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The return of Central Europe?

The Czech Republic and Slovakia have both responded strongly to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but their efforts have been somewhat obscured by the leading role of Poland and the Baltic states. Looking more closely at developments in the two countries points to shifting dynamics and new opportunities in Central Europe – for locals but also for their allies.

After the Cold War, Central Europe was able to punch above its economic and diplomatic weight in influencing international affairs as it commanded a certain degree of moral authority and respect. The region has, however, more recently became identified with the ‘Visegrad Four’ (V4) which has become known as the European Union’s (EU) ‘awkward squad’ – leading some analysts to announce[↗] the ‘end of Central Europe’.

Today, the region’s instinctive support for Ukraine and to refugees fleeing the Russian offensive has given it a chance to make a comeback. Czechs, Slovaks and their allies should capitalise on this opening to reconstitute Central Europe’s moral standing and international authority.

First responders

The 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet and Warsaw pact troops holds an important place in the collective memory of its successor states. It is thus little wonder that Czechia[↗] and Slovakia[↗] swiftly offered sanctuary to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian onslaught: they were among the first EU states to ensure the refugees immediately had the right to both reside and work in their countries.

This marked a significant change from their respective refugee policies and was seized upon by the two countries’ strong civil society sectors. They have helped citizens and authorities provide shelter and donations for refugees and have supported comprehensive assistance[↗], including free trains, public transport and calls back to Ukraine.

Despite recently fractious and polarised domestic politics, government and opposition parties have been surprisingly, but impressively, united in condemnation of the Kremlin’s actions. Petr Fiala and Eduard Heger, prime ministers of Czechia and Slovakia, respectively, and Zuzana Čaputová, President of Slovakia, have offered genuine leadership and reassurance, rather than sitting on the sidelines or blotting their copybooks in the reactionary or corrupt fashion of their recent predecessors.

Pro-Kremlin voices have been muted, with Robert Fico, former Prime Minister of Slovakia, and his allies on the defensive in Bratislava. In Prague, the reactionary and outspoken President Miloš Zeman, often seen as something of a Kremlin stooge[↗], surprised[↗] most commentators by denouncing the invasion and rhetorically attacking Vladimir Putin.

In a geopolitically significant[↗] move, Czechia and Slovakia were also among the first EU states to endorse[↗] formal recognition of Ukraine’s candidacy for membership of the bloc. With Paris hostile to further enlargement and Berlin hesitant over Ukraine’s membership perspective, Central European influence is greatly needed. Yet, unlike in the 1990s and early 2000s when Prague and Bratislava gained institutional recognition of their own ‘return to Europe’ in the form of membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the EU, they no longer have the same degree of moral clout.

Interdependence and influence

The region’s erstwhile heft was hard earned from enduring and overthrowing oppressive communist regimes, however, given the V4’s well publicised travails with and in the EU, their latest plea that Western Europeans heed the call of history may fall on deaf ears. While Brussels sees Czechia and Slovakia as less problematic than Poland and Hungary, their contribution to turning inward migration into a crisis[↗] between 2014 and 2016 has not been forgotten[↗]. The Czech Government at that time also dismantled the country’s human rights based foreign policy identity and successive administrations in Prague and Bratislava were mired in corruption scandals.

Nonetheless, there are notable standard bearers for assertively liberal and progressive politics from and in the region. Michal Šimečka, a Slovak MEP,1For disclosure – the author used to share an office with Michal Šimečka during the time (2014-2017) that they worked together at the Institute for International Relations in Prague. has spearheaded[↗] recognition of Ukraine’s EU candidate status by an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament, of which he was recently made a Vice President. Šimečka’s strong position in the Renew Europe European Parliament group, intricate knowledge of Brussels, political pedigree and moral integrity give him the ear of politicians around Europe.

The two countries’ membership of NATO and the EU give them further channels to work through. As part of its swift response to the invasion, Bratislava sought additional assistance from Berlin to bolster Slovakia’s defences against any possible spillover of the conflict from Ukraine, which it borders. Whereas Poland and the Baltic states had long been strongly bound into NATO’s ‘web of deterrence[↗]’ via the forward deployment of troops from key alliance members, Slovakia remained relatively exposed (even if still covered under NATO’s Article 5).

