A clash of selective empathies: human rights and the West in Czech foreign policy

A recent proposal by the Czech government that shifts more attention to socio-economic rights in the country’s foreign policy has whipped up a lot of emotions. Most foreign policy pundits dismissed it as too ideological and naïve. The controversy is fueled by essential disagreements on which ‘human rights’ matter, what ‘the West’ stands for, and more importantly, what really shaped the Czech post-89 past.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ Minnesota Historical Society


When the Central Europeans joined the European Union a decade ago, they made human rights support abroad one of their foreign policy trademarks. For Czechs especially, aiding dissidents under authoritarian regimes became a way to contribute to the spread of highly vaunted ‘Western values’ – a blend of political and economic freedoms commonly utilized as the essential blueprint for ‘universal’ values, because they are considered somehow naturally superior. Yet this whole talk of ‘Western values’ is so full of paradoxes. Some believe to have acquired these ‘freedoms’ simply by birth. Even those who acknowledge that freedoms can be learned and institutionalized – as it happened during the post-89 transition and EU accession – are sometimes reluctant to admit that ‘others’ living in distant lands can have similar aspirations and can undergo the same process. In the post-Arab Spring Czech café one would often hear the likes of ‘Arabs are not ready for democracy’.

In a way, the current Czech debate about human rights in foreign policy does not dramatically differ from the one in New York or Istanbul. Cosmopolitans believing in universal equality of human beings walk the streets of all corners of the world, as ido national, religious and race supremacists. Some advocate military campaigns in support of democracy, others oppose them, and still many others could not care less.

Yes, there are nuances. In Istanbul, you’d have to search with a magnifying glass to find those who believe that the West – especially the European Union – is currently contributing much to human rights in Turkey. It’s because way too many EU-pean politicians have clearly said that no matter how many reforms the country would undergo, Turks would never be ‘like them’. New Yorkers felt on their skin the rage of a few frustrated fanatics who claimed to act in the interests of the non-West. They also felt on their skin what it means to be taken hostage for your government’s flawed policy. Not just on 9/11 – also when travelling abroad and simply showing an American passport and having to plead innocent: ‘No, I did not vote for Bush’ and more recently ‘Yes, Obama failed on his promises’.

Prague has a different kind of uniqueness. After implosion of the Soviet system – it became smoothly and somehow effortlessly European (and Western) again. While in the early 90s the Czechs might have been looked down upon by West Europeans as poor cousins wearing old-fashioned clothes, they acclimated quite quickly and their ‘Western’ entitlement was never really questioned. At the same time, as ‘new Westerners’ they never experienced the type of backlash that post-colonial West Europeans or the US did. This uniqueness might be a solid ground for empathy with the non-West, yet it has not really translated into Czech foreign policy. In light of Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine it does not come as a surprise that there is an instinctive clinging to ‘Western-ness’ in Prague intellectual circles. However identity pledges might not be enough to defend the free world in which the Czechs – just like other Central Europeans – and just like most other humans for that matter – would like to live in. The West is coming under attack, and it is not just the fanatics or ‘freedom-haters’ that challenge its policies and point to inconsistencies in what it says and what it does. The Czechs, instead of isolating themselves and wishing issues away, need to find a way to navigate these paradoxes and inconsistencies – defend the good that ‚the West‘ stands for while also listening to the complaints of ‚‘the Rest‘. There is nothing leftwing or rightwing about this – it is a matter of choosing between hope and resignation. Hope entails approaching the problem and seeking solutions, resignation stands for fatalism.

Left-turn in Prague

The new foreign policy outlook announced by the foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek and his deputy, a respected academic Petr Drulák earlier this year ([here] and [here]) called for a number of breaks with policies of previous governments, which they feel have made the country “irrelevant” in the past years. A primary objective has been once again a ‘return to Europe’ – responding to a number of instances where the previous centre-right government went against the EU mainstream.

While a number of new proposals have received some criticism, the real storm came when Drulak and Zaoralek started talking about reevaluating the human rights policy. They argued that while political freedoms matter, social and environmental rights should also receive due attention. Moreover, the new foreign policy should not overlook Western allies’ misdeeds. This has been met with such backlash because it taps right into the middle of conflicting perspectives on the Czech transition and on the driving forces of democratization. Two issues stand out in the critical responses: the reliance on an anachronistic dichotomy of social and political rights, and a tendency to cling to the infallibility of the West (or ‘Euro-Atlantic community’ as it is often referred to in Central Europe) as if it were a sin to critically engage its flaws.

