This text is a transcription of the interview conducted by Michał Banasiak
Vít Dostál – the Executive Director of AMO. He focuses on Czech foreign and European policy, Central European cooperation, and Polish foreign and domestic policy.
Michał Banasiak: Hello and welcome, my name is Michał Banasiak, and this is The Institute of New Europe’s series of talks within the Polish-Czech Forum Project. Our guest today is Vít Dostál – executive director of AMO, Czech Association for International Affairs.
Vít Dostál: Hello.
Michał Banasiak: I would like to start with one of the recent events in Czech politics – anti-government protests in Prague. Could you please tell us more about the motives of protestors. Are they mostly economic, connected to high inflation rate? Are there some other motives, for instance connected with the war in Ukraine?
Vít Dostál: I think that we have to differentiate between two kinds of opposition against the government. First of all, we have standard political opposition towards the government which is of course in the parliament. The leader of the main opposition party ANO is the former prime minister – Andrej Babiš. They oppose through various political means the government’s doings. They have big public support. ANO has been for many months the leading party in the opinion polls. It seems that if the elections would take place now, the ANO would win it, and opposition would get the majority in the chamber of deputies. That’s the standard political opposition.
Secondly, we’ve got kind of an anti-systemic opposition, which are exactly the groups or the groupings you could meet last Sunday on the Wenceslas Square. They are more radical. They are less organized than the political party. They form one political party already, but in opinion polls, they get the support of around one and a half percent, from one and a half percent to three percent. It is not a politically significant force, but they organize demonstrations, meetings, they are quite active on social networks in the chaining emails. Therefore, they are quite visible. Still, I don’t think that the demonstration this weekend was a success for these forces. They attracted much less people than they expected.
To answer your second question – what is the motivation of people that gather for such a meeting? It’s the higher inflation, it’s the support of the Czech state for Ukraine. And it’s, I think, the general feeling in parts of the society that they’ve been abandoned by the government. Government also introduced some kind of plan of fiscal reform, which is now being implemented. So they have a feeling that they’ve been abandoned by the government, by the state institutions. They have such a feeling that they want to somehow voice their anger in a certain way. But as I said, they do not constitute a significant political force. The already existing parties are trying to attract these people as they constitute some kind of a trend in the part of society. The parties are showing a kind of understanding to their feelings as well.
Michał Banasiak: You said it was not a success, this demonstration I mean. What about the governing party stands on that matter? The government for sure also sees the economic troubles the Czech economy faces. It surely sees that the support for helping Ukraine policy is lower than it was one year ago.
Vít Dostál: I would have to look up the exact data for nowadays. I think that in many other countries, the support for Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees, as in the Czech Republic, has declined comparing to what we have seen in the spring of 2022. But I don’t think it declined significantly. It’s not a completely different story. There is a solid ground in the Czech Republic for support of Ukraine and of Ukrainian refugees. I think that the government is aware of that. But you can also hear voices, that rather than trying to find the motivation of these people, are trying to radicalize the European stances or their views, which is probably not a good strategy. I think that the big test is coming and that the big test will be the European Parliament elections next spring.
Between the presidential elections, this year in January, and the European Parliament elections next year in June, there is quite a long time period without any elections in the Czech Republic. And the moves of the society are going up and down. The impact of this winter on the Czechs families’ budgets will be definitely a very important factor. The inflation is a very important thing as well. But it’s the question of how much the government can do and what is the role of the National Bank. There are more factors that have an impact on that.
Michał Banasiak: Are the European Parliament, and other European Union’s institutions so important for Czechs that the next year’s European Elections will be a significant political event in the Czech political calendar?
Vít Dostál: It’s difficult to predict today the European Parliament elections. But I think that one thing is quite clear – that in the case of the Czech Republic, it will be perceived as second order elections. That means that the voters, they would not worry so much about the topics that European Parliament could influence. But they would focus more on the domestic political issues. And for the certain part of the society and the voters, it will be a good opportunity to show the yellow card to the government for they do not like what the government does, or what is trying to implement. That means that the opposition parties would like to exploit this opportunity. To show the government how it is being received by the society. That they completely lost the elections. And what is the popular opinion on how they govern. I think that it will be an important political event in the Czech Republic, but not because of the fact that the Czechs believe that the European Parliament is a very significant body, and that they should now decide on the issues European Parliament can actually influence.
Michał Banasiak: And what are both the Czech government position and social opinion on the current migrant crisis we have in the European Union, especially in the southern part of Europe?
Vít Dostál: I don’t think that it is a major topic in the Czech Republic. There has been some debate on the new agreement on migration, that was reached on the European level or among the member states, a couple of months ago. This agreement and the Czech positive stance towards this was partially criticized by the political opposition, by both parties. The populist center, party ANO and the far right Freedom and Direct Democracy.
So both parties harshly criticized the government for their consent to this new migration agreement. But I would say that it somehow disappeared from the media and the public discourse. That doesn’t mean that it can’t pop up in the future because the general public opinion is that we should not allow migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and the Czech Republic. So that’s the general opinion of the public. But I don’t think that it is a top five or top three topic in the Czech Republic right now.
Michał Banasiak: We are a few months into the Czech presidency in the V4. What are the priorities of this presidency and what are the plans for the rest of this term? Of course, much bigger part of this presidency is still ahead of us.
