Newsletter Feature


Czech-American Relations in the Context of the Euro-Atlantic Political Debate

Jaroslav Kurfürst presented the following remarks at ACWA's April 26, 2007, Global Scholars and Speaker Event.

It is a great pleasure to be here in Akron and to be able to take part in the activities of your Council on World Affairs whose prestige is rapidly gaining in Washington D.C. I saw the impressive list of colleagues who have participated in these programs; and so I am quite aware that I am standing before a very informed public.

For some of you, the Czech Republic can be personified via Presidents Vaclav Havel or Vaclav Klaus, hockey player Jaromir Jager, tennis player Martina Navratilova or film director Miloš Forman. Some of you may have even visited Prague. However, I would like to share with you the story of our modern history. It is the story of the successful transformation of a central European country, and a very fine chapter of this transformation is our partnership with the United States.

Czech Republic’s Best Historic Period is Now

I was actually educated to be a geographer. I love maps, including historical maps. If you look at an old map of central Europe and compare it to today’s map, you will see a major difference. Today, in the heart of central Europe, the Czech Republic is surrounded by close friends, namely Slovakia, Austria, Germany and Poland. All four of them are part of a club called the European Union and three of them are part of NATO. One can say that there is nothing special about this, but I would like to remind you that it has not always been like this.

The Czech nation very often underwent a troubled history. Almost all the European wars started, went through or ended on its soil. Currently, however, I dare to argue that in terms of security and quality of external conditions the Czech Republic is probably experiencing the best period in its long history. These days, no one can imagine a large nationwide imminent security threat. Today, we base our security on political trade, membership in NATO, membership in the European Union and excellent relationships with our neighbors.

Impact of U.S. Engagement in the World Today

To the American commentators of foreign policy who are looking for success stories showing positive impact of U.S. engagement in the world today, I suggest to take a long hard look at central Europe. I believe that the success story here is really exceptional. Around 18 years ago, you had a country that was under the totalitarian rule of a single communist party with a planned and rigid economy and not even fully sovereign (we had the saying back then that if it starts to rain in Moscow comrades in Prague are already opening their umbrellas). It was also a part of an aggressive military pact and hosted missiles with nuclear warheads on its territory and so on.

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Janet Marcinik, Principal, Topline International; Jaroslav Kurfürst, Deputy Chief of Mission, Czech Republic, Washington, D.C.

Fast forward 18 years into the present time and we have the sovereign Czech state that is a member of the EU, NATO and mentally part of the western civilization. It has a booming and vibrant economy that is growing at a solid 6 percent a year. Our country is heavily engaged in the promotion of respect for human rights and democracy around the world and is even being engaged in efforts to stabilize the troubled spots of the world — be it Iraq, Afghanistan or the Balkans.

One of the main characteristics of our foreign policy is the very strong commitment to trans-atlanticism. You can really see a U-turn in our foreign policy in comparison with our socialist days. We are now turned back in the right direction. This policy is being carried out very successfully, especially from the viewpoint of history and in very short period of time. Of course, the big picture looks almost too ideal and real life has not always been so rosy. The nineties were a period of enormous transformation in all of the central European countries. And we saw some ups and downs, but we learned along the way.

1. Defining moments in Czech history

Why was the transformation in central Europe so successful? I think there are a few historical reasons for this. We were a part of the communist world which we did not invent. Communism or socialism has never been the tradition of our statehood, and it was imposed upon us. It was something artificial in our part of the world and it was extremely ineffective. There are very important historical realities for us, Czechs.

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Group discussion session with Jaroslav Kurfürst, Deputy Chief of Mission, Czech Republic, Washington, D.C.

Throughout history, Czechs were an integral part (and some times central part) of the western culture. Anyone who visits Prague understands this — just from the first glance at the richness of the architecture there. Even when we lost our independence and the Czechs existed under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy for several centuries, Czech lands were one of the most developed parts of the monarchy. One historical map from that time actually demonstrates the Czech lands as the flower of a rose having its roots in Vienna.

