This text is a transcription of the interview conducted by Michał Banasiak
Karel Sál, Ph.D. – Analyst at Institute for Politics and Society (IPPS), political scientist focusing on electoral systems, electoral behavior and electoral groups targeting. Expert in opinion polls and new research techniques. He cooperates with several Central European parties, where he primarily helps tailor election campaigns to their target audiences, seek campaign topics and analyze media. His work for IPPS focuses on the disintegration of traditional ideological systems, the issue of freedom of speech, the future of European integration and Czech domestic politics.
Michał Banasiak: Hello and welcome. My name is Michał Banasiak and this is the “Institute of New Europe Series” of interviews within the Polish-Czech Forum Project. Our guest today is Karel Sál from the Institute for Politics and Society. Hello Karel.
Karel Sál: Hello. Nice to meet You.
Michał Banasiak: How would you describe the opinion that Poland as a country has within the Czech society? Are there any stereotypes? Are they common among Czechs?
Karel Sál: Let’s start on the better side because the connection between the Czech Republic and Poland is not as good as it should be. We can see that in an industrial way, in economy, and especially in transportation with the transportation of goods. Especially the interconnection between the Czech Republic and Poland can be better. So in the Czech Republic we are a little bit jealous because Poland is building so many kilometers of highways, You are using a significant amount of funds from the EU to start Your development of Your infrastructure and the Czech Republic is a little bit wrecked on, because we are not that successful in this spectrum, and to me I have a little feeling that we are falling behind. Now the competition is going to be from the Polish side. Because we were a long time before, for the last 30 years, we were richer and had, for example; better infrastructure and stuff like that, and now we are seeing that the local and Central European new power is building and we are looking towards it, and we are interested in what is going on in Poland. There is also a second side of our relationship, and that is the issue of Turów mine because, this is a big issue, especially for those who live in the Northern part of the Czech Republic, especially in the lands of Bugatynie, and this part of Czech Republic, because this Turów mine clearly endangers waters for whole region of Liberecky Kraj which is a part of Czech Republic. This relationship is a little bit messed up with this issue because we know that Polish Courts canceled the permission for mining but the Polish government did not recognize it, or they did not take any measures to fulfill this decision. So now we are, I think we are a little bit confused as our neighbor is going to be maybe better, maybe richer than us and we have this big issue which is on the governmental level because the current government is clearly pro-Polish, pro-cooperation with Poland in the military area, economic areas. But the opposition especially is not that oriented and there can be some reduction or some problems in cooperation between Poland and the Czech Republic.
Michał Banasiak: And do You think that on the political levels, the relations can improve in the upcoming time because when Petr Pavel was appointed as the President of Czechia, and as far as I remember the second country he visited after Slovakia was his visit to Poland. Do You think it can be a sign that he is going to rely on Poland as one of the most important partners at least in the region?
Karel Sál: It was caused because of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, because if you are elected as a President in the Czech Republic Your first foreign visit should be Slovakia because of historical purposes. The second step was in past Germany because it is an economic ally, and most important importer and exporter for the Czech Republic, but the time is changing because of Russian aggression on Ukraine, so Petr Pavel decided to visit Poland as it is becoming a new military and a strong hold for Center-Eastern Europe. It was a part of restarting relations between Poland and the Czech Republic and to show that Poland is important to us. But I think, more important is the creation of government or formation of government because today’s government is a broad coalition of five political parties. The leading party is ODS which is a right-wing political party, present for a long time in the Czech political system and they are clearly pro-Polish especially Prime Minister Petr Fiala who has a very good connection to the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and with other people from PiS. However, this change can be reversed after the next elections, because parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic will be in two years, so we are halfway through the power and when the ODS loses there will be a rise of other governments such as Ano-Party which will have some others partners, and after that the connection between the Czech Republic and Poland will be much colder than it is right now. Because the foreign policy is made by the government, not the President, the President is responsible for framing the whole foreign policy in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they chose Poland as a symbol for a new beginning of something.
Michał Banasiak: So we can probably agree that the Russian aggression on Ukraine is something that strongly defines our Polish-Czech cooperation, and You mentioned the Turów mine issue, but can You see any other issues between Poland and Czechia which are now important for the cooperation and the bilateral relations?
Karel Sál: I think the situation is very clear that the Eastern Flank of NATO must buy weapons in massive amounts and now we are looking at Poland and see all the purchases, especially from the USA. The Czech side is looking for new fighter jets from the US and we are deciding between the US offer and civilian one on these aircrafts. I think the main core fundamental is to strengthen the Eastern Flank and regional cooperation, and the Czech Republic should be oriented on the ground forces because our army is insufficient and we sent a lot of military stuff to Ukraine, so our stuff is almost empty. Now we are looking to modernize the Czech army, and cooperation should take place, especially with Poland. There is some cooperation to some extent in military aid, so I think Poland will be the leading force, in ground forces and air forces in this region, and other countries with smaller budgets, with fewer soldiers can act within the Eastern NATO Flank as a whole as a support. The Czech Republic is looking for a role as a cybersecurity expert or in air control, with air support for ground forces especially in logistics. Because we realized within the last two years that we had these weapons, however, we sent them across Europe, but this is a problem present especially in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We see that Slovakia is not as good as it should be, and this is a reason why all members of the 3 Seas Initiative and all NATO members should strengthen their infrastructure, especially in the transportation of goods and military.
Michał Banasiak: And in Your case, especially in the case of Czechia, having a President who was a high NATO official in the past, does this define how Czech safety strategy and military plans can look in the future?
