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Pojar: Russia seeks influence in central Europe

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Russia is openly seeking greater influence in central Europe. “We need to react to it with equal openness and push our interests through,” says Deputy Foreign Minister Tomáš Pojar, who held talks with Russian officials in the past months on the planned US antimissile radar base, as well as about other issues. “That is true not only for us, but for the whole of the EU and NATO. That is the negotiation style that Russia understands.”

Russia is trying to keep us in its sphere of influence. What might we see from this?
What central Europe will look like will only show in 10 years. Right now nobody knows. It is exaggerated to view everything through the radar. That would only confuse the situation. It is true that not many countries have been interested in central Europe recently. Russia is: traditionally, long-term, and it is not afraid to declare it out loud. Germany is also interested. For us it is always better when someone else is also interested in central Europe. There is no need to draw catastrophic scenarios just yet.

Since when has Russia increased its interest in central Europe?
It can be seen ever since Vladimir Putin’s ascent. From the moment Russia went up economically, pulled itself together internally and started to defend, somewhat roughly, its interests, primarily in the former Soviet Union’s territory but, then, of course, in related circles, too.

When did US interest falter?
To be honest, it would be an illusion to expect a repeat of the 1990s, when the US paid exceptional interest in our region. To some extent, 9/11 represented a turning point at which the US started to focus on other parts of the world for obvious reasons. Stable central Europe, therefore, stopped being a priority. We cannot compete with the Middle East and China for interest.

This coincided, unfortunately: Russia stepped in when the US stepped back.
It can be put like that. For us it is important that the US stays present in some way in central Europe. It is important for us that the US does not do everything through London, Paris and Berlin. It is important that they do not forget that the Atlantic space also includes smaller countries.

Is it our fault that US interest faltered?
Either very little or not at all. I think we always behaved fairly, sensibly and understandably. All the administrators on the other side of the Atlantic have always appreciated that, which cannot be said of all central European countries.

Isn’t NATO putting us aside, too? The day after the US withdrew from the radar, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came up with a speech about the new friendship between NATO and Russia. Russian Ambassador Rogozin replied that the country is not against it, but that its “sphere of interest” needs to be recognised.
I don’t think so. Mr Rogozin’s statement is not surprising. Russia has been declaring its interest in this area openly and for a long time. As part of the EU and NATO, we should state more clearly that this is our sovereign space belonging to the union and alliance. I am more disturbed by the EU’s and NATO’s incapacity to formulate opinions rather than by Russia.

How can we let Russia know best?
NATO should broaden its critical infrastructure to the new member countries. A new antimissile shield idea could be of help under certain circumstances. We would talk about hundreds rather than dozens of antimissile bases. About dozens of radar bases rather than one. Europe would also have to pay more, of course. NATO should not play all of its cards in Afghanistan: We must primarily return to protect our own territory.

Should we worry that the main EU and NATO players will allow us to fall into the Russian sphere of influence?
I don’t think that there will be a Russian sphere of influence as we knew it in the past. It is not appropriate to turn that country into a demon. However, it is necessary to be cautious and watch who says and does what. There is no threat of it becoming dominant here.

You often held talks about the radar with Russian officials. What is the influence they want to get?
They are trying to play the part: divide and govern. We should try to sabotage this policy. Their fundamental vision is a multipolar world so that the individual players eliminate each other and make Russia come out of it stronger. It might also be economic and about energy influence, but I would not expect Russia to really dominate central Europe. In the energy field, it is in our interest to have as many suppliers and partners as possible, and the same is true for the economy. We should not be dominated by Russia or anybody else.

Next year, the German RWE could sell our monopoly fuel distributor, Transgas, to Gazprom for example. What can we do to prevent the risk of the Kremlin’s takeover?
In case of RWE and gas, we do not have many choices but we definitely are not completely without influence. With ČEZ, MERO, ČEPS and ČEPRO, we have it because the state still controls them. However, we are so interconnected with German space when it comes to energy that I cannot imagine that it would be in RWE’s or the German cabinet’s interest to leave the Czech energy sector. That is even truer for gas.

German and Russian companies often close deals that are unfavourable for the central European countries. The gas pipeline Nordstream is the most blatant example of this as it offers Russia a chance to cut off Poland. If it is profitable, we can expect them to close a deal at our expense, too.
In reaction to Nordstream, we want to construct Gazela, a gas connection from Saxony to Bavaria. That is our mutual Czech-German interest. It is also in the interest of RWE. If we continue in this direction, there will be no presale of strategic companies. I believe it makes no sense for RWE to sell Transgas.

Which companies should we strategically try to protect? ČEZ and ČEPRO are obvious. Fuel for Temelín is supplied by a Russian company.
Nuclear energy has a certain share in the overall mix. We cannot allow for a company or country to control a large part of the energy market. With nuclear fuel, we should have sufficient strategic reserves in the first place.

Is there any other serious threat?
To be honest, the oil and gas pipelines coming from Russia have no investors in many places that they go through and so they are in such a state that no one can guarantee that there will not be a purely technical problem that will interrupt its operation. This does not have to be a bad intention. That is why we need to keep at least two directions from which we receive gas and oil.

When the Druzhba operation was disrupted last year, the supplies were replaced by the Ingolstadt and Tal pipelines. We drew the most oil in the history of the independent Czech Republic, supplies through Druzhba faltered, but the Russian share did not. It was also partly Russian oil that flowed through Ingolstadt from the south. I don’t think that the oil supplies from Russia stopped due to political reasons, even though we had just signed the radar contract back then. It is necessary to differentiate between the real political pressure, a fight between the middlemen and a technical problem. Last year it was primarily about the repositioning of the middlemen, though it was controlled by the Kremlin.

When Russian sovereign funds started buying companies across Europe on a large scale, German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed a list of strategic companies that should be inaccessible to them. Shouldn’t we think about drafting a similar list?
We should do it and not only with Russia in mind. Massive investments from Middle Eastern or Chinese funds into strategic companies are not in our interest either. A detailed list requires a longer debate, though. It should include the critical infrastructure, of course: gas and oil pipelines, reservoirs and definitely ČEZ, too. The question is what to do with those that have private owners.


Tomáš Pojar

He entered the diplomatic sphere via the NGO People in Need, where he first worked as a project co-ordinator covering former Soviet states and later headed the whole organisation. He became a foreign ministry adviser in 2005 and was later promoted to deputy foreign minister. He represented the Czech Republic in talks with the US over the radar base. He studied political science at Charles University and had an internship at the American International School in Tel Aviv and held the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship in Washington.

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