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Czech Diplomat Sees Spat With China Through History’s Lens

FILE - Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je shake hands before signing a partnership pact in Prague, Jan. 13, 2020. China has threatened action against Czech companies in China if Czech senators go ahead with a planned visit to Taiwan.

The Czech people, occupied by Germany during World War II and then forced into the Soviet bloc, are no strangers to foreign coercion. That may be a factor in the anger in Prague over what many there see as Beijing's heavy-handedness in dealing with their country.

In a series of conversations centered on history and identity, Zdenek Beranek, the second-highest official at the Czech Republic Embassy in Washington, told VOA that even though his government had made it clear "on multiple occasions" that mutually beneficial economic cooperation with China was very much welcome, "there is still room for improvement, to put it diplomatically."

"Personally, I do not believe that 'standing up to China' should be a goal, per se; quite the contrary, the unity of democratic countries is a precondition to balanced and mutually beneficial relations with China," he said.

A series of Chinese retaliatory actions prompted by Prague’s friendly relationship with Taiwan appears to have alarmed the Czech society.

China has threatened action against Czech companies in China if Czech senate leaders go ahead with a visit to Taiwan. Last March, Taiwan’s top diplomat in Prague was asked to leave a conference organized by the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Trade and Industry in response to pressure from Beijing.

Orchestra trip scrapped

The dispute over Taiwan also prompted Beijing to cancel a long-planned 14-city tour of China by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, costing the orchestra tens of thousands of dollars.

Beranek, who describes himself as Czech by birth, European by heart, historian by training and diplomat by accident, relied on the latter skill as he discussed the issue.

He said he doubted his country was the only one "being sensitive to the sometimes combative rhetoric or coercive approach" from Beijing. But, he said, the "traumatizing experiences" of the past century may contribute to his country's aversion to that pressure.

Czechoslovakia, the predecessor of the Czech Republic, was invaded by Nazi Germany two decades after its founding at the end of World War I. After Adolf Hitler’s defeat, it became a satellite of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The country's "postwar elites did little to resist Soviet Russia, wrongly believing that Stalin was someone they could have negotiated with," Beranek said.

Yet even under communist rule, the ideal of a "humanistic nation" that honors democracy and human rights had taken root, he said, as witnessed in 1968 by the so-called Prague Spring, an eight-month period of protest and democratic reform that eventually was brutally crushed.

Two decades later, the Soviet empire itself collapsed, democracy was reintroduced and the people of Czechoslovakia — Czechs and Slovaks — peacefully divided themselves into two independent nations.

Cooperation 'essential'

Beranek’s training as historian keeps these events fresh in his mind. But when asked how that training has shaped his career in diplomacy, Beranek said, "It's the other way around," meaning that his diplomatic work has enabled him to see historical events with a clearer lens.

As a historian, he also appreciates having a front-row seat as modern-day history unfolds. But he is not happy about everything he sees.

"It's clear that all democratic countries are facing unprecedented challenges; ever closer cooperation is essential," he said.

Such challenges have led his country to form closer ties with democratic nations far from Europe, he added, including Australia.

Beranek identifies his country's strategic decision to reintegrate with the West, including through memberships in both NATO and the EU, as crucial.

"However, the upcoming era of global power competition will be yet another thorough test of our ability to make strategic decisions," he said.

He hopes that his countrymen will always bear in mind what their founding fathers had envisioned for their homeland: that efforts devoted to democracy and human rights outside their own boundaries will ultimately contribute to shaping an international environment "conducive to our own freedom and prosperity."