Much of the publicly voiced criticism did not really engage the substance of the new proposals, but just dismissed it. The ministry’s suggestion that not just political rights, but also social and environmental rights should be considered was met at best with a ‘sure, but how are you going to do it?’, and at worst with anachronistic suggestions that social rights are merely a ‘social convention’ [here]. The call for more balance to the current tilted way CR approaches human rights violations in the West and non-West has, itself been labeled (off-the-record) as a departure from ‘Western values’.

The new government’s ambitions have also been mocked in light of the deputy minister’s earlier writings, like his Spring 2009 article, Let’s boycott the elections, long live the revolution, [here] in which he called for the need to do away with the corrupt party system. In that article Drulak encouraged the Czech public to deny politicians the legitimization they seek, and create citizens assemblies in order to draft a new constitution that could be put to referendum. The centre-right leaning press dismissed Drulak as anti-systemic and inconsistent, – especially once he started working for the government, which ironically was composed of some of the parties he had earlier criticized for being empty and not having solutions.

According to those who believe that political rights are more salient, Zaoralek further undermined the government’s credibility before an April trip to China by publicly pledging not to open the issue of Tibet or to meet with the Dalai Lama. In a country where Tibetan spiritual leader has been a frequent guest, this further aggravated fears of a number of intellectuals and NGO activists, who are concerned that the legacy of the late Vaclav Havel, a prominent intellectual, pre-89 dissident and the first post-89 president, would be dismantled.

However those with the ambition to broaden and deepen the attention to socio-economic rights in Czech foreign policy are anxious to see more tangible examples of social rights measures. They wondered why the minister, while in China, neglected to talk about rights of workers in Chinese factories (whose products are sold so very cheaply in the Czech Republic). The criticisms thus do not only come from those who dismiss the new government proposals as the product of a ‘bunch of left-wing intellectuals’.

It is here that we get to the heart of the problem. The clash of human rights and business interests is a theme that far surpasses the Czech café. Governments around the world have begun to focus on ‘economizing diplomacy’ and seeing foreign policy mainly as a trade and export promotion tool. Also, there is rarely a Left-Right split on this issue, and Czech Republic is no exception. Let’s recall that it was the Prime Minister Petr Nečas of previous centre-right government who, speaking at a 2012 business fair, called for ‘prevention of some fashionable political expressions, that objectively speaking have impact on our exports’, explicitly referring to Czech politicians’ support for the Dalai Lama and the Russian band Pussy Riot. Politicians, both left and right, have contributed to the reification of the business vs. human rights dilemma, portraying rights as secondary to a smoothly operating economy. This is contrary to both the right-wing belief that political freedoms are foundational to a functioning economy and the left-wing belief in the preeminence of social rights – which, in the end are still rights. This dilemma creates a stalemate whereby important topics like the regulation of trade regimes that would minimize the abuse of cheap labor and that would prevent democratic states from supporting dictators evades discussion. In the CR neither the center-left government nor the centre-right critics have said much on this so far.

Touching the hallmark program

For Czech civil society activists the policy revisions have created concerns about both the future of political rights advocacy in the CR, and more specifically, about the preservation of MFA-sponsored Transition Promotion Program. Since the program’s establishment in 2005, it has become a hallmark of foreign policy, enabling thousands of activists and young professionals from the Balkans, North Africa, East Europe and other regions to talk to people who engaged in pre-89 dissent and post-89 reforms. Most of the projects broadly focus on ‘empowering’ civil society activists working on issues from gender rights to free speech, but essentially they aid those few individuals assumed to be change-makers in their societies.

The current government is not the first one who has suggested the program might be revised. Throughout its existence the program has been a thorn in the side of both those who believe that business rights trump human rights and democratic ideals, and those conspiracy theory aficionados, who see the program as a tool of American hegemony, as was oft reported in online fora. But for the Kosovars, Libyans, Burmese and others that participated in the activities, the program offered one of the few and precious opportunities they had to discuss current concerns and dilemmas with people who had similar ambitions and who had been through similar experiences. Thus, the program has not been without merit.

