Countries of Central Europe: their political weight or national dignity are not to be downplayed
Vadim Trukhachev
Vadim Trukhachev
Assistant Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), foreign policy expert, an expert on Central Europe
What is Russia's image in the countries of Central Europe? What mistakes does Russian public diplomacy make in the work with these countries? Natalia Burlinova, President of "Creative Diplomacy", addressed the questions to Vadim Trukhachev, Assistant Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), foreign policy expert, an expert on Central Europe.
Dr. Trukhachev studies the international relations in the region as a foreign affairs columnist and researcher at the RSUH. His area of interest includes not only Central Europe, but also the EU-Russia relations, the features of the political and party systems of European countries. As an expert at and Assistant Professor at the RSUH, Dr. Trukhachev pursues the issue of the European multiculturalism and has authored the course "The Policy of Multiculturalism in Europe".
Natalia Burlinova: What role do the countries of Central and Eastern Europe play in Russian public diplomacy? And what role does Russia play for the countries of the region?

Vadim Trukhachev: First of all, there is no common space of Central and Eastern Europe. There is South-Eastern Europe; there is Central Europe, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia belongs to Central Europe, along with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria. As for its meaning for Russia's foreign policy, I would say that the region plays a smaller part than it should, minding that it is our neighbor.

Poland is a large country, and the rest of them are close to us in linguistic terms. We have long-standing and diverse political, economic, cultural, scientific ties with the countries. Austria, as one of Russia's key partners in Europe, receives a lot of attention, which cannot be said about the rest of the region. The significance of the region is misjudged and underestimated, which causes numerous problems. A negative example of the problems is that the Russian-Czech relations have dropped to the 'zero' mark. It happened because of the flaws of our foreign politics in this direction.

Alternately, Russia plays one of the main roles in these countries' foreign policies and economies outside the Euro-Atlantic space. The positions are disparate. The region is on the periphery of Russia's attention, whereas Russia is in the focus of theirs.
It is difficult to compare Prague with Belgrade. The latter became the center of the white-guard emigration after the Revolution, the former is now the center of attraction of opposition members and critics of the Russian government. How would You account for that?

Today Prague is one of the most beautiful tourist capitals in the world. The Czech Republic has become what can be called the "showcase" of East-European countries, being the richest country in the region, with the standards of living higher than in Spain and as high as in Italy. Unlike Poland and Hungary, it has fully adopted the "West-European democratic values". Actually, Czechia has historically been closer to Western Europe than any of the other countries mentioned.

We shouldn't forget that Czechia is a Slav country, where a lot of people still remember the Russian language, even among the younger generation. The interest in the Russian language is traditionally high there due to the close connection of our languages, at times preceded only by English and German. Therefore, it is easier to adapt to the Czech Republic from a linguistic point of view.

The Czech Republic has become a 'bridge' between Western and Eastern Europe, in some aspects close to Eastern Europe, but in many aspects resembling Western Europe. It is difficult to imagine a better 'connecting spot', especially with a view to the long Russian-Czech relations.
Photo: Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW)
Often it is Czech authors who prepare negative reports on Russia and the "Russian propaganda" (Kremlin Watch, for instance). But it is not a Russophobic country in general. Why is the anti-Russian trend so popular with the Czech expert community?

Firstly, Prague is very different from the rest of the country. If we face Russophobia in the Czech Republic, it will be in Prague. Personally, I have encountered Russophobia only twice on my trips to the Czech Republic, both times in Prague. Outside the capital, I have never come across anything like that.

Secondly, some Czech experts, historians, political observers, and journalists from the most Russophobic community in the Czech Republic. Even lawyers and economists do not share such views. The named community is sponsored by grants from the USA, EU, NATO, Germany, and it portrays Russia as an "alternative" as opposed to the "good" West.

But it is a two-way street, and we cannot blame the West alone for the Czech Russophobia. The Czech attitude to Russia is complex and contradictory, combining the Russophobic, Russophile, and neutral positions, 200 years old each. Radical dissidents from the Socialist times carry on the Russophobic tradition from generation to generation. So, there is not only the "demand" for Russophobia from Washington or Brussels but also the vast local "supply" from the Czech elite and society.

