On Monday, the Minister of Industry and Trade, Jozef Síkela, was to meet with important representatives of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, and on Tuesday, the delegation of Prime Minister Petr Fiala was to visit the most populous African country, Nigeria. Both eventually failed.
Seznam News reported at the end of last week that, according to sources in diplomacy, Síkel’s trip did not take place not only because of security in the region, as the domestic authorities officially claim, but also because of the imprudent diplomatic approach of Czech politicians – whether it was the words of Defense Minister Jana Černochová about withdrawing from the UN, or about the participation of ministers in a pro-Israel demonstration.
Former Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček (ČSSD) during his tenure at the Černín Palace advocated building relations with countries in the Middle East, especially with Qatar.
In an interview with Nauzal, he says that he agrees with the gestures of support from Fial’s government for Israel, which was attacked by Hamas terrorists a month ago. But at the same time, he adds that Czech politicians should proceed more strategically and with balance – so that they can have allies in the critical region. All the more so when supplies of raw materials from Russia stopped.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala and Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský did not respond to the editor’s questions before the publication of the article.
Last week, the Saudi Arabs postponed negotiations with the Czech delegation of Industry and Trade Minister Jozef Síkela, and this week Prime Minister Petr Fiala had to cross off a visit to Nigeria from his list. How do you read it?
It is correct that the political representation of the country expresses clear support for countries attacked from outside. However, it is necessary to perceive the longer-term effects of such steps, as for example it is perceived by our other partners. Especially the latter is not the strongest point of some members of Petr Fiala’s government.
Nigeria is among the key countries in Africa, as is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. And he is also one of the leaders of the developing world. Unfortunately, this indicates that our diplomatic and economic relations with these countries are becoming more complicated. It is not in the Czech interests to be isolated by important developing countries.
Last Wednesday, an event was held in the Old Town Square in support of Israel, which was attacked by the terrorist group Hamas. Both Prime Minister Fiala and Minister Síkela, who took a photo in the Israeli flag, spoke there. This was just a few days before the flight to Saudi Arabia, or to Africa. In terms of value, the given positions are obvious, but how is it from the point of view of strategy, diplomacy, security?
Yes, it is clear in terms of value. Israel, which has been the victim of a terrorist attack, must be supported. But I warn from the beginning that this conflict needs to be understood in a longer-term context, it is necessary to consider what effects our symbolic gestures can have – and not only those from Czech politicians. Saudi Arabia has to be very careful in these turbulent times to perceive the impact of its relations with foreign partners on public opinion.
The risk that such a photo would appear in the local media or on social networks really existed. Pro-Palestinian sentiments in the public there are long-standing. In addition, it should be noted that the attack by Hamas came at a time when most experts were convinced that sooner or later relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would normalize. It is clear that the regime in Riyadh cannot ignore the sentiments of its people.
Would you proceed more prudently in terms of diplomacy?
The Czech Republic, like Europe, has a longer-term problem that we sometimes confuse value policy with gestures, which are then interpreted differently in the countries of the global South than we would imagine. Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský rightly notes that, in the context of the war in Ukraine and the events in the Middle East, Europe needs greater support and understanding from the countries of the Global South – whether they are Arab or African countries. The fact that we need to work with them gets lost in how we approach them.
So is it a shame for the Czech Republic that trips like the one to Saudi Arabia or Nigeria are being cancelled?
It’s a shame. In Saudi Arabia, Czech politicians could see the Middle East conflict from the position of a key state in the Arab world. Relations at the political level cannot take place now, it is a shame for the Czech Republic not only because of the oil, which was supposed to be discussed there following the Russian oil shortage. But I consider it even more important that the Czech Republic could gain knowledge about the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. After all, this country wanted to settle relations with Israel, which could play a role in finding a solution to this oldest conflict – between Israelis and Palestinians. It must be said that even Israel should make some concessions in this dispute.
When you go to such countries, do you remember that as a minister you would undergo some training on protocol, instruction on what is suitable and what is not suitable to do and say, before such a trip?
Such trainings do not take place, it is more about the abilities of specific politicians to perceive the consequences of their actions. Rather, security preparation is done for potential risks, whether it is espionage or the risks associated with the given location.
In your capacity, you were involved in building relations between the Czech Republic and Qatar. How do you assess its role today, when the leaders of the terrorist Hamas reside in the capital, Doha?
Qatar’s long-term role has been to provide humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Qatar’s political position is complex. On the one hand, it is a Sunni state that is closer to the Palestinians as Sunnis. Paradoxically, however, it cooperates very closely with Shiite Iran. That Hamas commanders have gone to a country with such close ties to Iran gives some indication of Hamas’s thinking in terms of who it wants to work with in the future — if Hamas survives Israeli retaliation.
Here we should try and support Israel to eliminate the political-military section of Hamas.
A year ago, Czech ministers negotiated gas supplies in Qatar that would replace Russian raw materials. Given the support for Israel, should we also stop being interested in Qatari gas? Where does the moral or value line lie?
That is the problem. Europe, including the Czech Republic, often behaves hypocritically when it comes to such questions. That we have not been clearly told that economic cooperation with non-democratic regimes is already intolerable. For me, such an indicator is when Russia invaded Ukraine and violated international law. Trade with Russia cannot continue.
So you wouldn’t suspend trade agreements with Qatar?
I would rather think about how to diversify the supply of oil, oil products or natural gas even more. It is necessary for the Czech Republic to look at its energy security and we have prevented further price shocks that occurred last year after the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine. The world is not black and white, we need to have partners even in a number of countries whose values we do not always fully share – such as the Arab monarchies.
What Russia is doing in Ukraine is incomparable to what is happening in most Arab states. We should be concerned that the Arab world and the Middle East do not become another zone of widespread instability. Europe now has a much more fundamental task – defending Ukraine and finding peace in Europe.