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Czech-german declaration held up by domestic political wrangling

The Czech-German declaration signed in Prague today by Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and his German counterpart, Helmut Kohl, has caused domestic political problems on either side of the border. The declaration, which addresses mutual historical grievances and attempts to pave the way for improved relations, is opposed bySudeten Germans in Germany and leftists in the Czech Republic. It still has to be ratified by the two countries' parliaments.

While the document will undoubtedly be approved by the German legislature, where it is supported by a solid majority, its fate in the Czech Republic depends on the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD). The three ruling coalition parties, which support the declaration, have only 99 seats in the 200-member parliament. The two extremist parties-the unreformed Communists and the far-right Republicans-will vote against the declaration. The Social Democrats, therefore, hold the key to future Czech-German relations.

The CSSD will likely allow its deputies to decide for themselves how to vote. That would ensure the passage - albeit by a tiny majority -of the declaration. However, the party's desire to humiliate the ruling coalition at any cost have lately been the main motor behind its policies. Holding the key to the declaration's passage may once again prove too tempting for party leaders. A few weeks ago, CSSD leaders began talking about amending the declaration or passing an accompanying document. Government officials have warned that amending the declaration would invalidate it and that passing an accompanying document would undermine its significance.

Moreover, CSSD leader Milos Zeman is seeking to court far-right and communist voters in order to expand the party's electoral base. His strategy is opposed by the party's moderate wing, whose leaders want the CSSD to be a center-left party with a definite, forward-looking program rather than a broad forum for all those who are dissatisfied with the current government. However, Zeman currently has the upper hand. And, clearly, he is right in assuming that the CSSD's approval of the declaration would anger the electorates of the two extremist parties.

Some 3 million Sudeten Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II in retaliation for their war-time collaboration with Hitler's Nazi regime. Many of those Germans argue that the expulsions were based on the principle of collective guilt and that they should have the right to return to the Czech Lands and/or claim back the property that was confiscated from them by the Czechoslovak authorities. Many Czech opponents of the declaration, on the other hand, say that the Czech government should not apologize for any aspect of the expulsions.

The Czech and German governmens rightly argue that the declaration, which took almost two years to negotiate, is a solid and balanced document. Both sides make important concessions and gain something in return. The Czech Republic expresses regrets over the expulsions, for which it has Germany's unequivocal support for its European Union and NATO membership. Both sides also agree to ignore all future political and legal claims arising from the past.

That Germany was prepared to make both concessions should, in itself, be incentive enough for the Czechs to approve the declaration. Reconsidering legal claims by Sudeten Germans would play havoc with the Czech legal system. The Czech economy could simply not cope with any large-scale restitution of Sudeten German property. Germany's resistance to, or a lack of enthusiasm for, Czech EU membership in the event of the Czech Republic's refusal even to apologize for some aspects of the expulsions-could prove to politically and economically disastrous for the Czechs.

Advantageous as the document might be for the Czechs, the CSSD, however, argues that the declaration does not address two important issues. First, although the declaration says that the Nazi regime's acts before and during the war resulted in the expulsions, it avoids saying that Sudeten Germans contributed to the destruction of prewar Czechoslovakia by allying themselves with Hitler. Second, the declaration does not mention the so-called Potsdam agreements, in which the victorious powers sanctioned the expulsions. While the defenders of the declaration claim that the so-called wild expulsions started long before the Potsdam Conference and that the Czechs need to accept responsibility for their actions, many Social Democrats argue--together with the Communists and the Republicans--that the Czechs were mere executors of the victorious powers' will.

Any amendment to the declaration expressing such sentiments would clearly undermine the declaration. Germany's Social Democrats have warned their Czech counterparts of the adverse international repercussions of rejecting or amending the declaration. The CSSD is clearly torn over the issue. It is the Czech Republic's most vocal advocate of EU membership; yet, the rejection of the declaration could considerably cool Germany's resolve to help the Czechs gain early membership. With opinion polls showing that almost twice as many of Czechs agree with the declaration as formulated than disagree with it, the CSSD should try to have a constructive attitude. If it were to defeat or amend the declaration , the CSSD might well have to concede a Pyrrhic victory.

Reuters - 21. 1. 1997