|Author: Karel Stindl|
CENTRAL EUROPE AND RUSSIA
Some Polish diplomats like to quote the philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, who once wrote that the question of the definition of Europe is to be resolved by a vote rather than by scholarly debate. The more you go into depth and detail the more complex the answer is. This is even more the case with Central Europe.
Because this is a political matter, we have "voted" for several political reasons to understand Central Europe, here and here only, to mean Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (before 1993, Czechoslovakia1 ).
These political reasons are simple enough: together with other states of Central and Eastern Europe, these states have a special status in their relations with Russia (before 1991, the Soviet Union2). For 45 years they were part of the Soviet bloc together with its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, and as such they were part and parcel of the threat to the democratic west of Europe, the USA and other countries. Hence those who lived in the West were not only afraid of the "Russians" but also of the Czechoslovaks, the Poles and so on, and with total justification3.
The cold war itself, in which the West contained Soviet bloc expansion, broke out as soon as its wartime ally, the Soviet Union, imposed a totalitarian Communist regime on Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia against the spirit of this alliance and of the Yalta agreements themselves; Churchill, Kissinger and a number of other western politicians even consider the 1948 Communist putsch in Czechoslovakia to be a direct cause of the cold war. The West supported this view by inviting these very countries to join NATO and by accepting them in 1999; Russia found it very hard to come to terms with this fact.
Moreover, these were the states which formed the Visegrad Group after 1989 with the aim of standing out and breaking away from the large number of post-Communist states, on the basis of their varied but essentially robust democratic, economic and cultural traditions. These traditions developed over the thousand years lived in the milieu of a spiritually integrated Christian Western Europe and there is certainly a hope that the momentum of this thousand-year-long development together with the political will to cultivate these traditions will be of greater avail than the forty-five years of the Communist regime. It is also thanks to these traditions, at least in the political and cultural sense, that these countries are among the most serious candidates for membership of the European Union. These four states have had very different relations with Russia.
Poland entered into close relations with Russia from very early on but it is primarily the conflicts and the warfare that have remained in the memory of the two nations. Poland, which in its day was a very strong kingdom on the borders of Russia, often came into conflict with it, and it was Russia, in collaboration with Prussia and Austria, which provided the main military and diplomatic leverage in the 18th century in order, perhaps for the first time in the history of Europe, to dismantle a historical European nation and deprive it for more than 140 years of its state sovereignty right up until 1918. Even after 1918, the hostile relations between Russia (now Bolshevik) and Poland did not abate: there was war in 1920 with the Battle of the Vistula, in which Poland probably saved Europe from the spread of Bolshevik world revolution, the Soviet operations against Poland during World War II and ultimately the incarceration of Poland within the Soviet bloc.
The Czech and Hungarian kingdoms lost their state independence for a much longer period of time than did Poland. They became part of the Austrian empire under the Hapsburg dynasty, which also only disintegrated as a result of the First World War. As a state the Austrian empire was often in a cautious alliance with Russia and the Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks more or less shared this Austrian approach towards Russia. The Hungarians, Slovaks and Czechs had few independent contacts with Russia in their history in comparison with the Poles.
This situation changed considerably for the Czechs and Slovaks during the National Revival in the 19th century. Under the influence of German Romantic philosophy and under the influence of the efforts made to improve the status of the nations within the Hapsburg Empire (and the democratization of the Austrian state), fairly large groups of Czech and Slovak intellectuals began to take a general hopeful interest in Russia both because of its presumed Slavonic affinity and because of its size and strength. In Bohemia, this led to the birth of a Russophilism which never really acquired any significant political influence but which was still of some importance in comparison with these other nations. Because it also existed among the south Slavs, it presently came to be of interest to the Czarist government, which began to promote it in its official culture and to channel it towards what was known as pan-Slavism, which had the potential of becoming the ideology of Russian imperial domination in Central European and other Slavonic nations. As such, it did not really prosper and it was eventually supplanted by the idea of world revolution. Nevertheless a residue of Russophilism and pan-Slavism was to be found after the Second World War among the principles involved in the fact that Czech society not only elected the Communists into the government in what were still free elections but it underwent subsequent russification without any difficulty at all4.
