This text is a transcription of the interview conducted by Michał Banasiak
Maciej Ruczaj – graduate of Charles University in Prague, publicist, analyst and diplomat. In the years 2016 – 2023, director of the Polish Institute in Prague. Author and editor of several publications on Polish history, political thought and Polish-Czech relations.
Michał Banasiak: Hello and welcome. My name is Michał Banasiak and this is a series of talks about the Polish-Czech relations within the Polish-Czech Forum Project. Our guest is Maciej Ruczaj, director of the Polish Institute in Prague.
Maciej Ruczaj: Hello.
Michał Banasiak: Could you briefly tell us about the daily activities of the Polish Institute in Prague? What do you do there?
Maciej Ruczaj: We are one of the 27 Polish Institutes placed all around the world. Mostly in Europe. Polish Institutes are institutions which form a part of the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs, which are dedicated to the public and cultural diplomacy. Our primary target as a diplomatic mission are not other diplomatic missions, not the institutions of the state, not government of the country we work in, but rather public opinion of the country. Our aim is to promote Poland. Our aim is to create bounds between institutions and people. Our aim is to provide good atmosphere for building all the other types of relations, economic and political mainly. That’s the general mission of the Polish Institutes and public diplomacy. In terms of Prague, of course it is a huge number of bilateral and multilateral projects we are dealing with every year, more or less 100 projects every year. Some of them, let’s say half of them, are our own projects that we initiated. The other half is something in which we helped, either Czech or Polish partners, in creating some common enterprises. That’s about our work. I would also add that our main target is Prague as a capital city, that’s the place where we work normally, but our activities should cover the whole territory of the Czech Republic. More or less 30-40 percent of our activities are happening outside the capital.
Michał Banasiak: You organise a lot of exhibitions, you organise a lot of events to promote Polish heritage. On what field do you focus, is it tourism, is it promoting Polish literature, Polish music, Polish cuisine?
Maciej Ruczaj: One of the great things about public diplomacy is that its infinitely variable. Every day you do something else, the scope of activities is really wide. From working with mass media to political issues. From promotion of culture to tourism and so on. You always have to think which way of reaching the public is the best in particular country, and which recipe for promoting Poland is the best. Polish Institute in Prague in the last few years made some kind of strategic decision about concentrating on two issues. One of them was promoting Poland as a tourist’s destination. Because in our opinion, the main problem we have is with, so called, average Czech person, who has high number of negative stereotypes about Poland. Who consider Poland to be kind of backward country, that cannot offer anything interesting. That was one strategic decision – to make that average Czech person travel to Poland and learn that their stereotypes are not compatible with reality. That was strategic decision number one. Strategic decision number two was to concentrate to a great extent on issues connected to memory, with history. Few years ago, I would say that the main stress was placed on explanation of difficult chapters of Polish history connected to the WWII. Connected for example to the negative myth of so called Polish antisemitism. Working with the Jewish community in Prague. Showing the scope of destruction brought by the WWII to Poland. Showing the specific situation of Poland located vice versa the alliance of two totalitarian regimes, meaning German and Soviet, that would be the main subject we were dealing with. In the last two, almost three years, there would be great stress placed on another subject. We call it in Poland Central=Eastern Europe. The subject of historical and cultural heritage of the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania. The cultural and historical heritage of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is for obvious reasons connected to the crisis in Belarus and war in Ukraine. In this respect, I think our institute did a really great job connected to educating Czech public in terms of history of this region, history that was completely unknown actually. Only after Russian aggression on Ukraine Czech public started to pay more attention to this region, and started to explore the history of Ukraine, Belarus, discovering that this region was not always within the Russian’s cultural sphere of influence. This historic, cultural issues provided second pillar of our activity. Of course we are not limiting our activities in terms of promoting Polish culture and art. This is always an important part of the activities of every Polish Institute. I think that in terms of contemporary art, the presence of Polish art in Czech context is satisfying. Cooperation between cultural institutions is also very wide, and that was one of the reasons why we were able to make that strategic decision to concentrate on tourism and history.
