Articles - June 2017


By Roland Flamini

In the summer of 2016, only two leaders of European Union countries spoke in favor of Donald Trump’s campaign bid for the presidency: Czech President Milos Zeman and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Then in December, President Zeman phoned Trump to congratulate him on his victory and “invitations were issued and accepted – on both sides,” says the Czech Ambassador to Washington, Hynek Kmonicek in a recent interview with Diplomatic Connections. Trump knows the Czech Republic. His first wife, Ivana, was born in Moravia, the Czech region nearest the Polish border, and during their marriage he was a regular visitor. When Trump wed Ivana in 1977 the Czech Republic was communist Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite in which, in 1968, Moscow had forcibly suppressed a nascent democratic movement. By the time the Trumps divorced in 1992, the Soviet empire had collapsed and democracy had been restored to Ivana’s homeland. An amicable dissolution had also split Czechoslovakia into its two component parts: the Czech Republic, or Czechia, and Slovakia. The Czechs have labeled the fall of the communist leadership in Prague and its replacement with a non-communist government “the Velvet Revolution.” That’s because miraculously, no one was killed in the tense days of confrontation in 1989 that led to the country’s dramatic change of course. The dissident leader and playwright Vaclav Havel became president. Restrictions on the media, speech and travel were lifted. Encouraged in part by the prospect of joining both NATO and the European Union if certain democratic benchmarks were met, the new government was quick to liberalize the country’s law with respect to both politics and the economy, creating an open and free society. Part of the legacy of 50 years under Russian control is that the Czech Republic is widely – and mistakenly, according to Hynek Kmonicek — perceived as an East European country along with Poland and Hungary. Geography disputes that perception, he says. In reality, the Czech Republic is situated west of Austria, itself considered a Western country. Another mistake, says Ambassador Kmonicek, is to lump his country with Hungary and Poland where nationalism clashes with the European Union’s more federalist approach. If an EU referendum were held in the Czech Republic any time soon “there would be no Czechxit,” says the ambassador, a seasoned diplomat who, in true Czech fashion, works seriously at not sounding too serious.

Diplomatic Connections: President Zeman [aged 73 and seeking another presidential term in 2018] was one of only two European Union leaders who expressed his support for Donald Trump during the U.S. presidential campaign. How is this influencing bi-lateral relations?

Ambassador Kmonicek: It’s still to be seen. When I presented my credentials to President Trump [March 24] I obviously reminded him of this, and President Trump was already aware of that fact. In backing Trump, President Zeman was relying on his own political experience and his gut feeling, and you can say that he bet against the house. We believe that this could – should – be reflected in the personal relations between the two presidents. But, as I said, we’ll see what happens.

Diplomatic Connections: Did the subject of President Trump’s connections with Bohemia come up?

Ambassador Kmonicek: There was no time. But I heard President Trump mention it during his telephone call with President Zeman in December. Our president had called to congratulate President Trump, and I listened to the conversation on another line. It was discussed at that time, including President Trump’s memories of past visits to the Czech Republic. We’re proud that he’s the only American president who made it to Zlin [Ivana Trump’s birthplace in Moravia, eastern Czech Republic], which is a nice city nobody’s ever heard of.

Diplomatic Connections: According to reports, Ivana Trump has expressed a wish to be appointed U.S. ambassador to her homeland.

Ambassador Kmonicek: That’s for the Americans to decide.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there an exchange of presidential visits in the works?

Ambassador Kmonicek: When President Zeman called President Trump invitations were issued and accepted – on both sides, I must say – and we’re trying to find the right time for such visits. The American president has a much more dense schedule and it would probably be impossible to bring him to Prague unless there is some big event; so a visit by the Czech president to Washington is more likely, and we believe that we may be able to have that during this year.

Diplomatic Connections: Shifting to politics, could you provide an update on the Czech political picture. On May 2, Prime Minister [Bohuslav] Sobotka announced that he would resign, but three days later, he withdrew his resignation. What is the situation now?

Ambassador Kmonicek: Legally, nothing happened. We still have the same government we had before his announced intention. In five months we’ll have parliamentary elections, and the prime minister’s party, the Social Democrats, and the party of Finance Minister Andrej Babis, which is called ANO (Czech for “yes”) will be the main fighting parties. Right now, they are in an uneasy coalition together. The prime minister wanted to fire his finance minister and was unsure if President Zeman would do so five months before the elections. So, to be sure, he decided to fire himself and the government. The president refused to accept his resignation so the prime minister was back to square one. Now he has asked the president to fire Minister Babis.

Diplomatic Connections: And what was the president’s decision?

Ambassador Kmonicek: The president is currently negotiating with the political leaders. Babis has said he will not resign, but he still can be fired. I believe there will be a quick fix until October. Knowing the Czech political calendar, in July and August half the country goes on vacation: they’ll all be in Croatia [on the Adriatic coast], so we’re talking June, September and the beginning of October.