A new common element emerged out of these various relationships which the Central European states and nations had with Russia. Under the influence of the Russian Bolshevik revolution, extreme left-wing groups and eventually Communist parties arose in all of them. In the Russian-Polish war of 1920, Lenin only agreed to the crossing of the Polish border after Trotsky persuaded him that as soon as the Red Army appeared in Poland the Polish people would rise up against its own bourgeoisie. Exactly the opposite happened, and the revolutions in other countries, e.g. Hungary and Germany, were not successful either. This marked the beginning of the end of the idea of world revolution, which was replaced by the theory of the construction of socialism in one country surrounded by enemies. The Communist parties in our countries basically became executive agents for the Soviet Union, sometimes legal sometimes illegal. As the influence and the terror of the security forces in the Soviet Union gained in strength, so these agencies were literally organized in the manner of de facto illicit agencies within the Comintern. Whereas relations between our states ranged from cool to hostile between the two world wars, these agency-parties collaborated assiduously both before the war and during the war in emigration, and those who had survived Stalin’s purges returned to their states with the Soviet army, for the most part as NKVD agents. They worked towards the installation of Soviet regimes in their countries at a much more practical level than any Russophilism or pan-Slavism. They later became pillars of what was called Socialist internationalism and when the Soviet Union subsequently deemed it necessary to militarily suppress social resistance movements (in Poland and Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), they were a source of personnel for the new ‘convenient‘ leaderships of the unsuccessful Communist parties and states. The difficulty which, for example, in Czechoslovakia entailed several high Communist party functionaries taking part in the resistance movements consisted in the fact, amongst other things, that the Soviet Union was forced through various circumstances to allow its satellites a certain degree of state independence. This compelled the Soviet Union to unlearn the old explicit agency method of running Communist parties and governments in its satellite states and the highest representatives of these parties and state leaderships had to learn to at least appear to be "leaders" of their nations. This was one of the factors which contributed - depending on the measure and depth of this doctrine - to the occasional thawing of internal relations within these states.
In addition to this Communist collaboration within our countries, there was also collaboration among the dissidents who were active in these countries, particularly in the 1980s.
When the Cold War ended in 1989 and Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary won complete state independence and freedom and got rid of the occupying Soviet armies, it immediately became evident in the early 1990s that the great majority within their societies were all set to formulate their primary national interests rapidly and spontaneously. It was also shown that they all basically had the same interests, which formed a basis for the cooperation they had been unable to achieve in the inter-war period. This cooperation is a process that requires a great deal of time to create and it has been shown in the last ten years that it is not at all problem-free.
Which interests did the societies in these states express and which have they since aimed to implement?
In internal politics, there has been a transformation from totalitarian regimes to pluralistic democratic states with legal systems and the full implementation of human rights and freedoms of a Western European and North American type and the transformation of their extensively damaged economies into market economies based again on private ownership. Both of these processes are revolutions5 which in all cases are bloodless. Both of these national interests are legally codified in approximately the same final form in the new national constitutions of these states and they carry on as transformation processes involving the legislative, executive and court powers and the privatization of the economy.
In foreign policy, there is also a national interest to align the security of these states with that of states of a similar type and to engage politically, economically and culturally in Western European civilization, to which Central Europe has belonged for a millennium. In practice for all the countries involved, this has meant joining NATO and the EU. The first of these national interests was also codified by Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic at a high level with the ratification and the submission of ratification documents for accession to the Washington Agreement (we have already said why this was not the case with Slovakia). The second is currently being negotiated by all of them with the European Commission, somewhat belatedly in the case of Slovakia, along with the current harmonization of legislative, executive and legal powers, the economies and environmental matters with European Union standards. This will be codified upon the ratification of agreements for accession in all EU member states. The third foreign interest for all four states involves the best possible relations with their neighbours. The priority of this interest has hitherto been codified at a lower level after each election in third or second (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are already in NATO) position in the foreign policies of the governments, which have been approved by the parliaments in all four countries.
