Czech-Russian Forum Created in Moscow – Platform for Open Dialogue or Propaganda Mouthpiece?

Moscow, Nov 22 (CTK special correspondent) – A memorandum on the creation of the Czech-Russian forum, a new platform for a dialogue on bilateral relations, including their sensitive aspects, was signed in Moscow today during the official visit by Czech President Milos Zeman.


The forum will start working next year. Experts, public personalities and some institutions from the Czech Republic and Russia will participate in its work, the Czech Presidential Office has said.


Former Czech diplomats, people from the non-government sector and experts in Eastern Europe protested against the establishment of the forum today. In their open letter, they called on Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek (Social Democrats, CSSD) to suspend the prepared platform for a dialogue.


Zaoralek rejected the demand that the forum be abolished. He said he considered this platform a way to address the Russian civic society and opposition.


“Diplomacy is to open space for dialogue. The sanctions do not mean that we will just sit and wait for the result. Let’s talk with the Russians about 1968 and misinformation campaigns,” Zaoralek tweeted.


According to the signatories, including former ambassadors Lubos Dobrovsky, Jiri Schneider, Petr Kolar and Pavel Fischer, People in Need NGO head Simon Panek and journalist and former dissident Petruska Sustrova, among others, this initiative seriously harms the interests of the Czech Republic and will serve as Moscow’s propaganda tool.


Zaoralek did not want to anticipate this. “If we saw that somebody abused it, we would draw conclusions from it, but I would not make such a claim in advance,” he said, adding that the Russian and Czech side would have to agree on the topics.


Zaoralek told journalists that other European countries such as Germany, France and Poland established discussion forums with Russia and he had not heard from them about any abuse of the forums.


The first topic of the planned Czech-Russian dialogue is to be cooperation of young people, mainly university students. Besides, discussions on tourism and culture exchange are to be on the agenda of the new forum.


It might also deal with the problem of the limited access of Czech researchers to Russian archives as well as the care for the memorials to Czechoslovak legionaries, members of the voluntary units dubbed “legions” that contributed to the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 after WWI. Czech officials consider the maintenance of their memorials insufficient and even some Russian historians criticise this.


Zaoralek said one of the first issues that the forum should discuss is the 1968 invasion “so that nobody from Russia would tell us that they brought us 20 years of peace.” He appreciated it that Zeman criticised the article during his visit.


The memorandum on the establishment of the Czech-Russian Forum was signed by Czech Institute for International Relations director Petr Kratochvil and Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) Anatoly Torkunov.


Zeman mentioned the establishment of the forum in Sochi on Tuesday during his meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Zeman said Putin had supported the step.


Zeman today also attended the opening of the Czech-Russian business forum held in the Centre of International Trade in Moscow on the occasion of his five-day visit to Russia.


Representatives of some 140 Czech firms attended the forum to meet Russian partners. Czech businesspeople want to seek opportunities to extend contacts with the Russian market despite international economic sanctions.


Czech Confederation of Industry President Jaroslav Hanak and Chamber of Commerce head Vladimir Dlouhy lead the big Czech business delegation in Russia.


They pointed out that Czech export to Russia had increased by 14 percent year-on year from January to August, amounting to 54 billion crowns. It started to rise again after a three-year decline.


However, members of the Czech business delegation are reluctant to speak about corruption problems of which some Russian media had long warned.


“This is a Russian problem. Russia is a specific country. This is a typical phenomenon on the levels of state administration and local self-rules,” Hanak said.


The critics of the establishing of the forum rejected the argument that a positive agenda with Russia would help Czech firms. “Russia has not been playing any substantial role in Czech economy, it represents under 2 percent of Czech exports. The economic importance of Russia for us is insignificant, while the security threats are real and serious,” they said.


They said Zeman has been systematically defending the aggressive politics of the current Russian regime. The Russian “divide and rule” method relies on the fragmentation of European countries with the aim of avoiding talks like EU-Russia or NATO-Russia, the added.