The Czechoslovak independent state was one of the most developed and industrial countries in the world. It was greatly based on the American democratic tradition. The Declaration of Independence of Czechoslovakia was strongly inspired by the United States Declaration of Independence. The U.S. played a very important role in helping to promote the creation of a newly independent state in central Europe. The Czechs and Slovaks were so grateful to President Wilson for his political support that they even renamed the second most important city in their country – today the capital of Slovakia – after him to Wilsonov (Wilson city) for several weeks before renaming it back to its historical name of Bratislava.

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Presentation of four key issues for Czech briefing session with ACWA Global Scholars by Jaroslav Kurfürst, Deputy Chief of Mission, Czech Republic, Washington, D.C.

When people ask me how come the Czechs elected the communists (and their takeover in 1948 was in fact processed by legal means), I explain that our 1948 had its roots in 1938 when Hitler’s Germany, France and Britain decided that a big part of Czechoslovakia’s territory was given to Germany under the policy of appeasement. In 1948, the notion of the “west”, which today has a very positive connotation, meant a fascist Germany and then an unreliable Britain and France for the Czech people. The U.S. gained great popularity among the Czech people by entering the war and helping to win it. The western part of Bohemia was liberated by American troops and the Czech people there still celebrate the victory of General Patton and his brigade each year.

The betrayal of western European powers and the following liberation by the Soviet army created a special mood in the Czech public in that the Soviet and Czech communists were easily able to manipulate the public opinion. Nobody actually believed that something like this could ever happen. Even the American ambassador in Czechoslovakia at that time was convinced that such a bad scenario in our country did not exist. He only able to finally see the situation clearly shortly before the communist coup d´etat occurred.

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Group discussion session with Jaroslav Kurfürst, Deputy Chief of Mission, Czech Republic, Washington, D.C.

And even after it happened, the U.S. policy continued to be quite comfortable with this development. Clearly, there was a strong conviction in Washington as to the strong democratic tradition in Czechoslovakia. The directive of the National Security Council proposed this political experiment based on the cohabitation of influence of both powers — Soviet and American — in Czechoslovakia. At that time, the Czechoslovaks liked their role in the post World War II world — they saw themselves as a bridge between the west and east.

But Stalin made it very clear early on that such a situation is not acceptable to him, and the country began to lose its democratic character very quickly. The dark communist years that followed were interrupted only briefly by the effort to change the corrupt system in 1968, but this effort was halted by the Soviet occupation which lasted until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

This is where the transformation began. This was a great moment of euphoria, and my generation was privileged to be a part of it. I will never forget the energetic atmosphere of our student activities and demonstrations, or about the time when I and my friends were detained by communist police in the then “red” city of Ostrava.

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Q & A session with Jaroslav Kurfürst, Deputy Chief of Mission, Czech Republic, Washington, D.C.

In 1989, we had a state, which had the goal and will to return to its historical and very traditional place in the world — to the family of democratic nations. And this state was and continues to be strongly pro-American. The Americans helped to create our democratic country in 1918. The Americans helped to liberate us in 1945. The United States has always symbolized freedom and, by winning the cold war, the Americans brought freedom once again to the Czech people. This has and shall not been forgotten.

2. Transformation

But, at the beginning of the nineties, there was really an enormous job ahead of us in terms of transformation. Then, it was something historically unique, and nobody had the experience. The new political elite that emerged was composed of dissidents. These were people who were very brave and able to resist and fight against the totalitarian regime. These were people who had always been excluded from any executive power. Vaclav Havel was a dissident and a writer. Many others were artists and free thinkers who were prohibited by the communists to achieve a good education. These people were able to fight against the evils of communism. They were very brave and intelligent but had no executive experience in how to build a new democratic state.

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Presentation of four key issues for Czech briefing session with ACWA Global Scholars by Jaroslav Kurfürst, Deputy Chief of Mission, Czech Republic, Washington, D.C.

The basic question of each transformation is how deeply and thoroughly do you want to out clean the old order for a new administration and a new system? One extreme is to fully do so as in what happened in Iraq. You can start from scratch. This, however, threatens the disruption of the basic functions of the state and loss of peace.

Another extreme was utilized by some countries of the Soviet Union. These countries implemented a pluralistic political system, adopted a sound constitution but never removed the corrupt personnel from positions of power that they had under the previous system.

