Former French Ambassador to Prague, Warsaw, and NATO says Central Europe has better chances for cooperation as Vaclav Klaus retires. Benoît d’Aboville believes that the Visegrad Group (comprising Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) can now more efficiently participate in the profound transformation that NATO and the EU are undergoing. Mr. d’Aboville talked to V4SciencesPo, after speaking at its conference “Czech Republic and Slovakia: For or against Europe 20 years after?” organized on 16 April 2013.
V4SciencesPo: What convinced you to accept our invitation to speak at the conference?
BdA: I have kept from my mission to Prague and from my trips to Bratislava in the late 1990s very good memories and tonight it was a pleasure to meet with the new generation of Czechs and Slovaks. They accept the challenge to work together at a time when there are much better prospects for cooperation and understanding than 20 years ago, when the separation occurred. The divorce was arranged by politicians, but it was not really formally endorsed by the population. At the time, it surprised the French, who were mesmerized by the personality of President Václav Havel, and could not completely understand how he could be defeated on an issue close to his heart. Václav Klaus (the former Czech President) is now retiring. So, especially for the Czechs, but also for the Slovaks, there is a new opportunity to work together within the EU and NATO and to contribute to reform both the EU and NATO at a time when both organizations need to adapt to the new international context.
V4SciencesPo: How did you and France perceive the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the rise of the Visegrád Group (V4) ?
BdA: Firstly, one should remember that it was the time of the Balkan wars, so everybody in France was quite worried about divisions, clash of minorities, territorial disputes and so forth. Prime Minister Edouard Balladur made a proposal for reconciliation, which was quite useful for the Romanian-Hungarian relationship, but less immediately successful for the German-Czech one – it was too soon - or for Slovakia’s relations with Hungary due to (Slovak Prime Minister) Vladimír Mečiar’s attitude. Secondly, the V4 was supported by the Poles and Hungarians who thought that the Visegrád Group (V4) was a great idea. However, while the V4 was strongly supported by President Václav Havel with all his international prestige, yet his policies were opposed by Klaus, who was very skeptical about the utility and rationale for a Visegrád group. Beyond his political opposition to Havel, there were also personal reasons. As an economist, he thought he was one of the leaders of transition from communism to capitalism. But it was the Hungarian economists who at that time were more recognized in the West. He was also in competition with Polish Finance Minister Balcerowicz. Balcerowicz was leading a transformation of Polish economy applauded by Western economists, while the Czech privatization through the bond scheme was criticized. Klaus had therefore a grudge against the Poles and the Hungarians and thus, he was not in favor of the V4. Finally, Klaus thought– and he was right on this point –that the Czech Republic had enough prestige – especially thanks to Havel– to be among the first to join NATO and that a regional enlargement could delay the process.
V4SciencesPo: Did the French government perceive the Czecho-Slovak separation with fear or with hope?
BdA: At that time, the EU’s enlargement policy incorporated the concept of taking into account the diversity of applicants and therefore accepted the idea of a competitive race between candidates which could stimulate their progress. It was the “regatta approach”, which was however dropped afterwards. The French were looking into Czech politics at the time of separation basically through Havel’s prestige and notoriety. He was invited several times to Paris and was very influential on the Balkan wars and on the idea that the transformation of Central Europe will not be as quick as some thought. Basically, Havel was very useful in putting again Central Europe on the French diplomatic map.
V4SciencesPo: Since Havel was against the separation, did the French agree with him?
BdA: Whilst the French were more on Havel’s side, they understood that the elections were won by Klaus and Mečiar and that there was nothing to do about it. The idea was also that the EU accession, which was not immediate, because time was needed to prepare the economies, would allow for mitigating the problems that might derive from the separation. While the cultural community was very worried about the separation, I think the population at large was not so traumatized by the division. First, Czechoslovakia had been a political construction engineered by others, including (French Prime Minister) Georges Clemenceau in Versailles (during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference) and therefore lacked historical attachment in the culture of both countries. Clemenceau intented to destroy the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the Slovaks were rather comfortable within the Empire. Second, they did not seem to like to be under what they considered a Prague hegemony. Moreover, after the Prague Spring (the efforts towards a reformed Communism crushed by the Soviet invasion in 1968), the Moscow Communist Party decided to exploit the Czecho-Slovak division by giving power and investments to the Communists in Bratislava: they found them more reliable. This factor not only prepared psychologically and politically the division, but also gave, through the Federation Constitution they had left, a legal opening.
V4SciencesPo: When French President François Mitterrand came to Czechoslovakia in 1990 he proposed to Czechoslovakia to integrate into the “European confederation” with other post-Communist countries, including the Soviet Union. The proposal was supposed to be an alternative to the EU membership.
BA: I do not agree with the way you presented the “Confederation”, but agree that it was not a success! France had supported the EU enlargement from the start. But Mitterrand thought that the preparation time would be important. And since it were to be a lengthy process, we could use the concept of “wider Europe” – the OSCE Europe. This was not an alternative for EU accession but a European political framework within which the preparation for accession would take place. This did not mean to integrate Russia into a political and economic confederation. It was more about building a political dialogue and making Russians understand – and it was not obvious for them at the time- that the unification of Europe was not directed against them and that the process was unavoidable. But there was a misperception, especially by the Czechs and by Havel himself. We understood quickly that they were reluctant. So, Mitterrand quietly dropped it. But the idea that no blocks in Europe should separate Russia from the continents has remained an agreed concept within French diplomacy.
V4SciencesPo: Is it still valid today?