In your opinion, how strong is the Russian opposition's influence on the Czech political elite and on their decision-making concerning Russia?

The influence is not strong at all. These people are ideologically prejudiced and pre-motivated, like their leader – the former Czech foreign minister (2010-2013) Karel Schwarzenberg, who also co-authored the "Eastern Partnership" program. Another symbolic figure is the late Czech president Václav Havel (1993-2003), who welcomed our opposition members to the Czech Republic. After Havel's presidency, he became their patron. But the influence of the Russian opposition on the Czech public opinion is low, besides most opposition members have never got to learn the Czech language. It was just that people with a particular ideology provided them shelter at the Czech expense, sometimes at American or European expense.
Can we expect any change of Russia's image in the Czech Republic in the coming decade?

It will depend on whether the government will change there. I would not expect anything positive under the current government: there will be flows of Russophobia because now the members of government are fanatics and ideological foes of Russia. Under regular circumstances, they will govern the Czech Republic till 2025, and we do not expect this utter darkness to lift till then.

Let me tell you who is currently governing the Czech Republic: first, prime minister Petr Fiala, professor of political science. He believes Russia is a barbaric Asian country that only understands the language of force. And I have quoted the Civic Democratic party leader. Second, Ondjey Kolarzh, the headman of Prague-6, notorious for having had the monument to Soviet Marshal Konev torn down; he has failed to get the post of foreign minister, but is going to become the head of the international affairs committee of the Czech parliament. Third, Markéta Pekarová Adamová, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech parliament, chairwoman of Top 09 (Karel Schwarzenberg's party) which is a party with one of its program aims "to assist a democratic revolution in Russia".

And this is the most Russophobic party. The other parties of the ruling coalition are more moderate, they are anti-Russian but not Russophobic. But since the foreign policy will be determined mainly by the two named leverages, we are to expect utter darkness. Czechia is risking to become so alienated from Russia that the bilateral relations will be something like the ones we have with Burundi, Dominica, or East Timor.
Doesn't the situation with Poland look worse? In the Czech Republic, the attitude to Russia is not the same for the capital's political class and for the rest of the nation, whereas in Poland Russophobia has come to be a part of culture.

It is, indeed, the principal difference between Poland and the Czech Republic. In the Czech Republic, there are around 20% die-hard Russophobes, and 20% Russophiles, and 60% undecided. Poland is more of a monolith in this respect. Russia has never had a common border or disputed territories with Czechia, whereas with Poland there have been such territories and over 10 wars. Since the XVIth century, approximately, the Polish political class has regarded their country as a stronghold of the Catholic world on the edge with "schismatic barbarians". And the Polish elite has carried such views through the 500 years.

I specify that, at the mundane level, the possibility of a conflict is very low. But the Polish political thinking is tailored for confrontation with Russia. The current Polish government considers Russia its existential enemy. Besides, Poland considers itself a superpower (there is Poland's Three Seas Initiative to have borderlines along the Black, Baltic, and Adriatic seas). Poland is not a rich country, but it declares such ambitious aims.

Do you think Ukraine might snatch the "palm of victory" from Poland and outdo it in building anti-Russia?

Poland and Ukraine are not in equal positions. Unlike Ukraine, Poland is a whole successful country with a monolith vision of its past, present, and future, whether we like it or not. Poland has its own language that is similar to ours but a separate language all the same. It has a Nobel-Prize level culture and science. This makes Poland a more significant country than Ukraine. Poles are not Russians. Poland is Poland, whereas Ukraine is 'anti-Russia'.
"I am under the impression that in Russia we do not realize that Poland is a neighbor to be counted with. Its population is almost 40 million, plus a 20-million powerful expatriate community represented in the USA, among others."
Don't you believe in the possibility of positive Russian-Polish relations? Some years ago, during Dmitry Medvedev's Presidency, there was a period of "thaw" when, for example, the Center of Russian-Polish Dialogue and Understanding was established. Or was that an episode of political sham?