At the same time it can hardly be argued that this program should be the primary way human rights are supported by CR. In the end, the program currently distributes around 50 million CZK (1,8 million EUR) annually, with individual projects ranging from 10 000 to 50 000 EUR, so it is certainly not a game-changer in target countries.

More importantly, socio-economic rights have been virtually absent from the program goals and outputs. If the CEE’s contribution is to share ‘transition experience’, the socio-economic cannot be detached from the political. One can hardly expect that a democracy can flourish without comprehensive education, welfare and health-care systems. These constitute the necessary foundation for the exercise of political rights. In Czech Republic these systems – however imperfect – are in place, and this needs to be taken into account when discussing democratization and human rights.

Politics, economy and ‘Westernness’

Understanding of ‘Euro-Atlantic values’ as freedoms without economic rights thus fails to account not only for a significant part of the Czech experience, but also for the expectations of people in countries that see the West as an inspiration. If you take the example of countries awaiting deeper integration with the EU, some of which constitute the priorities of Czech foreign policy, Eurobarometer polls consistently show that those in transition expect not just free speech, but living standards too. Expectations of jobs and living standards were also what attracted the Czechs and Slovaks to the EU, and this continues to be the case for other EU neighbors. This point is even more evident if we look further to countries where poverty is an even bigger problem than in those in Europe’s backyard. But one does not really need to travel beyond the Czech borders to see how fragile the insistence on the dichotomy of social and political rights is.

Economic and political rights and allegiance to ‘Western values’ are closely interrelated themes. For many Czechs the ‘West’ is still associated with freedom and future, especially against the backdrop of the Soviet past, but this picture has been developing cracks. In a country where many struggle to make ends meet, it is not uncommon to hear them complain – ‘we have free speech now but no one really cares what we say’. In Central Europe, prices have caught up with Western Europe much faster than the incomes have. In the Czech Republic, prices of consumer goods and services are almost three quarters of EU average, while labor costs do not even reach half of the EU average. Thus complaints cannot be dismissed as cases of false consciousness or simply nostalgic feelings about a brighter past. Such expressions mirror the failure of post-89 politics to address very crucial issues, including access to the education system that would espouse the critical thought necessary to challenge dogmas. They also highlight how intricately linked foreign policy is with domestic politics. You can hardly expect someone to rally behind the Western flag if they perceive no benefits from this newfound belonging in their everyday life.

Ukrainian confusion

A concrete recent example illustrating that there is much to improve in how we approach human rights abroad has been the debate about the crisis in Ukraine. Most political parties running in the 2013 Czech parliamentary elections (a crucial year for Ukraine-EU relations) did not even mention Eastern Europe in their programs. Furthermore when Czechs were asked earlier this year who should contribute to the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, only 14 % of them thought the Czech Republic should get involved. The Czechs are not unique in this. Let us recall that the Slovak Prime Minister admitted during the heat of the crisis that he did not know much about Ukraine (a neighboring state for Slovakia). The Visegrad, a regional group of 4 CEE states, did not hold a single high-level meeting with Ukrainian representatives in 2013 – a decisive year for Ukraine’s EU future. The declaration from the V4’s 2013 meeting with the French President and German Chancellor – arguably the most important diplomatic event for the group – has not referred to Ukraine even in a footnote. This all despite the fact that a major topic of that meeting was the future of the common market, of which Ukraine was supposed to become a part of by signing the Association Agreement with the EU that very same year.

Although EU’s Eastern neighborhood was declared as one of priority regions for Czech foreign policy, it has been a diplomatically, not politically driven process. The elected politicians (with very few exceptions) were not too pre-occupied with democratization and the possible EU integration of Ukraine. Occasionally, they would mention Ukraine in political speeches, referring to it as an example of a state that the CR can share its post-89 experiences with. Engaging with East European transitions was also a way that Central Europeans claimed to demonstrate that they are not just takers, but also givers – that in this way they could make a substantial contribution to EU policy-making.

Unfortunately, much of practical implementation of CEE’s support for its Eastern neighbor was outsourced to NGOs, which held workshops with Ukrainian NGOs. Money came in via government, International Visegrad Fund and West European and North American donors. Post-89 ‘transition experience’ was shared and debated. Throw in a few scholarships for Ukrainian students and the occasional statement about our support for Ukraine ‘coming closer to Europe’ – and that was it. Sure, Central Europeans cannot be expected to ‘change’ Ukraine – it is the Ukrainians’ job in the first place. But there was a substantial gap between rhetoric and action.