Karel Sál: Yes, because before Petr Pavel was a Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, he was Chief of General Staff in the Czech Armed Forces, so I think he is an expert in his position. This is a two-way operation right now because he has his military career and experience he can easily decide on what to do and he is oriented especially to cooperate with the Eastern Flank of NATO. So I think his politics and political program is to strengthen cooperation because of war. I think this is an opportunity especially for him to be a military guy who understands the needs of the military and he can easily speak about those problems in the public sphere. But there is also another side to this approach because, if You are NATO official it is good to give Your opinion and comment on certain things but, if You are elected as a President of the Czech Republic You should be more careful about Your future force with Your assumptions as, Petr Pavel many times was talking on the increase support for Ukraine. It might be true because, for Central and Eastern European countries Ukraine is so important but for example, for Spain or Portugal it is not that big of a deal as it is very far from them. Right now for him, it is a new challenge not to only be an expert but also a politician. I think Petr Pavel can do this dual role of an expert and a President who can say to for example Polish Prime Minister or Polish President “Look, we can do this and that, and together we can do more with joint statements”.
Michał Banasiak: Many countries and companies with or without help from the government are preparing for the rebuilding of Ukraine and preparing plans to go to Ukraine after the war to rebuild the country and how does it work in Czechia? Are Your companies also preparing for that time? Is there some governmental program to prepare Your companies to participate in the rebuilding of Ukraine after the war?
Karel Sál: Czech Republic obtained part of Ukraine, I think it is Donbas located in the Eastern part of Ukraine, so I think the Czech part will be the last one of this process. I think the Czech government is looking for strengthening cooperation which lies historically in the 1970s because the Czech Republic is oriented to have industry, especially coal mining, big factories producing metal products, so the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Trade and Transportation have some working groups who, prepare the programs for help, especially to those big companies in Czech Republic to be a part of this process of reconstruction in Ukraine. I think it will be by funding, to set up this cooperation. I think the position of the Czech Republic on Ukraine is good, especially because of the early support of the Kyiv government in the first weeks of the war against Russia. But the position of Polish companies I think is better than in other states for example; Western Europe of the EU. We are aware that reconstruction of Ukraine can be the biggest economic boost for this part of Europe, so we are looking to be prepared for this but, it all depends on Ukraine’s war luck for their forces right now.
Michał Banasiak: Despite the military area, despite the NATO Eastern Flank, despite the issue of the Turów mine, what in Your opinion will be the most important issue, maybe some problematic fields in the bilateral relations between Poland and Czechia in the upcoming time, which one would You point at?
Karel Sál: It is an interesting question. I think everything depends on which forces will be the leading forces in these countries in the next three or four years, because we are very interested in the upcoming Polish election that will take place this fall so we are looking for the next government, as everything depends on it I think. Because when two political forces are very close to each other, cooperation is better than if the forces are opposing, and there is no direct connection between them as for example Mr. Fiela and Mr. Morawiecki with their connection is much better than other leading heads in the EU right now. But the issue can be after changing the government, and the issue is the position towards the EU and the rule of law in the EU because the Czech side can be reluctant in supporting Poland when the problem of staying in the EU occurs if it emerges at all in Poland. But I do not think problems will occur in the economic area, it will most likely be in the political aspects.
Michał Banasiak: It is also connected with the elections both in Poland and in Czechia in two years as You mentioned, but I would like to ask You about the regional cooperation in the V4 and the 3 Seas Initiative because many people say that within V4 the cooperation is frozen because of Hungary stance not only on Russian aggression on Ukraine but also due to many issues caused within the European Union. What is Your opinion on that? On the cooperation within V4 and also regional cooperation within the 3 Seas Initiative.
Karel Sál: I think V4 is quite dead for the Czech government right now, of course it is not portrayed as something not important, it is very important for us but, the part of the government, especially the Pirate Party, this liberal part of the government and Top 09 conservative-liberal party, they are opposing Orbán regime very much, and in every occasion, they mention the state of democracy. Because of this, the government is not interested in deepening cooperation in the V4 initiative. I think it is in cold relations right now, and Czechs are looking for some other opportunities for example Slavkov Format, which is a cooperation between Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria, but I think overall it is much less important than the V4. There is no solution for V4 right now, but we clearly see two couples in V4 which are Poland and Hungary which have changed since the beginning of the Russian invasion on Ukraine, and Slovakia and the Czech Republic which is more pro-EU. We are also waiting and looking at Slovakian elections too, where a change can happen. With regard to the 3 Seas Initiative, this is a long-term problem for the Czech government because we only had one project on the canal which was an enormous idea forced by previous President Miloš Zeman. However, in the last months, the Czech government made steps to restart cooperation in the 3 Seas Initiative. From the Czech side, the government decided to add two more projects to the official list of projects which are both interconnections with Poland such as gas pipe Stork 2 on the Eastern-Northern part of Czech Republic. The second one is a high speed train corridor to Poland, so we have decided to change our goals and make some changes in the direction of this project in the Czech Republic. Before the leading force was the President and his office and now the government decided that the President has limited roles and they decided to make a new coordination and leading role of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Right now, the Czech Republic did not start the first investing budget of 20 million Euro because of the fear of public opinion. So we have decided to cooperate, however, our funds are not sufficient, and we are looking for other possibilities. However I do not know what the other possibilities can be, but it will shape and will be better next years than it was before.
Michał Banasiak: Thank You very much. Karel Sal from the Czech Think-Tank Institute for Politics and Society was our guest for the Institute of New Europe.
Karel Sál: Thank You.
The project “Intensifying Polish-Czech cooperation on the foreign policy priorities of both countries in 2023” aims to create a substantive basis for intensifying Polish-Czech cooperation in the field of foreign policy priorities of both countries. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Polish-Czech Forum 2023”. The cost of the project and the amount of grant is PLN 55 000,00.