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Czech Republic: Kosovo Exposes Foreign Policy Differences

By Victor Gomez

Prague, 2 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The ongoing NATO campaign in Yugoslavia has elicited all manner of reaction across Central and Eastern Europe. But few countries have presented such a mixed array of foreign policy statements as the Czech Republic.

First, there is President Vaclav Havel's firm stance in support of the NATO campaign. Second, there is Foreign Minister Jan Kavan's "peace initiative," which he presented in cooperation with Greek counterpart George Papandreou. Among other things, the plan calls for only a partial withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, something NATO is not prepared to accept. Third, there is former Prime Minister (currently chamber of deputies chairman) Vaclav Klaus's repeated insistence that the NATO campaign was wrong from the start and the alliance is now only trying to "save face."

Such disagreements are evident in other areas of foreign policy. When Kavan visited China as part of a Far Eastern tour in mid-May, spokesman Libor Roucek noted that not only did the current Social Democratic government disagree with the previous government's stance on China, but that it also differs from Havel's opinions on relations with that country.

While conflicting statements do not always reflect long-term policy, they tend to confuse the public and send mixed signals abroad. Observers note Czech leaders have largely agreed on the country's most important foreign-policy objectives, such as gaining membership in NATO and the EU. They say it would not have taken an extraordinary amount of coordination for politicians to formulate a common policy on Kosovo -- one that takes into account both concern over the humanitarian aspects of the conflict and the country's NATO obligations. The same could be said about relations with China.

The inability or unwillingness of Czech politicians to formulate a consistent foreign policy hints at a deeper problem.

While Havel's position on the Kosovo crisis has been relatively clear, there appears to be less consistency among other politicians. At first glance, Klaus appears to have been consistent in his criticism of the NATO campaign. However, this is at odds with statements that he respects his country's obligations in NATO.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Milos Zeman has wavered on the issue. Zeman says the Czech Republic must fulfill its obligations as a NATO member; at the same time, he says the decision to bomb Yugoslavia was made before the Czech Republic became a member. His interior minister says the country will accept 5,000 Kosovo refugees, but a lower-ranking official says the country cannot afford to take that many. First, Foreign Minister Kavan says his ministry is working on a "peace plan" for the conflict, then he calls it a "political initiative," finally he says it's a "supplement" to the G-7 plus Russia plan that contains "suggestions" for NATO.

Some differences between Havel and Zeman are to be expected. Havel, after all, is finishing his last term as president having never been directly elected by the Czech people. Zeman, by contrast, is at the head of a minority government, and both his and his rival Klaus's party are aware that a growing number of Czechs are opposed to the NATO bombing. On the other hand, Zeman knows as a new member of NATO, his country cannot afford an attitude perceived as breaking the alliance's unity. Hence the wavering attitude.

The problem is that the wavering has been noticed in the West. And if its neighbors and allies -- not to mention countries like China -- are to take the Czech Republic seriously, some of Prague's politicians likely need to start working out common stances on key issues. On the home front, perhaps the Czech public would be more appreciative as well of a government that showed some leadership. While many Social Democrats bemoan the fact that they are losing support to the Communists in the polls "because of Yugoslavia," they themselves may find that few things look worse than a government that wavers in the face of a major international crisis.