Vít Dostál: The Czech V4 presidency is focused on the civic dimension of the Visegrad Group, which is quite understandable as the four countries can hardly agree on the crucial geopolitical issue of today, which is the Russian war against Ukraine. We’ve got right now one country that thinks in the other way than the rest of the group. Besides, after the Slovak election, no one knows what’s going to happen. So that was, I think it was a smart move that the Czech presidency decided to focus on lower level of the cooperation, which is the cooperation among the societies, and good communication among the various ministries. I don’t think that the Visegrad group right now is a very strong political vehicle in the EU, not at all in NATO, it has never been, or generally on the international stage. I think just yesterday, there was a V4 meeting of the foreign ministers during the United Nations General Assembly, which means that the ministers actually meet on the stage of another big event they participate in anyway. Instead of organizing a big meeting in Prague with all the flags and ceremonies and we’ve had showing that it is a very significant event on the diplomatic calendar. I think that the Czech Republic is going to keep this low level of the presidency. And again, it is understandable, we are going to have elections in Poland and Slovakia. So the new governments will be formed, their foreign policy priorities will be announced and then it will be communicated to other V4 partners how to incorporate it into V4 discussions.
So I think that’s the plan for the next few months. Ukraine, of course, is a part of the program as well. It’s based, the priorities are actually smartly based on what has been already agreed on the Council of Europe level. That means that any country of the V4 can hardly oppose these policy goals of the Visegrad, the common policy goals of the V4. That’s another good move, but it also shows that the V4 is not kind of an avant-garde vis-à-vis Ukraine.
If you would like to search for some kind of avant-garde, it has been so far, this group of great six countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia as well. That’s basically, I would say, my reading of the Czech priorities and the view on the Visegrad cooperation right now.
Michał Banasiak: How important in Czech both political and social understanding of the war in Ukraine is a person of Petr Pavel, a current president and former NATO official. His stance on the war is very clear from the beginning of it. His way of thinking is very different than the stance of the former president Miloš Zeman.
Vít Dostál: He is in the office since March, so it has been six months of his presidency. During his campaign, he struggled a little with this picture of a general and a war president. That was not the thing he would advertise a lot. And of course, the president has much more duties than to simply be formally the representative of the army, which is somehow part of the constitution. But he focused on many other issues in past months. There was the case of the constitutional court. He had to propose new members of the constitutional court, which was quite a difficult exercise. He had to enter the discussions with the Senate that has to approve the members of the constitutional court. There were some quite important laws that he has to decide what to do about them in some kind of a discussion with the government. Of course, he has been quite active internationally. He traveled to Ukraine, which goes into the direction of your question. He also visited the places that are closer to the battlefield, unlike many other heads of the state.
He is kind of special considering that he traveled to the Dnipro as well. I think that he sees it as a part of his mandate to deal with the Russian war against Ukraine. He’s quite concerned, together with the government, about that topic. That’s a new thing actually, that the president and the government, all parts of the government basically have a very similar view on the foreign and security policy. Unlike the previous president. On the other hand, I think that he understands the complexity of his mandate and that there are many other issues he has to deal with, as I mentioned just a while ago.
Michał Banasiak: Let’s change the topic completely. CSOB Bank calculates and informs that this year’s Czech spending in Poland are more than 30% higher compared to the last year. And we know that Czechs come to Poland to buy petrol, to go shopping. But if we focus only on tourist spending, then the growth is even bigger because it’s more than 50%. Does it mean that Poland is a kind of touristic discovery for Czechs? Is it a new direction that Czech people choose for holidays?
Vít Dostál: I very much like this question. Because that’s the phenomenon of this summer actually. If you would go to a hairdresser and start a small talk – okay, so where did you go for vacation? You definitely find in the room at least one person that’s traveled to Poland. There is some kind of a mood or appetite for Poland this year. I believe that there are more factors that contributed to this. It is known in the Czech Republic that the prices in Croatia went crazy up, and that it’s not worth it going there anymore. Of course, that there is this high inflation, so people try to find something a bit cheaper as well. There is a topic of the Polish economic success present in the Czech’s media as well. People mainly around the border are aware of the cheaper prices of food products and oil because they go shopping behind the border every weekend. They know that this country called Poland is actually quite similar to us. It has something to offer, so let’s try it out and let’s go for vacation there. It’s not a result of any sociological research. Just my interpretation on what happened and why it happened. So suddenly that the Czechs travel to Poland for vacation.
But it’s not a completely new phenomenon. I think that the changing point is actually set 11 years ago when Poland hosted Euro in football. And the Czech team played, I think two or three matches, in Wrocław, which is close to the Czech border. They also played one match in Warsaw. Czechs started to travel to Poland. In the past you would ask – why to travel to Poland? It was a completely unknown country. This way of thinking transformed somehow.
And now we see the result of that. I think that I haven’t heard a negative story about the vacation. I’m interested in Poland, when people start to talk about vacationing in Poland, I always ask them how did they like it? And quite often they say that they would like to travel back in future or next year.
Michał Banasiak: You said that it’s a phenomenon of this summer. So what to do to make it a permanent thing, not only one season’s phenomenon?
Vít Dostál: The problem we’ve got between the Czech Republic and Poland, is a poor connectivity, especially on the western side of the Polish Republic. The railway connection is a problem. That’s the problem of the Czech Republic also, and Germany. Not only with Poland. I think that if you travel to Poland for the touristic reasons, then people usually travel by car. And then as soon as they enter Poland, they see the newly built highways and motorways. They are excited about it. So I don’t think that the level of infrastructure in Poland or between the Czech Republic and Poland would be a challenge for rising numbers of the Czechs traveling to Poland for vacation.
Michał Banasiak: Thank you very much. Our guest was Vít Dostál, Executive Director of AMO, Czech Association for International Affairs.
Vít Dostál: Thank you for having me.
Photo: Pierre Blaché: https://www.pexels.com/pl-pl/zdjecie/odbicie-podswietlonych-swiatel-zamku-praskiego-nad-jeziorem-3046347/
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.