It is, of course, a hackneyed cliché to talk about the “Russian bear.” Nonetheless, it is fair to say that prodding either with a stick is equally ill-advised. However, the usual advice on encountering a bear is to give it its space, be submissive, be quiet. That doesn’t work so well with Moscow. By the same token it is a dangerous caricature to suggest (as some sadly still do) that force or assertiveness is “all Russia understands.” However, what is certainly true is that meekness and the appearance of division tend to encourage Moscow to become more confrontational. Consider, for example, the marked failure of the US government’s “re-set” policy, which has failed to deter Russia from buttressing Syrian tyranny, spying on and perhaps murdering its critics abroad, publicly outing US agents, hounding Ambassador McFaul and doing everything but kicking sand in Obama’s face.
In this context—and given that I’m in Prague for the summer, I’m especially interested in Czech-Russian relations—I was perturbed by the details of the extradition to Moscow of Russian businessman Alexei Torubarov in May, especially in the context of what seems a growing assertiveness by Russia in Central and Southern Europe.
He fled Russia, claiming that he was being blackmailed by the Russian police and security apparatus and organized crime. Moscow conversely had charged Torubarov with fraud and blackmailing a Federal Security Service (FSB) agent. They had issued an international arrest warrant for him.
Torubarov sought asylum, but before the resolution of his application, Justice Minister Pavel Blažek ordered him deported. Several other ministers, including Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, Interior Minister Jan Kubice and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, wanted at the eleventh hour to prevent what they considered an over-hasty deportation, as Torubarov was sitting on the tarmac at Vaclav Havel Airport.
Kubice ordered police to take Torubarov off the Aeroflot jet and Kalousek, whose remit includes the airport, even told ground staff to block the runway with a fuel bowser. Tensions were high and it was even possible that there might be an armed clash between Czech and Russian security forces. The Russians did not blink; ultimately the Czechs did. The aircraft with Torubarov and his captors was eventually allowed to depart.
I do not believe that firefights at international airports are anything to encourage. Nor did I have any idea whether or not Torubarov’s case warranted asylum—I know from my own experience how easy it is for Russian crooks simply to claim to be victims of other Russian crooks in a bid to escape justice. However, it is striking that Blažek moved so quickly to have him handed to the Russians, even before the legal process had been completed and how divided the Czech government turned out to be. This is especially striking as debates continue over the competition between a Russian and a US-Japanese consortium for the Temelin nuclear power station construction contract and other hot-button issues in Russo-Czech relations.
Prague has, of course, a complex relationship with Moscow—in the Prague Post I suggest that it “is located at the hazy boundary between risk and opportunity.” This was made very clear during the recent trip to Moscow by Prime Minister Petr Nečas. Accompanied by serried ranks of businesspeople, he was there to push investment and joint ventures and clearly wanted to avoid antagonizing his hosts. Over the Pussy Riot case, for example, he tried to strike a balance between acquiescence and conscience, saying on the one hand that the “Pussy Riot members are no fighters for freedom and human rights. They desecrated an Orthodox church,” but on the other that there were punished “too strictly, for it.”
This is the kind of equivocation that satisfies no one. The fact of the matter is that the Czechs are in a stronger position in relation to Russia than they might believe. They invest much more in their larger near-neighbor, they are a favored place for Russian tourism, real-estate development and money-moving, and they are less dependent on Russian hydrocarbons than many other Central European states.
There is also scope for genuine partnership—in other words, one based on true mutuality—in a number of specific foreign policy areas. Neither Prague and Moscow want to see European weapons flow to the Syrian rebels, for example (albeit for very different reasons). Likewise, Prague is supportive of a more liberal European visa regime for Russia—something Moscow has wanted for some time.
At the same time, Prague should avoid looking too vulnerable, amenable or divided. The last is difficult given the fissiparous nature of the coalition government, uniting as it does more Russo-skeptical figures such as Schwarzenberg and the more conciliatory dominant ODS party. This is also complicated by the Russophile tendencies of new president Miloš Zeman, who is trying to establish a greater role for himself in foreign policy. However, the more these divisions are played out in public, and the more Russia’s interests seem to be granted a special, privileged status—visible in Torubarov’s pre-emptive extradition—the greater it encourages Russian assertiveness.
Besides which, there are areas in which Czech and Russian interests clearly diverge and on which one would hope the whole political class in Prague could agree. The intrusive and extensive level of Russian espionage in the Czech Republic, for example, which the BIS security service has chronicled, could be curbed. Likewise, there is scope for a more robust stand on Russian organized crime and dirty money than Moscow might like, yet which would certainly improve the ČR’s economic security.
Overall, the irony is that Nečas and Zeman are right—there are huge opportunities for the Czechs in developing strong and dynamic relations with Moscow. However, for those relations to be truly mutually-beneficial and for them not to force Prague into dependency or at least encourage Moscow into counter-productive assertiveness, the Czech must speak firmly, clearly and with one voice.