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Isn't the Absence of a Serious Debate about the Ukraine War a Manifestation of the Czech Bad Conscience?

English Pages, 26. 5. 2022

Our media debate on the Ukraine war is rather flat compared to the much richer debate in Western Europe. The dispute is not – because it cannot be – who the aggressor is. There is certainly no question about it. The aggressor is Russia. Yet, some of our extremely irresponsible political activists, including the President of the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic, accuse their political opponents of being unclear, if not intentionally or vague about it. This is, of course, a lie, or in modern terms, disinformation.

Legitimate questions arise when we ask what led Russia to invade Ukraine and what consequences – on a wider scope – this war will have and for whom. There is no unity of opinion here. Blocking discussion on this subject is foolish. By doing so, we are harming ourselves.

To make it clear, I am not saying that the discussion is blocked by the government. The government might want to do it, but it doesn't have to. Discussion is being blocked from the inside, by a media dictate that does not wish for diversity of discussion. Media owners, chief editors and senior commentators are not the extended arms of the state. Yet, they determine what should or shouldn’t be written, what is or is not desirable.

I started by saying that the debate is flatter here than in Western Europe. I should admit that I mainly follow the debate in German-speaking "Mitteleuropa", i.e. Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I cannot judge the Scandinavian and Mediterranean debates. The UK, an island close to Europe, is a world of its own. All these countries differ from us in one fundamental way: they did not live through August 1968 and the Soviet invasion of our country at that time.

Unlike Ukraine today, we did not defend ourselves and here is the crux of the problem. Of course, comparing two events separated by more than half a century is not easy. I am well aware of the differences between 1968 and 2022. The international situation is significantly different now. There is neither the Soviet Union, nor the Warsaw Pact. There is "only" Russia. There was no internet and social networks. Only two decades had passed from the end of World War II. There were not thirty years after the fall of communism. There were not many other things, but the invasion of armies into the territory of a foreign country was the same.

That is why I dare ask unpleasant questions. Isn't our unwillingness or perhaps lack of courage to have a serious debate a manifestation of a bad conscience? Isn’t it a result of our still undigested past? Isn’t it another attempt to avoid searching for truth and to be satisfied with cheap clichés? Isn’t it the persistent fallacy of the narratives propagated by our incredibly self-confident "owners of truth"? Isn't it in fact settling accounts for 1968? Isn’t it a verbal war-making instead of a real war that did not take place in 1968? Now when it is easy and relatively safe? When – on the part of these people – it is not Russia that is being fought, but only and solely domestic political opponents? Don't some of our sixty-eighters feel that now it is a chance to take back the Velvet Revolution that was supposedly stolen from them?

Where did the current militancy of our politicians and media owners come from? Isn't it because they are well aware of the fact that this time, again, they won't have to fight? That all they have to do is to threaten with words? That all they have to do is to supply weapons (for taxpayers' money)? That it is enough to welcome refugees – again, for other people's money? Are they sure that sanctions will not boomerang? That someone else will pay for them again? That a new ethnic minority, coming to us from a very complicated country, will behave as if they had lived here for centuries? That they will really want to become Czechs? That this refugee wave will negate all previously known patterns of migrant behavior (if it is not the case of individual migration)? Etc.

We need to start seriously discussing what led Putin and other Russian leaders to take this – especially for them – extremely risky step right now. Particularly in a situation where it is becoming clear that in the long term, the biggest victim of the Ukraine war will be Russia itself. It will be “ostracized” from the rest of the world for an unimaginably long time. For Russia, this aggression cannot possibly pay off in any way. However, we must also ask what role did the promises of Ukraine's admission to NATO, and indeed the whole “eastward” expansion of NATO to Russia's very borders, play in all this.

In February 1997, G. F. Kennan, one of the main architects of American post-war policy (his name is associated with the concept of the so called containment policy), said that NATO's eastward expansion was “a fatal mistake of American policy”. His statement is now being intensely debated in Western Europe. Not so in the Czech Republic. Does this mean something?

As someone who, as Prime Minister in the autumn of 1997, lobbied in the US for our country to be admitted to NATO (and saw the evident hesitations), I have to ask this question. As someone who remembers how unclear and divided the top politicians in the US government and Congress were on this issue. I'll never forget meeting with a prominent Republican Party figure, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, who clearly had no strong interest in our joining NATO. He didn't feel it was in the interest of the United States and talked about other priorities. We, too, should be interested in our national interests. Yet, our politicians these days seem to have other priorities.

Published in the Czech weekly magazine “Týdeník Echo”, May 19, 2022. Translated by Michaela Žalská, Václav Klaus Institute. 


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