On a recent visit to Prague, I spoke to Karla Šlechtová, the former defence minister of the Czech Republic. Despite her concerns over the numbers of Ukrainian immigrants in the country she was very clear in her support for Ukraine. Czechia, she said, “was in it for the long-haul.” She told me the country was already preparing for this winter with trucks of generators ready to be sent to Ukraine. Jakub Landovský, Czechia’s ambassador to NATO, highlights that the nation’s resolve is not because of the present threat from Russia, but because this is a wider fight for all countries who could be at the mercy of their more dominant neighbours: “If we lose,” he said, “we will lose the international order as we know it.”
In 2021, the Russian foreign ministry announced that Russia would be publishing an “unfriendly countries list.” When it finally emerged, the list contained only two names. The first, unsurprisingly, was the US. The second, more surprisingly, was the Czech Republic, a country once invaded by Russia and which has become one of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters and a battleground of the fight against populism.
Alongside the scale of US aid, the provision of German tanks, and our national pride over our own British contributions, it was in fact the Czech Republic that first supplied Ukraine with helicopters, tanks, rocket launchers and infantry fighting vehicles. The first deliveries arrived just fourteen days into the invasion. This was not just a government effort, the Czech people also showed solidarity, offering help, and gathering money for the Ukrainian cause. According to Prime Minister Petr Fiala, “We have led by example, showing others that it was possible.”
Czechia has certainly led by example in taking in Ukrainian refugees, accepting over 390,000, making it the country with the highest number per 100,000 inhabitants (Czechia’s population is around 10.5 million). By comparison, the UK has accepted around 174,000 Ukrainians (population around 67 million). This is when the Czech economy has been struggling and has taken a further hit due to the loss of Russian tourists (previously accounting for 15% of tourists) and increased energy prices from the switch away from Russian gas.
In 1983, the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote of the fragility of the Central European states. The Frenchman, the Russian, or Englishman, he said, are not used to asking questions about the very survival of their nation. Their anthems speak only of grandeur and eternity. Contrast this with the Polish anthem, which begins with the much less confident line: “Poland has not yet perished.”
For Kundera, the troubled and disjointed history of the Czech nation has meant its existence has never been experienced as taken for granted – uncertainty is one of its major attributes. Kundera’s thoughts were echoed by Prime Minister Fiala after the Russian invasion: “We clearly knew from the very first moment – perhaps thanks to our own historical experience – that we had to stand up for Ukraine. And we did it – not only the government, but the whole country, and it makes me truly proud.”
Czech people spent half of the twentieth century either occupied or controlled by a dominant power from the west or east. Hitler’s troops rolled into the German speaking areas of Czechoslovakia in 1938, after Great Britain and France conceded their right to do so in the Munich Agreement. In 1939, the Nazis created the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Protectorate oversaw the deportation, dispossession, and murder of most of the Jewish population of the Czech lands.
Kundera argued that, culturally, Central Europe had always been in the “West”. This, he said, was on account of the east-west european split that occurred during the tenth century, when the eastern Byzantine church and western forms of Christianity, tied to the Catholic church in Rome, had divided Europe into two separately evolving halves. The Poles, Bohemians and Magyars of Central Europe would end up looking westwards to Germany and Rome for their cultural and religious models. However, after the Second World War, Czech attempts to join the US-sponsored Marshall Plan were thwarted by the installation of a Soviet-aligned communist government. The border between east and west shifted several hundred kilometres to the east and an iron curtain was drawn across the continent.
For the next twenty years, Czechoslovakia remained within the Soviet sphere of influence. After liberalising reforms to address the struggling economy, in 1968, the Soviet Union invaded, worried the reforms would lead to a domino effect across other satellite states. Czechoslovakia remained a Soviet satellite state until 1989 when the Velvet Revolution peacefully ended the communist regime. The last Soviet troops left in 1991 and Czechs could look west again. By 1999 the now Czech Republic joined NATO, and by 2004, the EU. The invasion of Ukraine has further cemented these political commitments. When asked this summer if Russia’s actions had strengthened NATO, Jakub Landovský, the country’s ambassador to NATO, replied, “Definitely. It reinforced the transatlantic link; it made Europe and the EU wake up from the dream of peace.”
Czechia’s support for Ukraine, especially its acceptance of refugees has not, however, been universally supported. In a recent demonstration, thousands of people gathered in Prague for an anti-government protest, organised by the right-wing PRO party, who claim that, as well mismanaging the economy, the government has overburdened security and health systems with “the influx of economic migrants from Ukraine.” Fellow right-wing populist party the SPD has also highlighted the economic impact of supporting Ukraine and of housing refugees.
According to Fiala the presidential election, held in January this year, to succeed President Miloš Zeman, who started on the political left, but by 2018 was being described as far-right, was a fight between “democracy, respect for the constitution and a pro-Western orientation against populism, lies and leaning towards Russia.”
The businessman and former prime minster Andrej Babiš was one of the leading candidates. He first won power in 2017, taking advantage of popular dissatisfaction following the 2014 migrant crisis and the economic fallout from the Global Financial Crisis. He vowed to fight corruption and the “elites,” borrowing lines from Donald Trump’s campaign. His populist ANO party, that describes itself as “a centre-right”, formed a minority government. Other parties refused to enter into a coalition with ANO, due to the criminal investigation into Babiš and allegations of EU subsidy fraud. After a turbulent term, he lost out to Fiala in the 2021 election, when an anti-populist coalition focused on his botched handling of Covid-19 and Babiš’s past record of collaboration with the communist secret police.
Despite ANO’s clear stance opposing Russian aggression when in power, the Babiš campaign in this year’s election stoked fears of war between NATO and Russia, using billboards with the slogan “I won’t drag Czechia into war. I am a diplomat, not a soldier.”
Pavel based his campaign on anti-populism, contrasting Babiš’s “chaos and personal gain” with his values of order, dignity, and civility, and plans to deal with the grievances of former Babiš voters, travelling to poorer regions to meet his support base and discussing possible solutions to socio-economic problems, such as housing shortages and limited job opportunities.
In the second round, Pavel won 58.3% of the vote. Pavel, the non-politician, could provide a model for politicians elsewhere in Europe looking to unseat populist governments pushing divisive agendas.
Both the results in 2021 and January 2023 show that most Czechs are in it for the long-haul despite the sacrifices this entails. Politicians in Western capital cities should take heed of the advice coming out of central Europe, from those who understand more than they do, the consequences of appeasement.