The Czechs did quite well in their transformation and in comparison with other states in the region, were more robust and radical in changing their system. We fully dissolved our intelligence services. We fired the majority of our diplomats and generals. We implemented the so-called lustrations – this meant that people seeking a job with the government had to show a certificate of proof that they had no collaboration with the prior Czechoslovak or Soviet intelligence.

The very first task of our leadership was to remove the Soviet troops from our territory and, actually, we were the first to be able to get rid of them. In the Czech Republic, the nineties were referred to by the people by special and meaningful vocabulary. It was not only the time of the lustrations but also of coupon privatization, restitution of properties stolen by the communists, cutting and transforming of the army, and finally the integration into NATO and the EU. It was a period of intensive work.

The very basic question of the day was the dilemma whether to apply the policy of legal continuity or to break with the former legal and constitutional architecture. The continuity was more popular in countries with a strategy of slower evolution like our neighbors, but we opted for it as well. In fact, Czech Republic became known as an example of a country trying to radically and quickly change its political, economic and judicial systems.

On our road through the nineties, we split Czechoslovakia into two countries in 1992. And so, the Czech Republic was created on the 1st of January in 1993. Looking back, this breakup was a very smart move, because some of the negative mood and small bickering about the direction of the state that existed at the time was interrupting its transformation. However, as a result, today we have no better friends than the Slovaks due to our peaceful split. We love and cultivate our strong partnership. We share a common historical destiny and experience and we also share our goals for the future. Some people even speculate that we split because we wanted two chairs at the table at the EU, NATO or U.N. Nevertheless, seriously speaking, we are very good friends now.

So the process was intensive and dynamic, but I strongly believe done well. Today, we have a country with an impressive, sound and stable economic growth of 6%, low inflation and declining unemployment. Moreover, last year’s balance of trade was the best since 1989. Economic predictions are very good, and we are quickly narrowing the gap with the original EU member states.

It is most impressive that in such a short period of time we have already exceeded some of them in our economic performance and are slowly but surely approaching the EU average GDP – now we are at some 76% and each year we are able to add another 4%. 84% of our total export heads to the EU countries and, in general, is increasing by a double digit number each year. The crown is becoming more solid with each month and is reaching record levels against the U.S. Dollar (the staff at our embassy in Washington, D.C. is not very happy about this — as they are being paid in U.S. dollars — but we are all patriots, so we take it easy!).

The Czech Republic attracts many American businesses and tourists. Since the velvet revolution, mutual trade increased almost 20 times and is continuously growing and breaking records each year. Last year, more than 100 U.S. companies entered the Czech market, and they are very satisfied with their decisions. They are our best advocates. The American businesses are drawn to the Czech Republic as they like the abundance of our educated labor force, high industrial tradition, strategic location in the heart of Europe and the quality of life and rich culture there. For example, American investment into the Czech Republic amounted to 4.2 billion dollars in 2006 alone. 60% of these American direct investments are generally directed to scientific research.

3. Commitment to our relationship with the U.S.

What was also deeply transformed is our security and foreign policy. One of the defining principles of our foreign policy is our strong transatlantic instinct. This instinct is based on historical experience which shows how important American engagement in Europe and with Europe was for us. We strongly believe in transatlantic civilization and not in separate European and separate American ones.

The U.S. does not have better friends and partners than the Europeans and also vice versa. We should be ready to cooperate together with regards to global challenges. We are destined to cooperate very closely. Some political dynamics are negative in this respect but I believe in the unity of our strategic goals and vision and in the power of a free market as well and this is the force creating an ever more powerful transatlantic community.

We project our conviction in the partnership between both shores of the Atlantic in our policy within NATO and the EU. Today, we have our troops stationed permanently in Iraq with no intention to leave until the job is done. We are also in Afghanistan and here we are looking towards an even more ambitious job in comparison with many activities we have in this country now. We are raising our voice for the support of the oppressed people in Cuba, Belarus, Burma and other places around the world.

We have very compatible goals with the U.S. But we do not do those things just to be nice to the Americans. We are doing this because it is our vision and belief based on our historical experience. We lost democracy and we were lucky enough to be able to restore it. We went through transformation and we are ready to share what we have learned from our mistakes and successes with others.

