Czechs view Russia with suspicion, pragmatism

21st August 2008, Comments 0 comments

'The Russian tanks on the streets of Georgian towns remind those of us who experienced it of the 1968 invasion'

Prague -- Seventeen years after the last Soviet soldier left, Czechs remain wary of the Russian bear.

After Russians walked into Georgia's South Ossetia province, Czech government leaders drew parallels with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia 40 years ago, which ended the Prague Spring communist reform movement.

"The Russian tanks on the streets of Georgian towns remind those of us who experienced it of the 1968 invasion," Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said in an op-ed for the Mlada Fronta Dnes daily. "The question whether we will or will not belong to the sphere of Russian influence is timely even today."

Months before the Georgia crisis, Topolanek urged the West to stand firm on plans for a US missile defense system in Eastern Europe despite the "grumbling of the Russian bear."

Pure pragmatism

Yet beyond the conservative government's biting Cold War-style rhetoric, reality is often more pragmatic.

A week after Prague and Washington inked an accord to build a US missile defense base on Czech soil, a plan denounced by Moscow, the Czech leader attended another signing.

Alta, a Czech firm, sealed a €3-billion ($4.5-billion) contract to supply equipment for a new iron ore mine of Russia's Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works.

Czech state-controlled power company CEZ is rushing to stake out a claim in Russia's promising market of about 140 million inhabitants.

Petr Kellner, the richest Czech, has turned his financial services company Home Credit Group into Russia's biggest lender of consumer loans. And Western companies keenly dispatch Czech managers to a land of vast opportunity.

"If we get rid of those negative emotions that some people have had here since 1968, we are better qualified for success in Russia," Volkswagen's chief executive in Russia, Martin Jahn, a Czech, told the Hospodarske Noviny daily. "We understand the language, we better grasp their mentality." 

Even former NHL ice hockey star Jaromir Jagr, who famously wears number 68 on his jersey in the memory of his grandfather persecuted during the Stalinist era, now chases the puck in the Siberian city of Omsk.

An American lapdog?

Four decades after Soviet tanks crushed a brief push for political and economic reform by Czechoslovakia's communists, some Czechs view Topolanek's government as a lapdog of US neo-conservatives.

Jan Petranek, once a legendary radio correspondent who was condemned to a boiler-room manual job after 1968, says the legacy of fighting communism often leaves the Czech political elite "steeped in irrational hatred or fear of Russia."

"The new Russians are incredibly pragmatic," said Natalia Sudliankova, an editor of the Czech edition of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. "They will not do something just for the sake of an ideology like it used to be during the Soviet era."

In the national psyche

But with distrust of Russia ingrained in the national psyche, Czechs remain skeptical.

The country rushed to diversify its energy sources after communism fell in 1989 and officials have warned against allowing Russia into the state-owned energy sector.

Surveys by a government-funded polling agency repeatedly showed that Czechs rank Russians among less popular nations -- behind the French, Brits, Germans and Americans.

Petra Cermakova, 25, is too young to remember much of the Soviet era, yet she holds a grudge.

"I don't know why," the cheerful hotel receptionist said. "They (Russian guests) have complained how come I don't speak Russian when they used to be here."

Pavel Cizek, a 57-year-old janitor walking his dog in Prague's upscale Dejvice district -- a Russian enclave complete with a shop named Arbat after a vibrant Moscow street -- waved grudges away. His Russian neighbors are friendly and polite, he said.

"To frown upon all Russians today because they invaded us in 1968 is like frowning upon all Germans because they invaded us in 1939," he said.

-- Katerina Zachovalova/Expatica

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