BdA: The French policy states that we should have a dialogue with Russia, even if it is difficult nowadays. We consider it as a part of the continent and we have economic and cultural ties with Russia. It should not be isolated, because that would only make things worse.
V4SciencesPo: Yet, Russia deliberately overlooks its former satellites, which complicates the dialogue in the European context.
BdA: Yes, Russia has been very clumsy in its European policies, even if this policy has evolved over time. At the start, it has been trying to consider the EU as a second rate interlocutor, while accepting the dialogue with NATO as part of their status. It was nostalgia of the time of the dialogue with the “two superpowers”. Second, for a generation of politicians who considered themselves the masters of Eastern Europe, it was very difficult to absorb the change, even at the individual level. But this generation is disappearing and now Russians accept that they have a lot of interests in Central Europe and that they should deal with the former Warsaw Pact countries on an equal basis. Their economic interests are clear: developing their role in the energy sector, for example investing in oil distribution in Hungary and in the nuclear modernization of Temelín or in building new gas pipelines on behalf of Gazprom …. Russia has not abandoned Central Europe at all!
V4SciencesPo: How does France see today’s Central Europe? Is it an inspiration or something France is not interested in?
BdA: Because of the Czech reluctance at Klaus’s times regarding the V4, collectively Central Europe did not influence the EU as it could have done. In fact, V4 has been superseded by the Weimar Triangle composed of Poland, Germany and France. Therefore, I think the challenge for the Czechs and the Slovaks, but also for the Hungarians is to reinvent their policies for Central Europe, taking on board the bigger Poland, while being aware of problems it may raise for the internal balance of the V4.
V4SciencesPo: Does France prefer individual states in Central Europe, with which it can work individually, or rather a regional bloc like the V4, which can have a common position, but is also a stronger negotiator?
BdA: Firstly, in Europe we will all continue to work on the bilateral level with all the countries in Central Europe, because they are and will remain culturally and politically diverse. Also because Brussels must take into account the changing majorities in the governments which are part of the democratic process. Therefore there will always be a dialogue at the level of nation states. Secondly, it is true that there is a trend in Europe to consider regional blocks, though sometimes with wrong political reasons. Anyway, you will have a complex mixture of national relationships and regional dialogues, although these are not translated automatically into political voting blocks within the EU.
V4SciencesPo: Is there a role for those Central European countries in the North Atlantic cooperation as the US has been refocusing on Asia?
BdA: The Czechs, whom I knew better than the Slovaks at the time, were until few years ago totally transfixed by the Prague-Washington relationship. Indeed, the fact that (US Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright was Czech-born was an important factor. The Poles, whose minorities in the US are very active, were a bit disappointed with the US because they did not get the gains expected from their commitment in Afghanistan, for example at that time the lifting of the visa regime for Poles coming to the US. Because they are quite active in the EU, they are now much more open towards European Defense Cooperation (EDC). The Czech Republic has until now taken some distance from the EDC – not at the level of their very good civil servants and experts, but rather at the level of politicians of the old generations who sometimes seem to focus more on the US and NATO.
V4SciencesPo: What were the powerful moments in your diplomatic experience in Central Europe and what were the difficult ones?
BdA: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European parameters changed completely at the level of the diplomacy and defense relationships. Being in the region at the time, both working with NATO and the EU accession preparations was an extraordinary experience.
My interlocutors were very clever young civil servants, often fighting against the political prejudices of their own governments and, as one told us, “sometimes receiving rocks from their governments on the position they had taken”. It was a fascinating task to try to help them, and inform Brussels in order that the Commission and the nations will have a better understanding of the political and bureaucratic difficulties linked with such and such chapters of the negotiation process.
At that time we were also able to see many former dissidents, whose history, intellectual vision and courage was a source of inspiration. I had a lot of discussions with them. I was privileged to speak many times with Havel and his friends, and when I was in Poland, with (Polish historian and politician) Bronislaw Geremek and others. To have the opportunity to meet and be friend with those great personalities was a unique reward. One of the great privileges about diplomacy is that you get a very full and diversified experience. You go from one country to another, from multilateralism to bilateralism – a variety of experience and contacts you will never find in banking or business. As a diplomat you meet important people in each country, the intellectual elite, and simultaneously, you have to follow the public opinion, to meet ordinary people, to engage with the economic leaders but also with many segments of the civil society. I dare say that it remains one of the most beautiful professions you can choose.
V4SciencesPo: And the difficult moments?
BdA: The difficult moments occurred obviously when there are difficulties or misunderstandings between your own country and the one to which you are accredited. You have to engage on some mediating work. To give a classical example we had at that time some problems to solve concerning the Czech privatization or issues between French firms and the Czech government. In NATO, where I was representing France at the time of the second Iraq War it was sometimes rough : we had a different position from the US and I remember how my Czech colleagues criticized us not on the issue of the war but just about the principle of not joining the US position. It was so rough at the North-Atlantic Council that we had to postpone a visit in Paris by a Czech State Foreign Secretary! Of course it was an isolated incident in a time of great stress within NATO. Overall, I have had a lot of very good relationships with the Czech and Slovak delegations in NATO. Even after quitting diplomacy, when I travelled to Central Europe, it was a pleasure to meet again old friends with whom we spent so many good times and also these friends who represented the new Europe we all fought at the time and which was emerging from the end of the Cold War. To sum up, I think I had the most interesting time at the best period to be in Central Europe and it indeed was a fascinating experience!
Source photo: © by CSMPF.