It seems clear that Russia and Poland will never have a common vision of past history. More or less stable relations are possible under certain circumstances, namely, if both countries make concessions. Poland has to stop blaming Russia for all sins and demanding that Russia kneels down for what it has allegedly done to Poland. There has to be mutuality in such things. If they want us to repent Khatyn, they must acknowledge Poland's crimes.

I am under the impression that in Russia we do not realize that Poland is a neighbor to be counted with. Its population is almost 40 million, plus a 20-million powerful expatriate community represented in the USA, among others. All this power has been keeping the confrontation with Russia hot for at least 20 years. We need to take the Polish threat seriously. Besides, we need to build up the interaction with the Polish nation and the Czech nation. It is a difficult task, but we may start with grass-roots and then build up to something more significant.
Let's talk about Austria. Does the absence of a "failed-empire-complex" help Austria in its relations with Russia?

To some extent. Austrians are active in the EU structures. Every fifth EU official is an Austrian citizen. The number of Austrian European commissioners responsible for the EU's foreign policy and neighborhood policy is notable. The imperial past still remains to some extent, and Austria's interest in regions that are 'susceptible' for us, like the post-soviet space (especially Western Ukraine) and the Balkans, is the result of the Austrian imperial past.

However, Austria is a better developed and richer country that has had more time to 'digest' its past. Even the Czech Republic has not finally dealt with its past, whereas Austria has solved the problem, which makes it easier to build relations with it than with the Czech Republic, to say nothing of Poland. We can build a pragmatic dialogue with Austria, which we successfully do, bearing in mind that our interests differ in the 'susceptible' regions, like the CIS and the Balkans.

Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic pay a lot of attention to the Eastern partnership. Austria and Germany are not the key powers in the Balkans. Austria, more than any other country, exercises pressure on Serbia in the issue of recognizing Kosovo. Hence, the Russian-Austrian relations are positively developing in the economy but have tensions in geopolitics. We must not forget that Austria is a developed European country and, unlike our post-socialist neighbors, actively promotes the "European values" through its foreign policy. We read both 'pluses' and 'minuses' into these "values", and the 'minuses' will certainly be the conflicting points of our interests.
"We should ask on both sides: what do we want to achieve from bilateral cooperation in the next 10-20 years?"
Creative Diplomacy had the privilege to talk about Russian-Slovenian relations to Dr. Denis Mancevic, Slovenian expert on Russia, CEO & Partner at consulting company Herman & Partners, a former diplomat.
A few words about Slovenia...

I can say more than a few words. For many Russians, Slovenia is a terra incognita, one of the former Yugoslavian republics, identified with the Balkans. But Slovenia ceased to be a Balkan country when it got its independence in 1992 and is a Central European country. It is the best-developed former Yugoslavian republic, where the standards of living are the same as in the Czech Republic. It is the only territory of South-Eastern Europe that has never been under Turkish rule, and it has influenced the Slavonian mentality. Slavonians feel closer related to Czechs, not the Croats. They also have a lot in common with Austria, having lived 700 years under the Habsburger rule. About half of Slavonians speak German. Slovenia coordinates its politics mainly with Austria and sometimes with the Czech Republic.

So, in this case, we deal not with the Balkans, but with a Central European country, one of the richest Slav countries, along with the Czech Republic. Slavonians underline the Slav factor in their foreign policy and use it to build their relations with us, even to a greater extent than the Czechs. As for the level of the relations, it is more even than the Russian-Czech, though the style is pretty much the same. Slovenia is geographically farther from Russia and there have always been fewer contacts. Yugoslavia held a unique position among the socialist countries, and our relations are less emotional. In Slovenia, both the Russophobic and Russophile moods are not extreme.

That is why we do not dig into the past and build pragmatic relations with Slovenia and Austria, we have intersecting interests. Slavonians also put an emphasis on the European values, which creates a barrier. When we speak about the national interests, they speak of the values, etc. In general, the bilateral relations can be estimated as 'average' in the context of Russia's relations with the EU member states.
Hungarian Parliament Building
Hungary is a particular case. It is building its own foreign policy and independent relations with Russia. Has the public opinion on Russia changed in Hungary (with regard to Sputnik V purchases, economic cooperation, etc.)?

