Fifteen years ago on March 12, the Czech Republic joined NATO, a moment which remains a milestone in the country’s history. Czechs had spent some 40 years under Moscow domination and it was the scrapping of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 – and the joining of NATO in 1999 – that cemented the country’s place in the West.
“After many centuries of the ‘dramatic’ existence of our state, its security is at last strongly guaranteed and we become an integral part of the Euro-American world.”
At the time, only a little more than half of Czechs backed NATO membership, with many indifferent and some, not least members of the Communist Party, coming out strongly against. Some within Russia predicted a short future for NATO after the Cold War and the dissolution of the counterweight Warsaw Pact, questioning how NATO would adapt to new challenges and threats. Petr Kratochvíl, the head of the Institute of International Relations in Prague says that to some extent that question of NATO’s role still continues to dog the security organisation.
“Clearly there is certain crisis within NATO, to a degree one that has existed since the end of the Cold War. NATO operates under conditions today which are very different from when it was founded. It is trying to find a modus vivendi, a common goal. One has been the fight against international terrorism, which Mr Zeman strongly supports.”
Opening a NATO conference in Prague on Wednesday, President Miloš Zeman, made clear that NATO served an important role – not least in places like Afghanistan where Czechs had also done their part – but at the same time he criticised the withdrawal of troops from the country, suggesting the anti-terrorism effort would suffer. He also called on Europe to hasten plans for a pan-European army in the context of the current crisis in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, Ukraine could not be ignored in the face of the current conflict with Russia and will no doubt be mentioned many times during the conference. But Mr Zeman described the threat and solutions only in the broadest terms, failing to mention Russia – or occupied Crimea – even once.
“Threatening the security of any state is a threat to us all, because in the globalised world, not the globalised economy but in the globalised society, conflicts that arise in one area can spread very quickly to another. Either with an influx of refugees or in the worst case, in the form of a broader armed conflict; that is why I choose to repeat Theodore Roosevelt’s quote: ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick.’”
How NATO, as the big stick alluded to, should act, Mr Zeman didn’t say, since military options currently seem limited at best. He – along with the Czech government – have placed an emphasis on diplomacy instead.
Meanwhile, a new poll conducted by the Centre for Transatlantic Relations, suggests that three-quarters of Czechs now support NATO membership: developments in Ukraine, which have drawn comparison with the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, are perhaps a stark reminder for many what it meant to not be a member, to be left “out in the cold”.