Even if the EU remains the anchor of any ‘progressive security[↗]’ agenda in the region – including via accession for Ukraine – the crisis has again underscored that NATO is the bedrock of Central European security. The ill-fated promise from Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, to send fighter jets to Ukraine had clearly been made without knowledge, inter alia, of the problems of Slovakia’s military air fleet[↗] and if anything, Slovakia needs help in policing its own airspace.

Indeed, Prague and Bratislava can both do more to contribute to the alliance, not least by accelerating progress to meeting the target of spending 2% of their national income on defence, but also through more practical means.

Prague’s commitment of troops to the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) is a welcome step but Czechia can also contribute to policing[↗] Slovak airspace and could invite the semi-permanent basing of alliance troops on its territory. This would provide an additional staging post between Germany (which also hosts British and American troops) and the EFP, and would better integrate the country in NATO’s deterrence posture.

Slovakia’s membership of the Eurozone puts it more in the EU’s integrative core than Czechia, but Fiala nevertheless effectively supported[↗] Poland’s successful appeal[↗] for Germany to provide more direct support to Ukraine. Coming from two of the neighbours which Germans often fear upsetting by appearing overly forceful, also contributed to the ‘turning point[↗]’ speech of Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, that finally committed Germany to increasing its own defence spending. Fiala and Morawiecki’s closeness may raise liberal suspicions but the Czech governing coalition also includes figures who are not natural companions for the hardline Polish conservatives.

The Czech Pirate Party’s Jan Lipavský recently took over the country’s foreign ministry and has complementd the conservative, Euro-ambivalent[↗] Fiala’s stance with more liberal, Europhile credibility. His fellow Pirate, Zdeněk Hřib, Mayor of Prague, has long been a progressive thorn in Moscow’s side, attracting the Kremlin’s ire[↗] (and alleged death threats) for, inter alia, high-profile commemorations of Boris Nemtsov, the murdered Russian opposition politician. Hrib even named[↗] a square round the corner from the Russian embassy – long home to Russia’s central European spying operation[↗] – after Nemtsov.

Can the centre again hold sway?

Hřib’s actions point to a crucial aspect of the region’s politics that had up until 24th February been dismissed in other European capitals: a keen sense of the threats[↗] posed by modern Russia. As recently noted[↗], this hawkish perspective had previously been dismissed as ‘Russophobia’ and even hysteria on the part of former Soviet satellite states.

Many now rightly feel vindicated, but they should also question why they were listened to in the 1990s, culminating in NATO and EU enlargements in 1999 and 2004, but not more recently. Some will point to the problems afflicting democratic societies in general, and others to Western European complacency, corruption and chauvinism – not to mention the wider problem of ‘Westsplaining[↗]’. Nonetheless, at least part of the answer can be found in Central Europe’s reduced standing.

Unlike the longer-standing German term, Mitteleuropa, Central European-ness had a distinctly normative as well as strictly geographical basis. Driven by leaders such as Václav Havel, it combined commitments to liberal norms – focused on human rights, fundamental freedoms and national self-determination – with a recognition that these needed to be protected by a liberal geostrategy. This vision underpinned the postcommunist transitions that resulted in EU and NATO membership.

It proved more difficult to effectively make a cogent, principled case for deterring the Kremlin in defence of an idea of the free world, when the region’s own liberal record became so patchy. Czechs and Slovaks should also avoid further self-defeating, seemingly Russophobic rather than anti-Kremlin steps, like Czechia’s cancellation[↗] of all Russian visa applications. Instead, the countries’ governments should support Russian civil society, including in Prague, to better undermine Russia’s kleptocracy.

The simultaneous push to include Ukraine in the EU and bolster the region’s own ability to contribute to NATO’s deterrence posture would be much more effective if Central Europeans can build on the steps they have recently taken back toward embracing liberal norms. Doubling down on the significant and encouragingly progressive aspects of their response to the crisis in Ukraine can help restore the moral standing upon which their influence, and their regional identity, significantly depends. Close and leading NATO allies, such as the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany, should use this moment of mutual need to build on the region’s growing importance and encourage better politics to grow from the seeds sown in its initial response to the Kremlin’s renewed offensive in Ukraine.

Dr Benjamin Tallis is a Practice Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin, Germany.

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    For disclosure – the author used to share an office with Michal Šimečka during the time (2014-2017) that they worked together at the Institute for International Relations in Prague.

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