Diplomatic Connections: And yet, the Czech Republic is in good shape economically. There has been rapid economic growth. Unemployment is at 3 percent, the lowest in the European Union. The Czech currency, the koruna, is in good shape. So why the internal tension in the government?

Ambassador Kmonicek: The fight has the classic political pre-election reasons. The Czech Republic is in such good shape thanks to this coalition government that they’re fighting for the ownership of its success.

Diplomatic Connections: Why is the Czech Republic in better shape than other EU countries, including some of its neighbors?

Ambassador Kmonicek: It’s a combination of a few factors: we were not too much affected by the European economic crisis [2007-2008]. This is partly because we were not in the euro zone, and we still are not and partly because of the very conservative approach of the Czech banks which are usually “daughters” – or branches — of the big European banks. So, the joke among Czechs was that the Czech banking industry was made up of healthy daughters of sick mothers.

Diplomatic Connections: Ah yes, the famous Czech talent for turning even the grimmest situation into a joke.

Ambassador Kmonicek: Yes, and every joke has a core of wisdom. But in terms of the economy, this government never tried to interfere too much with industry, never tried to limit or control foreign investment and tried instead to allow a real free market with not much government intrusion. We are an exporting country. If you have a nation with 10 million people and every year it produces a million cars it basically means you have to sell abroad and you must be competitive in quality, design and price. So, stability, predictability, and more or less minimal meddling with the free market policy were contributing factors. Also, we have a highly skilled labor force, equal to that of Germany, though not with German wages. But the trade unions are pushing every government hard for raising wages, which will have to happen, but gradually.

Diplomatic Connections: If your country had a Brexit type referendum any time soon about membership of the European Union, what do you think would be the result?

Ambassador Kmonicek: I’m sure there would be no Czechxit. Czechs usually have a lot of common sense: if they leave a place they will want to know where it is they wish to reach. And it’s highly uncertain where the Czech Republic would go, faced with a decision like that. Eighty per cent of the Czech GDP [gross domestic product] comes from export, and 80 percent of those exports go to the EU: we are so interconnected with the (EU) market it would be like draining your body of its blood believing that without blood the body would be lighter – and it would be, but you’d be a zombie.

Diplomatic Connections: But in a recent interview your foreign minister complained bitterly about what he considered arbitrary behavior by Brussels in its dealings with Prague.

Ambassador Kmonicek: The Czechs are able to distinguish between what the European Union means to us, and the EU not functioning well in certain areas. Most Czech eurocritics are not ideological: they don’t fight the EU, but how the European Union functions. They don’t want the EU to end, they want it to work much better. For my generation there was an easy equation: we want to be European because it means we will be more free and no communist politburo will tell us what to do. For a growing number of people this equation has been spoilt. It’s not the politburo that now tells us where we can smoke or cannot smoke: it’s the EU buro. It’s critical for the survival of the European Union to re-establish this link between being European and freedom.

Diplomatic Connections: Your mention of the politburo raises the point that the Communist Party is the main opposition party in the Czech parliament [the third largest group with 33 parliamentary seats out of 200]. How does that happen after what your country went through under communism, and without ties to Moscow who is supplying the oxygen?

Ambassador Kmonicek: The Russians are not communists any more: they are capitalists. Czech communists have ties with China, Vietnam, and North Korea. It’s a very complex party which is still discussing how communist they should be, because they are a reasonably big parliamentary bloc but are good for nothing — we call them unusable coalition potential. Everybody needs them to form a coalition government, but nobody can use them because it would be political suicide. So every election the communists have a reasonable success – but it’s totally empty. It must be rather frustrating for the communists: they participate in the race, but whether they come first, second, third, they never get the prize.

Diplomatic Connections: So why did they re-emerge after 1989?

Ambassador Kmonicek: There were the old guard communists, and the frustrated people who were not happy with the new free market economy, because their skills were not needed. They were left out while dreaming about the security offered in the past. The most interesting are the younger people who joined the communist party after the Velvet Revolution. All three groups are still clashing inside the party.

Diplomatic Connections: Does the Czech Republic still have the procedure called lustration to vet public officials for links with the Communist-era security services?

Ambassador Kmonicek: It’s still there, but it doesn’t apply to people who were born after the Velvet Revolution.

Diplomatic Connections: It took a decade for the Czech Republic to become a member of NATO [in 1999] and another five years to join the EU, along with Poland and Hungary. Why did it take so long?

Ambassador Kmonicek: The accession process involved negotiation, and it really depended on how skillful the diplomacy was to save the things that were important for us. Even allies can be competitors, and we had to decide what we would keep, and not keep. To our achievement, we are still very much in charge of the structure of our industry. Contrarily, we totally lost our big sugar industry which almost disappeared (because it was in competition with Western European firms). Also, we used to be the weapons factory for the Warsaw Pact. We still have quite a significant production, but it’s not at the magnitude it used to be. On the other hand we kept the air industry. The Czech Republic is one of not more than 20 states on this planet who manufacture planes.

