Thank you very much for your agreement to give an interview to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. The Association for International Affairs has been involved in various projects in the so-called Visegrád countries (V4), given that there is still such a notion as Visegrád countries. Which current projects in this area have you been implementing?
The Association for International Affairs has recently had a strong V4 aspect in its activities. Last year we organised a survey among V4 foreign policy experts, which enabled us to gather the data of more than four hundred people responding to the questionnaire. We tried to identify key policy issues that the people see within the V4 region and also to observe what they considered the current main foreign policy challenges in this regard. It turns out that issues – such as security, and energy security in particular, and migration – are on the top of the agenda. And now we intend to follow up on this project next year – with a specific focus on European policy, which we thought should be very interesting given the current standing of the V4 within the European Union as a sort of a pressure bloc.
Another project that we have been involved in this year is led by our Moldovan partners and is focusing on the communication of the accession process to the European Union and gathering some of the best practices by the V4 countries – prior to their accession to the European Union in relation to Moldovans, Georgians and Ukrainians signing the association agreements and joining the free trade areas. And this is another project with a strong V4 aspect, in which we think we can somehow gather the “know-how” that the V4 has and transfer it further for some use.
The most long-standing project of the Association for International Affairs has been the Prague Student Summit, which is launching its 22nd year and that’s based on the models of various international organisations with the students from all around the country. But these are not only the participants from the Czech Republic: We have lately had students from other V4 countries. One of the sessions has always been a simulation of a V4 session. This year, we transformed that to an OSCE simulation, which will gather thirty international students, including those from the V4 countries, to go and discuss the problems that are relevant for the region. That’s roughly what we have been doing in this regard and we definitely intend to develop those projects further.
When talking about the Visegrád countries, one can also recognise some problems or some challenges, which the countries have been facing – migration, rise of populism, etc. Unfortunately, the V4 countries were on the top of criticism for the European Union policies. We are talking in Poland now but there are some worrying developments in Slovakia or Hungary – with a referendum on rejection of migration quotas. What is the situation in the Czech Republic right now? What is the Czech perspective on the latest trends in the region?
I think what we have witnessed last year is that the V4 countries have been actually reinventing themselves in a form of a pressure bloc, so to say, in the sense of a common policy bloc within the European Union. Unfortunately, this was based on a very rejective and not very constructive policy – in my understanding – towards the common European asylum system. The Czech Republic has not been under the direct influence of such a strong populist movement as we would witness that, for instance, in Hungary. However, all those tendencies have also manifested themselves in Czech politics, perhaps, just in a more subtle way. If you look at our government and our prime minister, I think they are probably among the most progressive and even most constructive towards the European matrix but this might change quickly – with the change of government, which is expected shortly after the election. The truth is that other V4 countries are somehow attempting to advocate for a different course, and the Czech Republic is simply following the course without wishing to break the unity of the bloc.
In a couple of minutes, the Seminar “Populists and Demagogues: What Attracts People to Them?” is starting in Warsaw. The organisers – and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum as one of them – pointed out two possible reasons for the populism on the rise – socioeconomic and sociocultural ones. Where do you see the major reason for this decline of the EU policies in the Visegrád countries?
In the Visegrád countries, we haven’t seen such a great impact of the economic crisis as it was the case in some other European countries, especially in the South of Europe. The populist drives in these states are also a little bit different and based rather on a certain civilisational angst or some cultural issues. This doesn’t mean that there are no social and economic problems in those countries, but they are of a bit different trigger. What we are witnessing now is a reverse of the trend we have seen for the past twenty-five years after the revolution in the end of the eighties. Nowadays even a silent majority is going very vocal in some way and starting to actually articulate their reservations towards the European policies, to re-invent somehow themselves in the terms of cultural nationalism. Potentially, this is a very difficult and dangerous process, which is however not exclusive for the Central European countries only. The difference is, I think, that these countries haven’t historically had much experience with migration and – therefore – a certain intercultural environment and are finding it very hard to cope with the idea that they should become once the same as their partners in the Western Europe.
In your opinion, how deep are the influences from abroad on the situation in the V4 countries, and in the Czech Republic in particular? Does Russia contribute to the deterioration of the situation?
I can’t really answer it in full, because we don’t really know the exact extent of, for instance, the Russian influence in the Czech Republic. We do have signals that there is a significant propaganda and even infiltration of the secret services in the situation in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. People are increasingly following propaganda in the media founded by Kremlin. But there are also further global players, who also have a stake in this. It is more about aggravation of the situation than about tabling the issues, because the latter ones are already there and some forces probably have an interest in further destabilisation of the region, and – therefore – the rise of populism is exactly this kind of an answer, which the society provides and which might be weakening the European unity.
The Association for International Affairs is a part of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Which current challenges do you see for the EU-Russia relations? Which topics would you like to elaborate more on within the Forum?
Our association has been involved in the activities of the EU-Russia Civil Society since its origins in 2011. We do believe that it is one of the basically key instruments for discussion and for an interactive dialogue among the civil society actors in Russia and the European Union. Frankly speaking, we do not see many of those channels anyway. This channel should be further enhanced – and we would like to see ourselves more involved in this, because we feel that the Russian civil society needs much more attention on the all-European level and that we don’t hear their voices strong enough usually. We lack a perspective, which would enable to somehow focus and develop our policies towards Russia. In practical terms, we still are developing options and exploring options for further projects in this regard, and I hope that we shall have some specific results in the next months.
What would you like to wish to the members of the Forum, which currently counts 160 organisations?
I wish to us to keep an open dialogue – not to fall into internal quarrels and squabbles. It is important to realise that there is a common goal to be pursued and that we need to just find the means and the right articulation of those goals. If we stand together in this, I believe we can be successful.
Thank you very much for this interview.
The interview was shot on 29 September 2016 in Warsaw, Poland by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.