It is contradictory. In Hungary, they remember both good and bad pages of history. They remember Russian Field-Marshal Paskevich (the suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1848-1849), and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. In two World Wars Hungary fought against Russia, which could not have been traceless. On the other hand, there have not been so many negative episodes as with Poland, and they cannot have resulted in a deep confrontation.

Besides, Hungary feels like an "island" in Europe, although geographically it is an inland country. Hungarians have a special world, unlike that of Slavs, or Romanic or Germanic nations, or Finnic, or Turkic. Hungarians form the only nation in contemporary Europe whose ancestors were nomads. And they feel protective about their special world. In Hungary, there has been an improvement of the attitude to Russia, in the provinces, in the first place. Budapest in Hungary, like Prague in the Czech Republic, is a different matter, the capitals being more cosmopolitan and less nation-oriented than the rest of the country.

Interestingly, since 2019 the Central European University has been located in Vienna due to a change in the Hungarian laws (the Central European University is an English-speaking higher education institution accredited in the USA and Austria. The University was founded in 1991 in Prague, and has functioned in Budapest (Hungary) with the financial support of George Soros, the Hungarian-born American financier, "to promote an open society and democracy in the countries of central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union" – editorial comment). Viktor Orban, who studied at Pembroke College, Oxford, receiving a scholarship from the Soros Foundation, turned out to be "an ungrateful scholar"
Are Hungarian think tanks as Russophobic as the Czech ones?

That depends. For example, the Magyar Nemzet newspaper and its political analyst Gabor Stier (foreign policy senior analyst at the Magyar Nemzet), a great friend of Russia, is a part of the public opinion in favor of Russia, although the EU-Hungarian relations have been far from perfect over the past 10 years. But in general, I regret to tell you, the anti-Russian mood prevails there. We must not forget that Hungary is less prosperous than the Czech Republic, and therefore more dependent on grants from the USA and the EU. And a Russophile tradition, which we find in Czechia, is practically non-existent in Hungary. The Hungarian community of historians, political scientists, and journalists share the position with the same Czech community.

The Slovak public has the most benevolent attitude to Russia among all the nations of Central Europe. It is difficult to find a profoundly Russophobic politician there. Former president Andrej Kiska (2014-2019) was Russophobic, but he was an exception. I would say, to form a large Russophobic party in Slovakia is a difficult task.
How can this be explained? Czechia and Slovakia used to be parts of one country, and now they pursue very different policies towards Russia…

Unlike the Czech Republic, Slovakia does not have the tradition of an excessively critical attitude towards Russia. Nor does Slovakia have a long tradition of sovereignty and state-formation. Slovakia is also more economically depressed, and cannot "afford" mansplaining. Besides, Slovakia is the greater beneficiary from the socialist period than the Czech Republic, and unlike the latter, does not have the "after-effect" of the 1968 events (bringing the Warsaw Treaty troops to Czechoslovakia to put an end to the "Prague spring"). However, we cannot name Slovakia a Russophile country. The Western influence is strong there, as well as the common cultural, scientific and educational space Slovakia shares with the Czech Republic.

Slovakia is a country underestimated by Russia in many ways. Its events receive limited coverage in Russian media, although now, because of the shrinking ties between Russia and the Czech Republic, Slovakia intensifies its activities in the Russian direction filling the "vacuum". It will give us an opportunity to get better acquainted with Slovakia. Unfortunately, the current Slovak government does not profess friendly relations with Russia, but there are Russophiles in the Slovak opposition. The general mood of the society, however, does not allow Slovakia to drift into the same position of confrontation as the Czech Republic.
Bratislava, Slovakia
Let's talk about some system errors in the Russian public diplomacy in the region, which in Your opinion could be corrected.