Relations with Russia, which have been described as friendly, good-neighbourly, mutually beneficial and based on mutual independence, but never as involving an alliance in the literal sense of the word, emerge in the foreign policies of these four states after the aforementioned interests and as a rule at the head of chapters on bilateral relations and with the emphasis on economic and cultural ties.
This article is to be on the current and future relations between Central Europe and Russia. No other approach is possible than to focus on the issue primarily from a Czech perspective after this cursory summary of the position of these countries in their relations with Russia. We do so on the tacit assumption that this viewpoint does not make the article too remote from the subject.
Czech politics confront, or fail to adequately confront, four basic problems. They are unable to properly reflect the Czech political and moral past, in particular to disengage from the conviction that Czech society and Czech politics are essentially guiltless for the fate of the Czechs. They have not properly reflected and implemented the positive aspects of the Czech political tradition. They suffer from a certain ambivalence in relations with Germany, which are dominated by an outmoded Germanophobia and they have not elaborated a realistic view of Russia, its past and its present.6
The need for critical reflection over the past is most palpably evident in post-Communist Central Europe in certain activities to do with what is called the settlement with the past. This settlement is usually thought of as involving some form of protection for the state and society against the ongoing effects of those who took the most active role in the implementation and operation of Communist or Soviet regimes in our countries and the redress of certain injustices, including those involving property, inflicted by such regimes on their citizens.
The first of these is dealt with primarily by screening ("lustrace") legislation. In the Czech Republic, this legislation has temporarily excluded such people (top Communist party officials, members of the party militia, the "People's Militias", security service functionaries deployed against the so-called internal enemy, and members of their secret informer network among the civil population) from participation in higher state administrative positions; it does not apply to elected positions.
The latter is dealt with by "rehabilitation" and "restitution" legislation. The Czech Republic saw the legal rehabilitation of people who had been unjustly convicted or penalized, and to some extent their professional rehabilitation too while there was also some fairly extensive property restitution, which became one of the most successful forms of privatization.
Both these legislative measures are part of one and the same revolution involving the aformentioned legally codified transformation of the state and its economy.
However, they also involve a consideration which basically takes two facts into account: a new European order was put in place after the Second World War. It was very much a product of the two world wars, the United States took a leading role and it was built up without the participation of a considerable part of geographical Europe, which had been taken over by the Soviet Union and which took up a threatening stance against this order. That is the first fact. The second is that the states of Central Europe under discussion, as well as certain others, i.e. the recent enemies of this order, were invited into this order to take part in its further development. What we are lacking is a proper acknowledgement that what Europe has undertaken with the assistance of the United States is also a revolutionary act and that the invitation to take part in it makes very basic demands on everybody, particularly on the former enemies of this order. Hitherto, however, in the Czech Republic, and we believe, elsewhere in the other Central European countries, we are only concerning ourselves with those aspects of this order that are the outcome of the internal politics of its members, or to be more precise, the left wing is concerned with the social aspect of this order, the right wing with the economic aspect of this order and we overlook the fact that the order itself came about from different motives: from the belief that democratic states can share a certain common system of values (of which political pluralism and a market economy with free trade are only components) and that this will protect them from military conflicts. Moreover, in the Czech Republic we have been fixated on the extremely problematical three years of our own history immediately following the Second World War as a positive political tradition7 , we tenaciously hold on to a number of its features and we do not acknowledge that it was these very post-war years of chaos which throughout Western Europe this order had to overcome and to a large extent did overcome. There are at least two factors here that may help us to elucidate the inadequacy of our thinking and perhaps even be of some general assistance. One of them is purely Czech.