When Ukrainian president Yanukovych decided last year to postpone signing the Association agreement with the EU, Czech diplomacy reacted with surprise. As the clashes between Ukrainian government and protestors on Kyiv’s Majdan escalated, and Russia started carving out parts of Ukrainian territory, Czech government espoused support for the protesters and clearly denounced Putin’s actions. Yet when the debate moved to concrete measures, such as sanctions to stop Russia’s interference, Ukrainian human rights were suddenly gone from many of the ministers’ arguments and Czech business interests became the priority. This was similar to debates in other European capitals as well.

Hungary’s Prime Minister chose to prioritize rights of specific group of Ukrainians – the country’s Hungarian minority. The Slovak Prime Minister said he understood Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU deal, suggesting that it was yet unclear if Ukraine would benefit from free trade with the EU while also saying that it might be too economically and politically costly. But if there were grounds for serious concerns regarding immediate socio-economic toll on the Ukrainian population, it remains unclear why CEE governments in the last decade haven’t proposed more initiatives to discuss these potential economic downsides and preventative measures.

The public debate in Czech cafes and Internet fora resembled Cold War times – with the usual exchanges between those who thought Ukraine should be ‘European’ and those who believe it ‘belonged’ to Russia.

Some argued that the West provoked Russia by EU and NATO expansion and threatened its ‘interests’. Moreover, some of those who believed that the ‘West is to blame’ contributed to the café debates admiration for Vladimir Putin as the ‘man who finally stood up to the Americans’, ignoring the state of human rights in Russia. But this argument somehow omits Ukrainians, themselves, from the picture. Many Ukrainians, would like to live in a less corrupt and better-governed country and long for the stability of EU membership despite its many flaws, simply because it is more appealing than the Russian alternative.

Yet those who argued that Ukraine should be ‘European’ forgot to back up their case with facts on the added-value of the free-trade zone for Ukrainians. More importantly they forgot to push the EU to make a more relevant offer to Ukrainians. For now, the only offer on the table is a free-trade agreement and economic aid, and no real talk of potential full Ukrainian membership. This situation creates a breeding ground for facile yet catchy statements such as ‘the West is only after your markets, dear Ukrainians’.

Without many facts fed into the debate on how the expected free-trade zone between Ukraine and the EU would impact Ukraine’s economy and what it would mean for Ukrainians, the debaters in Prague cafes exchanged superficial phrases about ‘Western values’ or engaged in the day-to-day monitoring of the Russian army’s actions. This again leads us back full circle to how foreign and domestic policy is inextricably linked – neglect of the public education system and almost non-existent funding for applied research has hindered a more fact-based discussion and the consideration of the broader picture. The debate this year revealed that although in the Czech Republic we are quick to verbally express empathy for Ukrainians, our ‘We support the East’ policies proved superficial.

A call for reevaluation is timely

There can hardly be a more powerful resource than leading by example. The concrete Czech examples of success and failure in transition have already inspired many in Ukraine, Cuba and Egypt. Dissidents in autocratic regimes deserve respect and support, but funding a few NGO-led projects and occasionally speaking up against authoritarianism does not satisfy the Czech contribution to the protection of human rights. The Czech experience and the knowledge it has afforded others is valuable, but rising up to meet the human rights challenges of the world in 2014 requires more.

Paradoxically, it requires that Czechs both lift their eyes higher, broadening their perspective of their experience, while also engaging it more deeply and fully. Looking at a bigger picture means acknowledging that distortions in income distribution and the malfunctions of basic public services are the key threat to exercising human rights worldwide.

It is wishful thinking that the mere promotion of political freedoms will lead to a more informed political debate and equate to more choices for those in countries where people have limited access to education, health care and salaries that provide for their basic needs. Engaging more deeply with one’s own past and transition means acknowledging that although income distribution in Czech Republic is becoming an issue of concern, the country still benefits from being one of the richer places in the world – as was also true during its political transition. Thus, insisting that we should just continue doing what we have been doing until now, i.e. expressing support for dissidents, is anachronistic.

Calls for reevaluation are timely. The biggest challenge will be to find the language that will raze the barricades, where many of the Czech human rights supporters are still trapped.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.