Michał Banasiak: You have mentioned a few examples of negative stereotypes of Poland which are still circulating in Czechia, but you also mentioned, that this is something that is changing. Can you see intergenerational differentness in receiving Poland? Between people which were brought up in, for instance in 50’s, 60’s, and people which were brought up in 90’s and later.
Maciej Ruczaj: Well, the problem of course is that we don’t have any kind of specialised research made on the perception of Poland in Czech Republic. There were some, but I don’t think they are sufficient to make any scientific, evidence-based, judgment. From my long perspective, of serving here in Prague and dealing witch Poland-Czech relations, I would say first of all, from Polish perspective we rarely realise how far we were in history. That our countries developed in completely different directions, and our perceptions of our place in the world were quite different. The events that brought us together were actually negative events. Meaning – being together put into this Soviet Camp after 1945. This was the negative experience, but actually in the end it created the sense of the bound between our countries, and it created of course a common starting point after 1989. This is the heritage which we are drawing from ever since. In the same time, it had a lot of negative effects. Mainly, I would argue that a huge problem is still the Czechoslovak communist propaganda from the 1980s. Which was directed against Solidarity movement, directed towards creating, in the general Czechoslovak public, the feeling that Poland is the country that does not deserve attention, or which is highly untrustworthy. For example, a stereotype was created that Polish products were not reliable, that Polish entrepreneurs are unreliable. Creating stereotype of Poles who are lazy and don’t want to work and therefore they strike. This propaganda was, actually, one of the biggest attempts of moulding the public opinion against one of the neighbouring countries in the history of the Czechoslovak secret police. Unfortunately, it has some lasting effects.
At the same time, despite this many negative stereotypes there is a change. I would say that in the last few years this change is accelerating. I view Polish-Czech relations from the perspective of public opinion in highly optimistic terms, there is a huge change connected to tourism. There is a huge rise of numbers of Czech visiting Poland, and prising Poland, changing their perception of Poland with their first-hand experience. Poland appears very often in the last few years in Czech public debate, as an epitome of modernisation. That is a huge change, because in the normal, traditional Czech discourse, Poland was this backward Eastern country. In the last few years, it keeps reappearing that Poland for example does better in terms of building public infrastructures such as highways. That Poland does better in using European funds. That Poland is doing better in terms of digitalization, and so on. This brings a completely new perspective, or a new dimension to this Czech-Polish exchange. Because as I said, for the last, I would say six centuries at least, Czech lands were considering themselves more modernised, more Western than Poland. Poland was viewed as backward region. This is something, for a person like me living in this Czech-Polish dialogue context for the last 15 years, it is cosmic change happening. The third issue, which is definitely changing perception of Poland, is the security. Poland is now perceived as a cornerstone of NATO in the Central Europe, and as a country which is reliable and trustworthy in terms of security. Viewed as kind of leader of a region, in terms of security. This of course connects to Czech’s overall perception of security issues. Very strong support of Ukraine, very strong support of NATO and transatlantic relations. Which is, to some extent, a product of the last few years, and which really helps to change the perception of Poland.
Number four is connected. I actually mentioned the fact that Czech perception of the all region of Central-Eastern Europe is changing, in connection to the Russian aggression. They are now more perceptive, and more interested, in the wider Central-Eastern European region. More perceptive to what’s happening in countries like Lithuania. Not only Ukraine but also Lithuania, Moldova and so on. Which of course, again, helps to rise the image of Poland as an important partner. Because we do have a higher amount of expertise on these countries and we are perceived as a player in this respect. More than in traditional vectors of the Czech foreign policy, being Vienna, Berlin and so on. So those four issues, definitely I think, changed positively the perception of Poland. Both in the terms of the elite, the opinion making, decision making elite of the Czech Republic, and in the wider public opinion. Those changes really make me feel that our work in the last years has some positive outcome. Of course they were wider political and other economical processes moulding this perception, but I hope that towerwork, as a Polish Institute in Prague, somehow contributed to this positive trend.