In the rampant nationalism that was almost universal throughout Europe in the first half of the 19th century, a certain prominent Czech historian and politician acted in a manner that has been ascribed to the positive tradition of Czech politics, which at that time was confronting a fundamental issue. In 1848, the German lands were proceeding in their efforts to achieve national unification and statehood and convened the Frankfurt diet, which was to take further measures; this diet is often characterized as the first manifestation of pan-Germanism. An invitation to the proceedings was also sent to Franti?ek Palack? in Bohemia. He earnestly and courteously sent his thanks for the invitation together with his wishes for successful proceedings, but declined to participate in the diet on the grounds that he was not a German, adding an admirable positive political policy of his own. It was based on the contention that "in all my fervent love for my own nation" he would always appreciate more "the human and the scholarly rather than the national good".8 This concept was based on two fundamental tenets. Firstly, that the German initiative included a demand "for the Czech nation to join now of its own will with the German nation", which for him was indeed "a new demand, with no historical legal basis", "any previous association of the Czech lands with the German Empire must be considered and deemed to be not a union of nation with nation but as a union of monarch9 with monarch". Secondly, to the east, Russia "threatens increasingly to create and establish a universal10 monarchy, i.e. a murky and unutterable evil beyond measure and without limits, not because the monarchy would be Russian but because it would be universal". Palack? refused to choose between pan-Germanism and pan-Russianism or pan-Slavism and offered as a way out the idea of maintaining and strengthening the Austrian state, i.e. what might be called Austro-Slavism. Palack?'s idea did not win out politically as the prevailing nationalism was too strong. Both great powers went on to wreak havoc in Europe and the rest of the world in the twentieth century and one of the results was the dissolution of Austria. We have brought up Palack?'s political idea here because it managed to rise above the prevailing nationalism of its day and avoid a choice between two evils, pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism. Our present-day political thought often looks as if too many of us feel they have the same choice. Fears are raised of a "German Europe" and these are counterweighted by certain illusions about Russia.
One of the measures taken by the new-order Europe shortly after the Second World War might well be of special significance both in general terms and for the states of Central Europe in particular, i.e. the invitation to its old enemy Germany to take part in its development, and from the outset in its joint defence against Soviet imperialism. How could this have happened and what does it mean? Apart from the victorious western powers, who implemented a much more sober and broad-minded policy than they did after the First World War, the German nation itself takes the greatest credit for this. Nobody else in Europe so deeply contemplated some of their "murky and unutterably evil" history as did the West Germans at that time. This changed them back to the cultured humanitarian society that was open to the world, as they were thought of by Palack?, and with whom the Czechs had economically, culturally and academically collaborated, to their mutual benefit, both within the Austrian Empire and during the inter-war First Republic until the upsurge of Nazism, though indeed with the considerable problems that nationalism posed for a multinational state. And it also became a democratic state which revived another of its traditions, namely that of being an important historical participant in the creation of that system of values to which the new European order is bound, and as a result it has spontaneously become an important and integral part, rather as if it has 'just' fit in again. The lingering elements of our Germanophobia that can be met with both on the street and, explicitly or implicitly, behind many measures taken by Czech politicians involving Germany and Austria or the new European order, is an anachronism which prevents us from recognizing the crucial fact that nowadays Czech politics by no means involves a choice between Germany or Russia11 but to a great extent between the West, which includes Germany, and Russia. And not even that, because it still depends on what kind of state Russia becomes in its ongoing transformation process and what position it takes in international relations.
These three poorly handled problems: our deficient examination of our own past, our peculiar choice of positive Czech political traditions and our anachronistic understanding of Germany, doubtless amongst other things, contribute to the Czech perception of Russia.
The defect of this view, which is currently becoming apparent, is simple and it should be pointed out that a number of other European countries share it too12. It involves a certain amount of jumping the gun. The Czech Republic and a number of other countries are beginning to treat Russia as if it were already a democratic country and thus not hostile in its international relations, a welcome and safe partner in the 'concert of European nations'; one might sometimes even suspect that behind this conduct there lies the fervent wish of certain politicians and political powers for a Russia that is of course democratic to become a power for Europe, counterbalancing the influence of the United States, and in the Czech case, the influence of Germany on Central Europe. This entails a risk of prematurely lowering our guard against a potentially dangerous dependence on Russia.
Of course, we, too, sincerely hope that Russia becomes a secure, democratic state and that its weary, ill-treated society is freed to get down to work for a better future in economic prosperity and to achieve breakthroughs in science and culture. The problem lies in the fact that Russia is definitely not yet a state of this kind.
