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NATO intervention divides Czech politicians

Top Czech politicians have differed sharply over NATO's air attacks on Yugoslavia. While President Vaclav Havel has supported the NATO action, both Prime Minister Milos Zeman and House Speaker Vaclav Klaus have expressed doubts about the intervention and even have described its supporters as "warmongers." Zeman cited traditional friendship between Czechs and Serbs.

A majority of the most prominent political commentators have not questioned the right of both leaders to have their own opinions. But they have severely criticized both Zeman and Klaus for failing to embrace the NATO action only a few days after the Czech Republic became a member of the alliance.

In fact, Klaus's and Zeman's views, as well as views of some other leaders of the two biggest parties, should not come a surprise. Most Czech political leaders were lukewarm toward NATO during the entire process of the Czech Republic's accession to the alliance. Havel and a few other politicians, who campaigned hard for the Czech Republic's membership, were exceptions. One of the reasons for a relatively low level of the public's support for NATO membership, was the fact that leaders of the largest parties never actively campaigned for NATO membership.

Both the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) of Milos Zeman and the Civic Democratic Party of Vaclav Klaus (ODS) have increasingly used populism as their political weapons. One of the reasons why the Czech Republic has severe economic problems and why it is increasingly seen by the European Union as failing to meet EU admission criteria is the inability of both parties to lead. Rather, their leaders usually pander to the lowest possible denominators. The so-called opposition agreement that the two parties signed after the last year's parliamentary elections was officially billed as a "stability pact." In reality, it was designed to divide the spoils of power between the two parties.

The post-election cooperation between the CSSD and the ODS came a surprise to many observers. However, a careful examination of various statements and policies of the two parties shows that they have much in common, despite the fact the ODS describes itself as a right-of-center party and the CSSD as a leftist party. Both parties have shown strong nationalist tendencies. ODS leaders, for example, talk often about a "national identity" and the need to defend "national interests." Klaus has repeatedly warned that the Czech Republic could dissolve in the EU as a sugar cube in coffee.

The CSSD has displayed xenophobic attitudes toward Sudeten Germans. In the name of defending "national interests", it recently engaged in a conflict with the EU over imports of pork meat. Some of its leaders repeatedly propose projectionist measures. Until 1996, the party had not officially supported the Czech Republic's NATO membership. After 1996, the CSSD for a long time demanded a referendum on NATO membership, while its attitudes toward the alliance remained lukewarm.

The two parties represent some of the worse traditions of Czech political culture, such provincialism, opportunism, and a lack of resolve in critical moments. Throughout this century, Czech political elites have been weak. This is not surprising if we realize that the Czechs regained independence only in 1918, after almost 300 years of the Austrian rule. They lost independence again in 1938. Following the period of independence between 1945 and 1948, the country became a satellite of the Soviet Union for next 41 years. When the Soviet-led invasion ended the period of the Prague Spring reforms in 1968, the Czechoslovak political elite failed to show resistance, the same CZech politicians had done so in 1938 during the Munich agreements crisis and during the communist takeover in 1948.

The NATO action in Yugoslavia has been a difficult test for Czech politicians. Some of them have, perhaps understandably, shown the same kind of opportunism, ambivalence, a lack of principles that the Czechs know so well from their own history. Fortunately, the latest test does not threaten the country's independence. As such, it may in the end produce a useful catharsis in that the crisis has separated those politicians who are willing to defend the principles and values that the Czech Republic officially embraced with its NATO membership from those politicians who are at best capable of traditional vacillation.

Some of that vacillation is, of course, part of a complicated political chess game that some politicians play even in the moments when partisan interests should be secondary. Both Zeman and Klaus know that only about one third of Czechs support the NATO action in Yugoslavia unambiguously. As true populists, they have, therefore, been saying mainly things that the remaining two thirds of the population want to hear. It is, therefore, possible that despite the severe criticism they have suffered in the media, they can even improve their political standings.

In the short and the medium run, the fact most politician are unable to behave as statesmen is harmful to the Czech nation. Many people are confused by ambivalence between the Czech Republic's official support for the NATO action and critical statements by top politicians such as Klaus and Zeman. The process of identifying with NATO and the values it represents thus may be unnecessary retarded.

Reuters - 31. 3. 1999