Michał Banasiak: You mentioned the security and also the Russian aggression on Ukraine, I would like to ask you about – to what extent Polish and Czech people share the view on the war. Because, let’s say, one year ago we had president of Czechia, who was thinking positively about Russia. We observed also, at least few, big marches in Prague, with Russian flags waving among the protestors. I remember that in Poland it was seen as pro-Russian perception of the war. What do you think about the perception of the war among the Czech community now?
Maciej Ruczaj: The government of Petr Fiala, who’s responsible for Czech foreign policy, form the very first moment of war is very strongly on the same side of the barricade as Poland. Czech-Polish cooperation was one of those important factors in creating European response to the war. That’s number one. Number two – Czech public opinion is, I think from the very beginning, in the considerable majority on the same side of the barricade as the Polish society, very strongly supporting Ukraine. Rising incredible amounts of private money in order, not only to help the refugees, but also to buy arms. Which in my opinion is one of the signs of the attitude of the society towards the conflict. Not only we are helping the civilians, the casualties, but also helping Ukraine to win. This is very important element of Czech public atmosphere in the months and years that followed 24 of February 2022.
Of course there is some part of society, which I would say, has negative attitude towards current government, and because of the government support of Ukraine, thinks the opposite way, or stakes opposite stakes. Of course there is in Czech tradition of political thinking, this I would say, Russophile tendency, which is connected to different historical experience of XIX century. Connected to the fact that Czech lands, or Czech national movement, was directed against the German influence, and therefore tended to view Russia as a Slavic-language country, as a kind of ally in this respect. But I would say that in Polish perception, in Polish discourse, this Russophile tendencies of the Czech society are overestimated. Not only in the last, almost year and a half since the beginning of full scale Russian aggression on Ukraine, but also in the long term. I think that the moment when definite change in Czech perception of Russia occurred was in 1968, and if we compare Czech attitude to 1945 and 1968, we can see how traumatic and decisive this moment was for the public perception of Russia and Czech-Russian relations. Of course it’s a long process, those Russophile tendencies are very deeply engraved, and it took a long time to actually star the discussion about 1945. Even in the last two decades let’s say, there was tendency to divide “good” Russian presence in 1945, and “bad one” in 1968 and after. Nowadays, there is a huge amount of relativisation of 1945 moment, huge discussion about it. We saw marshal Koniev statue dismantled before the war started. Marshal Koniev being a leader of Ukraine front, which took Prague in May 1945. I would say that Czech society in majority is now deeply distrustful towards Russia. It’s deeply conscious of the fact that the NATO is cornerstone of Czech security. It’s deeply concerned with what’s happening on Ukraine. It’s deeply on the side of Ukraine in this conflict, but of course there might be some differences in the opinions how deep Czech involvement into the conflict should be. Of course Czech Republic is further away from Ukraine than Poland, so those immediate security threats are less pressing on the society as a whole. So there would be a bigger gap between people who support Ukraine, and support for example refugees, and those who would argue for Czech arms being send to the frontline. Altogether I think that Russian aggression on Ukraine is one of the factors that also contributed to the Czech-Polish relations. Not only on the level of the governments, but also on the level of societies. It helped Czech this positive trend in perception of Poland, because Czech society, as a majority, is on the same side of the barricade.
Michał Banasiak: Thank you very much. The guest of the Institute of New Europe was Maciej Ruczaj, director of the Polish Institute in Prague.
Maciej Ruczaj: Thank you very much.
Foto: Chaitanya Nair: https://www.pexels.com/pl-pl/zdjecie/miasto-znane-miejsce-budynki-rzeka-16658696/
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.