Populists are not only in Eastern Europe

martin ehlAn interview with Martin Ehl, chief international editor of the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny. Interviewer: Bartosz Marcinkowski


BARTOSZ MARCINKOWSKI: What happened with the Czech Republic, a very liberal state for Central and Eastern Europe that they do not want to accept immigrants and refugees from the Middle East? Is this the Orbánisation of the Czech Republic that we are observing?


MARTIN EHL: Let’s put it into historical context. I was recently a bit upset by the first Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans who said that Central Europeans “have no experience with diversity in their societies.” Then I started to think on how to address such a statement. My argument goes this way – first, in the Czech Republic, in Hungary, in Slovakia or in Poland there is a tendency to use populistic solutions to problems. It is not necessarily that the leaders are offering these solutions, they rather follow the opinions. There is a fear in the Czech Republic, as well as in other countries in the region, that there is something dangerous coming from outside. The Czech President Milos Zeman contributes to this fear of Islam.


After World War II, the Czech Republic became a homogenous country. Before the war, there were large Jewish, German and Roma minorities living in our country. The Holocaust and expulsion of Germans changed that significantly. Then it became easy to play the nationalistic card and so the communists did it for their own purposes. However, during the last 25 years the Czech Republic started to acknowledge there are still some minorities living on its soil. From communism the country inherited a large Vietnamese minority. There is now a third generation of Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic. They are usually owners of small businesses. They are not considered to be integrated with the rest of society but still they are part of the landscape. Then there is the Ukrainian minority. In the Czech Republic, there is one of the largest Ukrainian communities living in the EU. It is not that we are welcoming them very warmly. They simply started to arrive in the 1990s as a cheap labour force and now it is difficult to imagine Czech’s construction sector without them. Then we have a very large Roma minority that is a problematic issue. So how then can someone blame us for not having experience with diversity?


Take populist politicians who are in the Czech Republic as elsewhere in Europe, add a communist heritage of homogeneity, recent developments in the world of Islam and the Islamic propaganda which is spreading fear, and the inability of Czech politicians to play in European politics, then the result is what you observe. So it indeed may look similar to the Hungarian case.


I recently wrote a commentary on the handling of the refugee crisis in the EU. One of my impressions was that the western European countries were a bit patronising in their dealings with states like the Czech Republic or Poland, telling them what they should do and how they should act. Did you have a similar feeling?


I agree, to some extent. Nobody blames Austrians when they give strong support to the Freedom Party which is also a clearly anti-immigrant party. Nobody blames the Dutch or the French for supporting far-right and anti-immigration parties. I think the attitude presented by western Europe towards countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia was unfair.


Learn more about the refugee crisis in the newest issue of New Eastern Europe: A Sea of Change


Of course, there are problems. For example, Hungarian political solutions are a domestic political game more than anything else. They are a kind of domestic political game. We need to find an answer to that problem. The truth is that everyone in Europe was caught off guard with the refugee crisis.


When the migration issue broke out, some commentators in Poland spotted a chance to revitalise co-operation between the Visegrad states which were badly hurt by divisions over the war in Ukraine. It is still quite popular in Poland to believe that the Visegrad group can be an attractive formula of international relations in our region. There are also ideas in Poland to build a wider alliance of Central European states. What do people and politicians in Czech Republic think about it?


Until the new government in Poland is formed and sets up its priorities, nobody in the Czech Republic – except very few experts – would be interested in Polish foreign policy.


But after Poland, which was previously opposed to the refugee quota system, voted in favour of it, it is now in a difficult position to build anything like what you mentioned. It may be now more difficult for Poland to persuade Czech politicians to put their energy into any deeper relations with Poland if Poland has different interests.


Do you think that the recent victory of Law and Justice in parliamentary elections in Poland will have an impact on Polish-Czech relations? Will it improve it or make it worse?