4. Visa Waiver Program

However, there is one topic where the Czech-American partnership still has room for improvement, and this involves the asymmetrical visa treatment of our respective countries. American tourists love Prague and our other cities. More than 300,000 tourists from the U.S. come to the Czech Republic every year. They are impressed by the beauty of Prague and our other cities and the friendliness and hospitality of the Czech people.

Last year, a total of 46 thousand people from the Czech Republic traveled to the United States. I think this is actually the most important for the relationship between two countries – relations between people, friends, families, people traveling to visit, do business or just for pleasure. It is much more important to know and understand each other than to speak of the impressive statistics of economic exchange.

And so here, in my opinion, in people-to-people contacts, the U.S. still has a job to do. While Americans have been able to come to my country for 18 years now without the need to obtain a visa, the Czechs do need a visa to come to the U.S. The system that is in place to get these U.S. visas is costly, complicated and sometimes outright humiliating.

There have been recent improvements to this procedure in obtaining these U.S. visas and the American embassy in Prague is doing a good job – they are not to be blamed. What is not fair is the law currently in place that needs to be changed. For 16 years, we did not raise concerns with this asymmetry because the Czech Republic was a country in transition, and there was a real risk that there would be an increase in the numbers of illegal immigrants to the U.S. However, once the Czech Republic joined the EU, many European countries opened the labor market to the Czechs.

Today, it is clear that those who want to improve their social situation would rather go to the EU countries than the U.S. as they will be closer to home, earn money legally without the risk of being detained, and even be covered by health and social insurance. Additionally, the Czech economy is slowly catching up and even surpassing the economies of those EU members which are in the VWP. So our question is why must so good an ally in the war on terror as the Czech Republic be treated differently than other European countries?

We have been undergoing a great effort to change the law in your Congress. Importantly, those arguments that I just mentioned were strong enough to convince President Bush. Since last November, President Bush shares our goal and wants to help us. Our arguments were finally also heard among Congressman from both political parties. Now, we have several legislative proposals in both houses of Congress. The Senate version has already been approved. Still, we are not celebrating the victory yet because we still need the support of our friends. The process in Congress is complicated. But I am optimistic. Any help from your side towards including the Czech Republic in the Visa Waiver Program will be greatly appreciated.

5. Missile Defense

The most heated political debate in the Czech Republic probably regards the hosting of a part of the U.S. Missile Defense system on the territory of the Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic was asked by the American administration to host one of two planned components of the European part of the missile defense system. My government understands the defensive character of the system which will protect a majority of the European NATO territory as well. We have already opened formal negotiations about our role as hosts, and we hope these negotiations shall be successful.

Our parliament has the final authority in deciding the fate of the radar. Now, we are in the phase of educating, explaining and discussing this issue with the Czech public, politicians, our allies in NATO and EU and partners like Russia. They should all receive accurate information about the character of the system which is designed to cope with the threat of potential future attack by ballistic missiles from the direction of the Middle East.

I see the debate as simple as this: all sound security systems work on the basis of a threat analysis. Each threat is then countered by available defensive means. Currently, there is a gradual development of ballistic capabilities globally and, in particular, in Iran. Therefore, a functional security system should use today’s available technology and develop a protective system. The debate has many dimensions, and we can leave open questions to the Q and A.

6. Czech Republic in the European Union, preparing for the Presidency

What is the next challenge after the transformation and integration for the Czech Republic? Our upcoming Presidency in the European Union in first half of 2009 shall definitely be a great challenge and honor. We will be given the chance and responsibility to chair the club of great European democracies and to represent half a billion people.

We are already looking not only how to contribute to the development of the EU but also to the EU – U.S. relations. Here, we will have the honor to work with a newly elected U.S. president and a new administration and we are ready to project our strong transatlantic vision towards that fresh start.

Thank you for your attention.


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ACWA Speaker Visit

Jaroslav Kurfürst visited Akron, Ohio, at the invitation of the Akron Council on World Affairs (ACWA). He participated in three ACWA programs. He provided a formal briefing session for high school students participating in ACWA's award-winning Global Scholars program. Students attending the briefing prepared in advance with study materials based on four current Czech Republic issues chosen by Mr. Kurfürst. He was the guest speaker at ACWA's evening "Dialogue with the Speaker" program. ACWA also arranged a roundtable Global Executives meeting for Mr. Kurfürst with area economists and others, providing the opportunity to discuss business possibilities.