Friday, 9 January 2009

1968 Tensions in the Gazprom Crisis

The EU has struck a deal with Russia, and it appears the gas crisis may be coming to an end, as millions of people in the Balkans continue to be without heat during a brutal cold snap across Europe. In exchange for Russia immediately reopening its gas pipeline through the Ukraine, who it has accused of stealing gas, the EU will send monitors to supervise supplies of Russian gas through the country. However according to the latest reports, gas is still not flowing through the pipeline as of this afternoon.

Given that this is the first crisis faced by the new Czech presidency of the European Union, many are doing some hand-wringing over whether the bad blood between the Czech Republic and Russia is going to affect the negotiations over this crisis. The history between the Czech Republic and its former occupier, as well as its current diplomatic tension over the missile defense system being installed by the US, mean that negotiations taking place between the Czech presidency and Russia are going to have some baggage.

Today the FT's EU correspondent Tony Barber wrote in his blog that these fears are misplaced, but I have to say that his his analysis doesn't conform with my experience there. I lived in Prague back in 2002-2003, and during this time I found antipathy toward the Russians to still be alive and well, especially among the older generation. I had a Ukranian friend there who spoke fluent Russian, but no Czech. But although most older Czechs can understand Russian because they learned it in school, when she would walk into a store and speak in Russian she would be met with just cold stares. She would then ask again in English and then they would respond, even though it was clear they had understood her the first time.

I found this same attitude existed with older Czech coworkers where I worked in Prague. Whenever something about Russia came up I could see their expressions harden. This is probably only to be expected, after all we are talking about a country that brutally crushed their political movement in 1968 and then occupied their country until for the next 20 years.

Of course this is just anecdotal evidence, and not the same as the Czech foreign minister's assertions to the contrary. But of course it's any diplomat's job to gloss over tensions. So far Czech-Russian tension doesn't seem to have had an affect on the current crisis, but even once this is resolved there are serious implications of what has happened here that need to be dealt with. This incident will surely bring home the fact that the EU is dangerously dependent on Russia for its energy supply. Could hostile words from a Czech presidency have the effect of exacerbating the conflict? At a time when Brussels is already worried about the effect the Czech presidency will have on the Lisbon Treaty ratification, the last thing they probably want is another cause for hand-wringing.

3 comments:

Bart Simpson said...

STILL CONVINCED RUSSIA SHOULD NOT BE INCLUDED IN THE EU (OR VICE VERSA)??? IF BRUSSELS WANT THE IRISH TO SAY YES, THEN MAYBE THE IDEA TO INCLUDE RUSSIA INTO THE EU IS AN EXCELLENT IDEA!

Dwight said...

The political establishment (Pres, PM, FM, deputy PM) and media in CR are anti-Russian.

Regular people, businessmen, and the CR's most famous athlete (Jagr) are neutral or pro-Russia.

Dave Keating said...

Hmm Dwight to me it seems like the opposite, where the government leaders try to be diplomatic but among the people, particularly the older generation, there is still great bitterness toward Russia. For instance the opposition that exists to the missile defense plan in CR tends to be on the grounds that it will spark military build-up or that it makes CR a puppet state of the US, not that it will anger the Russians.