I do not expect any significant changes here. It is because Poles are not among the most popular nations in the Czech Republic. There are very few personal relations between Poles and Czech. I have not seen a willingness from the Polish side to invest in mutual relations between our countries either.


However, there are business relations between Poland and the Czech Republic on quite a high level. There are many Polish companies investing in the Czech Republic. But there is no general feeling on both sides that deeper co-operation is necessary.


The Czech Republic and Czech people are generally perceived very well by Polish society. On the contrary, Czechs have quite a low opinion of Poles and Poland. Why?


Poles like their own picture of Czechs they created. It has little in common with real Czechs. The image you created is based on an image of a friendly, beer-drinking person who smokes marijuana from time to time.


On the contrary, there is no image of a typical Pole in the Czech Republic. If it is, it is more connected with the 1980s, and Poles are perceived as small smugglers trying to sell anything they can. There is nothing in Poland that can be really attractive for the Czechs such as sport, popular culture, economy… people simply do not know each other. Czechs know they can go shopping to Dresden or Vienna but the idea of coming to, for example, Wrocław for the same purposes does not come to their minds.


What country then is the most attractive partner and closest "friend" of the Czech Republic? Germany?


Germany is quite a natural partner with whom we have now bad political relations because of the refugees. As I mentioned earlier, Czech politics are quite provincial, it’s not about any big strategies. Czech politicians do not know how to build coalitions within the European Union, to create groups of interest for their own purposes. The Czech Republic is like a black sheep in European politics.


Previous President Vaclav Klaus and current President of Czech Republic Milos Zeman are perceived by many as pro-Russian. Zeman was in Moscow on May 9th while many European leaders refused to go to Russia that day as an act of resistance against Russian foreign policy. On the other hand, I recall many people greeting the United States Army convoy crossing the Czech Republic, or alarming reports from the Czech Republic’s counterintelligence agency that warned of large scale Russian espionage in the Czech Republic. How can these things go together?


First, we do not have a presidential political system in the Czech Republic. The position of president is actually very low. One should know that Zeman is a very skilful populist who plays to his own agenda. Among his advisors, there are people very closely connected to different Russian business and political circles.


Second, two-thirds of Czech society disagrees with Zeman’s policy towards Russia. The government has a more balanced approach. In the government, you may find people who have pro-Russian views, but you can also find very critical people such as the minister of foreign affairs as well.


There are some strong pro-Russian sentiments in Czech society. Before the American convoy came to the Czech Republic, the Russian propaganda helped to create the atmosphere that American soldiers were ready for a harsh reception. In fact, tens of thousands of people welcoming them and showed that what Russian media, or what Russian-inspired media broadcast, is not true. Not everybody is happy with the Americans crossing the Czech Republic, but on the other side, nobody wants to turn the Czech Republic into a Russian colony. It is because of Milos Zeman and some politicians from the Czech Social Democratic Party, that living abroad, you may get that feeling that we are all pro-Russian.


A few years ago under the Bush administration, the United States negotiated with the Czech Republic and Poland to construction parts of the US missile defence complex in their territory. If such an idea came back again, do you think Czech society would accept it?


I remember these plans. It was probably the first time when Russian propaganda mobilised and became very active. There were different NGOs, lobby groups which were putting a lot of money into persuading public opinion that it is a wrong thing.


Propaganda played the following card: “No to any foreign troops on Czech territory.” It was not the most successful campaign but there was no response from the side of the government.


What do you mean by saying “Russian propaganda” in the Czech Republic? How strong is it?


It is very strong, in particular on social media. There are many, more or less, strange news websites. There are different lobbying groups for Russian business that influence traditional media. It is a multi-channel work, it is not one massive wave. But it is not like these channels try to push Russia’s agenda, they try to destroy the feeling that there is something like an objective truth or reliability in the media.


Martin Ehl is the chief international editor of the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny.


Bartosz Marcinkowski is an assistant editor with New Eastern Europe.