On the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, parallels have been made between that event and the current Russia-Georgia conflict. Czech President Vaclav Klaus has stirred debate within the Czech political scene by discounting such comparisons and blaming Georgia and its president for triggering the violence. Oksana Pelenska of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service speaks with the Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek for his views on the subject.
Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek: It’s the same country. It was Soviet imperialism that was worried that Czechoslovakia would, after free elections, steer a path away from the Warsaw Pact and on to freedom and democracy, and so the empire intervened with the “fraternal help” of its allied armies.
In the case of Georgia, it’s the same country [involved], though it’s the Russian Federation now — a country with nothing in common any more with the Soviet Union, or so we thought. Nevertheless, the neo-imperialist policy, Russia’s desire to return to being a global superpower, is very strong, and it’s similar in that way.
It’s also similar, of course, in terms of the propaganda around it. There’s also a similar aim, not to allow Georgia out of its political and economic influence, or to join NATO, because the Russian Federation was making threats even before the Bucharest summit, when some European countries balked and didn’t recommend that Georgia join NATO, or get a Membership Action Plan. Russia hasn’t behaved like a peacekeeping force in the buffer zones of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. [So] there are similar goals there — geopolitical, strategic goals. That’s where the parallel is perhaps close.
Nonetheless, it’s a different time. The situation in Czechoslovakia was different in that it was a totalitarian state. The Prague Spring thaw was only democratization and not democracy, whereas Georgia today is a sovereign independent state that has bodies democratically elected on the basis of free elections. And so, in that sense, this is worse than what happened in 1968 with the Warsaw Pact [invasion].
RFE/RL: With Russian on Georgian territory, the presidents or prime ministers of five former communist states traveled to Tbilisi in a show of support for the Georgian people. But as they stood alongside the Georgian president during a rally in the Georgian capital, one country that suffered from Soviet occupation was notably absent. What are your thoughts about the Czech Republic’s decision not to participate?
Topolanek: As regards the visit [to Tbilisi] by a number of politicians, we have intensively, since the beginning of the conflict — which could almost have been foreseen, and in that sense the fact that Mikheil Saakashvili let himself be provoked I take as a negative, even though the provocations had intensified, and it was evident that sooner or later there would have to be some kind of clash, but the fact that he attacked a South Ossetian town, that was a big mistake, I think. Militarily it couldn’t have turned out any other way.
But visiting Georgia has become a bit of a photo opportunity. The EU itself has proven in the last 15 to 20 years to be very weak and disunited on foreign policy. We are in intensive contact with the Georgian foreign minister, we’re acting on the level of the framework of the OSCE, the troika with France, we’re trying within NATO, after consulting the Georgian side, to draw up our own proposals to add points to NATO communiques that we think are necessary. I didn’t feel that we had to demonstrate anything more than that. We don’t feel that we need to show we are interested in this conflict by going to Tbilisi, because our position is clear.
RFE/RL: What role can the Czech Republic, considering its upcoming presidency of the European Union, play in the peace process?
Topolanek: Our responsibility as of January 1, 2009, as holding the rotating presidency of the EU — that responsibility gives us a certain amount of power to try and resolve the conflict maybe in a more fundamental way than by a mere visit. We managed to ensure than French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner went first to Tbilisi and then Moscow. These are small successes, but you could say Russia has achieved its aim — militarily there’s no doubt — and it will be very reluctant to leave. The latest events — moving to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state — indicate it will be very reluctant to leave Georgian territory.
RFE/RL: What are the first steps that need to be taken to reach a lasting settlement, in your opinion?
Topolanek: We want international forces sent in. We think Russia has failed in its peacekeeping role in the buffer zone. We want the sovereignty of [Georgian] territory, which includes South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to be preserved. We want to recommend something like a Marshall Plan, not just for Georgia but for the wider region that has been destabilized by this, including Armenia and Azerbaijan.
We are one of the biggest foreign investors in Georgia. Our investments are threatened. It’s a bottleneck through which gas and oil are piped to Europe, where the Nabucco [gas] pipeline is being planned. It threatens our strategic security. The Czech Republic is not a country that is standing on the sidelines during this conflict, and we are articulating these opinions quite unambiguously. There’s a parallel with 1968 in that it’s practically the same country [Russia], with the same interest — not to allow a country that it thinks belongs to its sphere of influence to leave that sphere. That was the position of the Soviet administration, and I think Russia’s position today is similar.