The mix of parties now working to form the next Czech government spans the spectrum from conservative to liberal, but all appear to share a commitment to the democratic principles espoused by founding President Vaclav Havel. And that, says a former Havel aide, could be bad news for China and Russia.
Havel, the erudite playwright whose writings and dissident activities helped undermine communism in Europe, “would be quite pleased” with the state of his country following last month’s parliamentary election, said Jiri Pehe, who advised the former Czech president in the late 1990s. Havel died in 2011.
The election unseated populist billionaire Andrej Babis as prime minister and left his coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party, out of parliament altogether. Babis formally submitted his resignation to President Milos Zeman on Thursday, clearing the way for Petr Fiala, head of the Civic Democratic Party and a leading figure in the winning five-party coalition, to begin forming a new government.
Pehe says he expects the incoming coalition, despite its philosophical differences, to adopt a foreign policy that aligns with the strongly pro-human rights, pro-democratic ideals of his former boss.
“At least for the next four years,” Beijing and Moscow will not have as easy a time as they did in recent years, he told VOA in an interview.
A foretaste of what may lie ahead was provided last year in a high-profile visit to Taiwan led by Senate President Milos Vystrcil, a longtime member of Fiala’s center-right Civic Democratic Party, known by its Czech acronym of ODS.
“Prior to my trip, I was aware that my decision to visit Taiwan was not supported by the highest constitutional representatives of the Czech Republic,” Vystrcil told VOA in an interview. Among the critics of the visit was Zeman, whose warm relationship with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping has been lauded by the Chinese Embassy in Prague.
But, Vystrcil said through a translator, “In the end, as a politician, you are supposed to do what you think is best for your country. It is also about what is good for the countries around us. I reached the conclusion that it is in the interest of both the Czech Republic as well as Taiwan that I visit Taiwan.”
Vystrcil was joined on the trip by Czech lawmakers and politicians, including Zdenek Hrib, the mayor of Prague and a member of the left-leaning Pirate Party, also part of the incoming coalition. He and Vystrcil were famously photographed together enjoying a beer at a Czech-styled pub in Taipei, foreshadowing the left-right coalition that would emerge from last month’s elections.
Beijing also has reason to worry about Jan Lipavsky, another Pirates Party member, who is seen as a candidate to lead the Czech Foreign Ministry. In an essay published as the coronavirus was taking off in March 2020, Lipavsky warned of the “propaganda panda” and predicted that China would seek to deny any responsibility for the worldwide spread of COVID-19.
He also denounced “Chinese and Russian clientelism” as an attack on Czech democracy.
If the new Czech government does turn its back on China and Russia, it is likely to find support for its positions even among members of the defeated coalition.
Among those sharing a skeptical view of the two authoritarian powers is Tomas Petricek, the former Czech foreign minister and an unsuccessful candidate in this year’s contest for the leadership of the Social Democrats.
Known to have opposed Zeman’s plan to have Russian companies bid for a key nuclear power project, Petricek also sees Beijing as being on a path irreconcilable with his own nation’s democratic ideals.
“You can say I’m against Beijing,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with VOA from Prague.
Democracy, Petricek pointed out, is an intrinsic part of the Social Democratic Party, and he saw no reason why the party would want to sit on the fence when it comes to which camp with which the country should align itself. The fact that the party was seen as ambiguous on this critical issue led to its defeat in the nationwide legislative elections, he said, a view shared by Pehe, Havel’s former aide.
Petricek said he has taken note of the nationalistic tone of the Chinese government’s recent rhetoric; he considers that — along with its aggressiveness abroad and repression at home — a contradiction of the principles of social democratic parties and the supposed ideals of communist parties.
Taiwan’s robust democracy, on the other hand, “negates” Beijing’s claim that Chinese people and society can only be governed by a single-party regime “somewhere between authoritarianism and totalitarianism,” Petricek said.