to time is updated with important issues for the Czech people.
For nearly three decades, demonstrators have gathered almost every year to commemorate and celebrate this important component inextricably associated with Czech citizenry, but often the occasion is used to voice opposition to contemporary issues as well.
In 1999, they formulated the “Thank you, go away!” postulate addressed at the two largest parties led by Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman (the current president).
In 2008, they protested against NATO bases, and in 2014 the incumbent president received from the demonstrators a collective red card – a symbol of opposition to the political culture that he represents.
This year’s protests, which took place last weekend, focused primarily on the achievements of the Czech press a week before which revealed the dubious actions of the prime minister, and many indications are that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
A tragedy fit for the Bard
Recently, the findings of the prosecutor’s office – which is investigating financial fraud in connection with the construction of a recreational facility bearing the proud name of “Stork Nest” – have come to light.
As the European OLAF anti-corruption agency has already established, public funds from the EU were embezzled and used for this investment by the current prime minister to build his empire by hiding behind strawmen.
As soon as this matter came to light and the independent prosecutor’s office took up the matter, the son of the prime minister, 35-year-old Andrej Babiš Jr, disappeared and was unavailable to law enforcement agencies. The younger Babiš is of critical importance as he is one of the key witnesses to the matter at hand since he was working on the investment on behalf of his father.
After the police failed, the onus for finding the missing son fell on journalists from the Seznam Zprávy portal who eventually located Andrej Babiš Jr in Switzerland. In their meeting, Babiš told the journalists about being kidnapped – by two Russians hired by his father – and forced to temporarily move to Crimea.
The alternative was a psychiatric hospital coupled with an omission of insanity despite the fact that he had previously undergone rigorous psychological tests when he was a pilot of passenger jets. Chances that the tests were defective or that he suddenly contracted schizophrenia later in life are close to zero. This confluence of events has led to an explosive scandal. These last few paragraphs alone could be used to convince the ghost of Shakespeare to write another drama.
The conflict seems to be difficult to solve because, despite the scandal, which provoked Friday’s vote of no confidence, it is hard to imagine different scenarios playing out for Andrej Babiš. The Social Democrats do not want to leave the coalition, which they were only able to build after a great deal of effort, effectively giving the radicals back their seats.
Moreover, it should be said that President Zeman would nominate Prime Minister Babiš again, this time gaining even more influence on the positions of the government. Even without a coalition, such a technical government would have enough powers to rule, and without a formal coalition, it would be able to conceal even more uncomfortable facts from the public.
The role of the incumbent Czech president cannot be overestimated here. From the beginning of his term, he has been expressing the most pro-Russian position in the entire EU. Together with the weakening power of the government, his role has naturally grown as have the emerging connections with the political and economic elites of Moscow.
While the previous government, led by the Social Democrats, had the power to stop many of the president’s eccentric tendencies, the roles have now been reversed; the longevity of the ANO party government depends on whether the president will still want to endorse the discredited prime minister indefinitely.
Naturally, the Czechs are facing similar challenges as the remaining countries of the region. Uncertainty about the future directions of the European Union is being strengthened by the weaker positions of the countries in the shaping these processes.
Apart from Slovakia, the countries of the Visegrad Group have not yet joined the eurozone, and the idea of a unique eurozone budget could act as a marginalising tool against those V4 countries still outside the single currency.
Also, the likely technological revolution and economic downturn, which will probably take place in the next few years, has given rise to similar fears that the Central European economies are not as innovative as their competitors on the continent.
At the same time, the role of the US in the security architecture is being questioned by many sides, and some of them have made hasty conclusions about the end of NATO and even the EU. However, even if the EU does not break up soon, the potential takeover of the European project by the forces of various nationalists in the forthcoming EU elections may lead to a paralysis of European politics.
Depending on whether we are talking about Warsaw or Prague, these fears are being stoked by politicians in various ways. However, the attempt to approximate the Czech and Polish perspectives alone shows more than one scenario of coping with the uncertain future.
Prague is orientating its policy towards relations with Germany, though not exclusively, because their focus is the economy. Poland too often falls into the fatalistic perspective of the end of the world order as if the Union and NATO were about to disappear.
Despite conflicting perspectives on several issues, this rapprochement method may become a catalyst for a more open debate on the future of these countries and the region itself.
The article is published as part of the #DemocraCE series run by Visegrad/Insight and the Res Publica Foundation in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and editors of leading newspapers in Central Europe. It was first published in Polish on dziennik.pl and can be found here.