After another deep general crisis following the financial disaster in August 1998, Russian society and its political and cultural elite began to realize that the state of the country was a threat to the very existence of the state and the nation. Russia was faced with the urgent necessity of consolidating the state. This task fell first to the new Premier and then to the elected Russian President, Vladim?r Putin. He started off with a second Chechen war, which was tragic for both sides and which became a kind of funnel through which methods that can be recalled from the Soviet totalitarian era, including genocide of its own population13, were channelled into the new Russian statehood. As the year 2000 approached, Putin published his manifesto "Russia at the Threshold of the Millennium" in which he designated the consolidation of the state under the concept of "creation of a strong state" as the highest Russian priority. This priority of a strong state is currently one of the four pillars of the new idea of the Russian state outlined in this 'manifesto'. The others are the revival of Russia's status as a great power, patriotism and social solidarity.
Even during the second Chechen war it could be anticipated that the consolidation of the Russian state would be a long and difficult process lasting at least two to three years, and indeed it is14, but we would admit that even now the consolidation process is maintaining Russia's standing in Europe for the future as well as its positive opportunities for development.
However, there are also unfortunately an increasing number of indicators which cast doubt on this hope. These are generally well-known: the weakening or postponement of economic and political reforms, changes in crucial policy documents such as the national security policy, foreign policy, military doctrine etc, in which there is a return to the image of the West as a threat to Russian security, there has been an intake of functionaries from former and existing security forces into the 'civil' state administration (as a former KGB colonel, Putin himself is an example of this), there are amendments in legislation, attempts to renew alliances with such states as North Korea and Cuba, and relations with such states as Iran are basically at a high level.
One significant and relatively new factor is the change in Russia's behaviour towards the countries of Central Europe. Before their entry into NATO, we heard some very stiff criticism of our decision from Moscow. Incidently, unlike the Czech Republic, Russia very quickly realized that with its first planned enlargement of NATO, the West is primarily interested in Poland because of its size and its geopolitical position, and so a harsh campaign was undertaken with the aim of discrediting Poland as a provocateur against Russia and thus a risk-prone member of the Alliance; the initiators of this campaign probably hoped that if Poland were not accepted then the NATO enlargement would lose its significance and nobody would be accepted at all15. Russia did subsequently come to terms with this enlargement.
For a long time Russia then treated Central Europe in a very aloof and dismissive fashion, and contacts at a high political level almost ceased. The Russians adopted a very neglectful attitude towards routine meetings of various joint expert committees that had previously been set up16, the subject of Central Europe almost disappeared from Russian political writing, and so forth.
This situation has recently been changing. Contacts are being renewed, committees are working more actively and the Russians are acting in a more accommodating fashion in all these regards and are building up hopes of more promising future ties17. Actual tangible results are few and far between, however. As all these proceedings almost exclusively involve considerable rhetoric, the question is what all this rhetoric actually means18.
It is seriously worth considering whether or not this change in Russia's relations to Central Europe is an expression of its sudden realization that despite our primary national interests we often behave oddly and not particularly as allies towards NATO, reservations are increasingly voiced about the European Union and we often behave arrogantly towards our neighbours (e.g. towards Austria, on the maintenance of human rights in the case of the "Cuban resolution" and to some extent towards Poland too) and that as a result some hope is now fermenting that we are going to carry on in this fashion to an extent that creates new opportunities for Russia in Central Europe, however it develops otherwise.
The advice that we ourselves should take was put forward at the beginning of this section. The consolidation of Russia is not complete. What kind of state it will become and whether or not it will again take a fancy to Central Europe as did the former Soviet Union, is yet to be seen. Let us not get ahead of ourselves - not even Europe should do that - let us bide our time and try to use this little pause that history has given us to become better members of Western Christian civilization as it has developed to this day - for some time without us, than we appear to be doing at present. We belonged to it for a thousand years, long before the monster appeared on our eastern borders, first leading its Cossack horses to drink from the Vltava and ultimately deploying hundreds of thousands of its "Cossacks", armed to the teeth, in barracks throughout our four lands. We belonged to it before an expansive Germany with its aggressive Kaisers and Adolf Hitler straddled our western borders for 75 years. We do not know how the former will turn out. The latter simply no longer exists.