Diplomatic Connections: What strike you as some of the anomalies resulting from your country’s EU membership?

Ambassador Kmonicek: Eighty percent of our legal system is coming from the European parliament, which creates the unbelievable – and typically Czech — paradox. What should be important is who represents us in the European parliament because that’s where the laws are made. Well, nobody’s interested. Every politician wants to get into the national parliament because it’s the power you can understand; closer to you. But when it comes to voting in the European parliamentary elections the turnout is very low. Logically, it should be the other way around, but for the voter the heart is bigger than logic; and the heart says the important guy is the one I see on TV every day, even if he produces a fourth of what the guy I never see on television produces.

Diplomatic Connections: When do you foresee the Czech Republic joining the euro zone?

Ambassador Kmonicek: We used to have some dates when we should have joined, but we never did. The euro crisis showed that this inability to meet our own deadlines was not a mistake. So currently the political thinking goes like this: Will we join the euro? Yes. What happens then? The prices will go a little bit higher, and the government will have to pay the political price. The result is that every government announces its intention of joining the euro – but during the next government’s term. Although from the economic point of view we clearly have to get to the euro sooner or later. Is it popular? No.

Diplomatic Connections: The Czech Republic participates in the sanctions against Russia, but on the other hand, you are largely dependent on Russia for oil and gas. So how does Prague manage its relationship with the Russians?

Ambassador Kmonicek: Dependence on Russian sources is there, but in the beginning of the 1990s we created pipelines to the north and west which gives us a reasonable chance that even if we are in some heavy political discussion in the east we can economically survive it because we now can switch supplies.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there a reason why you make no reference to the Visegrad Four, or V4, [the collaborative partnership of the four geographic neighbors — Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland]?

Ambassador Kmonicek: The point is that if you say Czech Republic usually the first idea which comes to everybody’s mind is, east Europe, but it’s nonsense. Prague is west of Vienna. You go through Prague traveling from Vienna to Paris. So there’s a disunity of the mental map and the geographical map. People are sometimes surprised by our positions because they think that the next city if you go east from us would be Kiev, but it’s not: the next city east of us is Vienna. So what we say to our friends is: to understand what the Czechs are, what our position is, look at the map. Not the one you remember, but the map as it is. We feel ourselves to be western Europeans who were Westerners for a thousand years, and for 50 years of communism we were stolen by the east. Unfortunately, people remember just those 50 years, ignoring the map and 950 years of our western existence. That’s probably the main, long term goal of Czech diplomacy – unification of the geographical and mental maps.

Diplomatic Connections: Refugee crisis.

Ambassador Kmonicek: First of all, the Middle East community had a tendency to go to countries where they already had relatives, which was not the Czech Republic, and where the social subsidies are much higher than in the Czech Republic, and where the culture is much closer to them. We do have a Muslim community which almost doubled during the Yugoslav wars, but these people were Slavic and has no problem assimilating into Czech speaking society. On the other hand currently our biggest national minority is Ukrainians, who are not considered refugees. They don’t ask for refugee status; they work in the Czech labor market, and because of the language proximity they are almost assimilated.

Diplomatic Connections: What about the EU requirement of having to take in a number of Syrian refugees?

Ambassador Kmonicek: We did clash with the European Union on the quota system because we wanted to keep the system logical. We wanted to have control over who would be coming because we had to sell it to the public. But we were not able to push that opinion through the EU. In the end, we accepted our quota which was 1,200 and we are trying to fulfill it. But you cannot force a refugee to live in the Czech Republic if he prefers to join his cousin in Hamburg.

Diplomatic Connections: You’re a career diplomat.

Ambassador Kmonicek: I am a career diplomat. For six and half years, I was the permanent representative of the Czech Republic to the United Nations.

Diplomatic Connections: What years were these?

Ambassador Kmonicek: I came to New York two months after 9/11 and I stayed until 2007. Then I went to be ambassador to India, accredited also to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, basically a territory of two billion people. From there I came back to headquarters to be the deputy foreign minister again (I had already been deputy foreign minister before going to New York). After that I was the ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, including Polynesia. Then I became head of the foreign policy department in the Prague Castle (the office of Czech Milos Zeman). I’m now in Washington but technically I’m still in the Castle because I kept my function as presidential adviser. So I wear two hats.

Diplomatic Connections: And you know the United States.

Ambassador Kmonicek: I know the United States to the point that for the last 14 years I consider myself a New Yorker: my wife is American, and all the years when I was ambassador my permanent address was always Queens.

Diplomatic Connections: When did you join the foreign service?

Ambassador Kmonicek: In 1995, directly from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for my post-graduate studies. Strangely, my main subject was U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations. Nobody studied that at the time in Israel, but [in light of the new alignments in the Middle East against ISIS] it is now highly topical.

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