The first and main error (not only in the region but in the entire European direction) is the conviction that all decisions are taken in Germany, France, Italy. For old times' sake, Austria and Finland receive some attention, too. But the political classes of other countries are thus overlooked. For some reason, we tend to believe that nothing depends on the other countries, while Americans, to say nothing of Germans, do not hesitate to work with these countries' elites.

The functional structure of the European Union employs the Double Majority formula. Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands cannot take all the decisions, they need to have the support of the countries that we believe to be less influential. It is crucial to show respect for every country.

It would be utterly wrong to say that, for example, the Czech Republic is not an influential country on which nothing depends. Now the Czech Republic is turning into a Slav 'pole' alternative to Russia and integrated into the Western space. It is a country with a turnover in weapons trade exceeding a billion dollars, a country exporting locomotives and machines to China. It has accepted the values dimension in its foreign policy and actively promotes it not only in the post-Soviet space and the Balkans. In fact, the Czech foreign policy is the most multi-direction among the former socialist countries, leaving even the Polish foreign policy behind, regardless of the countries' sizes. The Czech Republic is, therefore, a country of the third or even second "row of influence" (like the Netherlands, Austria, and Sweden). It has the tradition of sovereignty, its own interests, and ideas of its place in Europe. The country is related to us in terms of language but very different in all other terms.

What is more, we do not show the proper respect to Poland – a large country, once an empire, a country with developed science and culture (these aspects can be referred to the Czech Republic, too). Few US partners try to use their strengths in their own interests, but Poland does. The competition is uneven, but the fact remains. Respect, attention, putting emphasis on the advantages of the Polish culture and even the Polish state are the things we lack. I am not talking about an equal dialogue, but it is a country to be counted with.

I do not see such errors in our relations with Austria, but I would like to see closer cooperation via the Russian embassy, meaning more activity with the Austrian people.

In the case of Slovenia, we simply do not quite understand who we are dealing with. We should switch on our curiosity! Let them open up and talk about themselves, their small country with beautiful nature, where on the territory equal to half the territory of the Moscow region they have mountains, plains, and the sea. We should let them talk of themselves instead of construing some visions that have nothing to do with reality. It is a small country with big achievements, developed industry, and tourism. Slovenia holds its proper place. We can refer to remote linguistic connection, but we should first of all express curiosity.

Hungary is now experiencing some opening-up and, seems to me, "indecision". We should remember that 12 years ago Orban claimed, "we do not want to turn into a Gazprom barrack". Hungarian love is fickle, we should be prepared for that. All opposition to Orban has gathered together, and the opposition does not view us with a friendly eye. In April of 2022, Hungary holds parliamentary elections, so we need to have a dialogue not only with the government but also with the opposition, with the Hungarian society, acquaint them with Russia. And we need to prepare specialists speaking Hungarian as the third foreign language, in addition to English and German.

Slovakia and Slovenia need to be "discovered", with the help of tourism, among other things. Russians travel there. Slovakia and Slovenia should welcome Russian tourists, but they advertise their countries less actively to us than, for example, the Czech Republic.
"The influence of the Central European countries is not nil, and their national dignity is very susceptible. They must not be downplayed. It is necessary to carefully pick words in a dialogue with them, and not to consider them conductors of someone else's will or someone's vassals."
What advice would you give for better work in the region?

Today many people who work in the region do not speak the language of the receiving country, they know very little about the region's history, traditions, and even cuisine. People come to a world as different from our own as, say, India, China, or Africa, and they should bear in mind that every country in the region has its specific traits.

In my opinion, it is advisable to appoint Russia's ambassadors to these countries from among persons who speak the corresponding languages. It is not very difficult to find persons who speak Polish, Czech or Hungarian. All these countries are, to this extent or another, "Germanized" Slavs or "Germanized" Magyars, which makes some level of German necessary, too, in the region.

It should not be allowed to disrespect the national dignity of these countries and peoples. The influence of the Central European countries is not nil, and their national dignity is very susceptible. They must not be downplayed. It is necessary to carefully pick words in a dialogue with them, and not to consider them conductors of someone else's will or someone's vassals.
Cover photo: Fountain Neptune in Gdansk, Poland