An Interview with Ambassador Petr Kolar
By Hugh S. Galford
The Czech Republic has come a long way since its Velvet Divorce from Slovakia. Having thrown off Czechoslovakia’s dreary communism, the Czech Republic has become a massive draw for tourists and a vibrant cultural nation. Long famous for its beer, its classical music and its architecture, the country is adding IT and biotechnology to its resume, hoping to become the Silicon Valley of Europe. A member of the European Union, the Czech Republic is once again taking its place on the international stage.
The country’s new-found vibrancy and outlook are embodied in Petr Kolar, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Czech Republic to the US. With degrees from Prague’s Charles University in Information Technology and Library Science and in Ethnography, and post-graduate research at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research, Ambassador Kolar takes a forward-looking approach to relations, but understands the importance of looking to the past and learning its lessons as well.
The breakup of Czechoslovakia, Kolar says, “was probably inevitable. I was very sad at the time, and opposed it, but from today’s perspective, it was an important step. There were many bad spirits and irrational accusations at the time, on both sides: who paid more, who was better off…. It was like a marriage: when you start to fight about money, it’s better to separate.” But from this Velvet Divorce, he says, “a new kind of love” has developed.
“Some in Brussels joke that the Czechs and Slovaks fooled them — we just wanted more votes in the European Union Council! They say that we always work together, so why did we separate?” Economically, Kolar says, the two countries are close. “We are both signatories to the Schengen accords. There are many mixed Czech-Slovak families, and artists from both countries constantly cross the border. Our shared cultural life is strong.” He notes that the Slovaks, just like the Czechs, have “braved economic reform, leading to an increasing GDP and a progressive outlook.”
In addition to research at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo and serving as Ambassador to Sweden and the Republic of Ireland, Ambassador Kolar also served for two years as Advisor for European Integration and the Balkans to Vaclav Havel, the Czechs’ first post-Communist president. Asked if he felt that Havel’s dreams for his country have been realized, Kolar responded that Havel “is a very modest man, not very demanding personally, but never satisfied politically.” Havel, he says, still sees that there is much to be done.
“He is quite happy to see how the country is doing, the people’s improved situation, its international position as a member of both NATO and the EU, and that it is clearly defined as a responsible and reliable ally of the US,” Kolar says. “But he is still not satisfied with the quality of public life, with local issues, and with how the people take a free, democratic country for granted.
“Democracy and freedom are very fragile,” Kolar added, “and could disappear quickly. It is very difficult to win democracy back once it is lost,” a lesson the Czechs should know from their own history.
Havel, the Ambassador says, is very clear about his own political future — he will not run for office again. “While he has no direct input, he does have influence and respect as an intellectual. He is quite happy to comment in his writings and work on his playwriting.” Though it must be mentioned that he “recently launched strong comments on the Russian elections — stronger than those contained in the OSCE report,” Kolar says.
An important issue in Russia’s electioneering was the proposal by the US to place a missile defense system in the Czech Republic. Originally explained as a means of early detection of Iranian missile launches, the system has been called into question with the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that states Iran’s nuclear weapons program had been suspended in 2003. Ambassador Kolar points out that the NIE covers two broad programs: nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles.
“For me,” Kolar says, “it is not so important if these missiles have nuclear, biological or chemical warheads. What is important is what rogue states might be capable of in the future. The missile defense program is not only about Iran, but about rogue states or groups who could attack our allies. The NIE doesn’t basically change this — but if there is a change of mind in the administration or in the congress, we should be the first to know.”
The Czech Republic was chosen as a location for the system, Kolar says, by specialists who had studied distances and missile trajectories, and who decided that Central Europe was the best location for radar and interceptor installations.
Yet many Russian leaders see the missile defense system as a direct threat to their own military power. “Russia’s reactions were surprising for me,” Kolar says. “I thought the Cold War was over. The Cold War led to the defeat of Communism, not the defeat of Russia and the Russians. Russia was another winner of the end of the Cold War.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in Europe, Russia “is building a new society and growing economically. I don’t understand why they perceive us in the West as an enemy.”
Kolar emphasizes that the missile defense system is for prevention — “before the Flood, not after it,” he says — and is not aimed against Russia. Despite “offering them information and participation” in the project, Kolar notes that “some Russian military personnel have been quoted as saying that once the system is built, Russia will target its missiles at the installation.”
Such views strengthen the Ambassador’s views that Czechs need to learn the lessons of their own history. “For us Czechs,” he says, “the question is, should we be passive or active? Should we try to prevent bad things, or be really relaxed? This is a debate we find even in our literature.” He cites Munich, 1938: “This idea of appeasement — sacrifice Czechoslovakia to prevent further attacks from Hitler — was a total failure. Some maniacs, such as Mr. Hitler, have a never-ending appetite. Always measure twice before you judge someone.”
The US, he says, understands its responsibility for the planet and for its own democracy. “We are partners. There needs to be more debate, diplomacy and dialogue between the US and the EU before events.” Kolar takes the example of the Balkans. “The attack against Milosevic — not against Serbia, but Milosevic — was a NATO undertaking. We preferred this method — a decision taken in partnership.”
Leadership, he says, “is another question. In a democratic system, the leading country is respected and chosen by the others. It is not someone who says, ‘We’re the leader. Take it or leave it.’ In our idea of partnership, leadership is earned — one must work for it. If the US wants to lead, it must build partnerships first, and then leadership will follow.”
One area that calls for partnership is climate change. After the Communist years, the Ambassador says, “we were in bad shape environmentally. The Communists only cared about profit, not about pollution and the land.” Since independence, the Czech Republic has invested heavily in the environment. “All governments since 1990 always took the question seriously,” he says, and were able to move the country forward on the question of “how we should care about the environment, clean water and air, industry and health.”
The greater question of global warming is more problematic. Asked about his country’s President’s views, Kolar says that Vaclav Klaus believes it is “important to have a serious debate of all experts, both pro and con. There is clear evidence of change, and it is clear that humans are impacting the climate, but the question is: What to do about this? Should we slow down economic growth? Should we ask developing nations to focus on the environment, or on development so they can feed their own people? Is the latter unfair? The Czech President is asking for a serious, honest, debated approach.” While it might be “hard for the Czech Republic, a small, landlocked country in Europe, to lecture others about these issues, scientists should be encouraged to measure changes and make proposals for action.”
In addition to its own moneys, the Czech Republic has received EU funds for environmental projects. The success rate is high. “Given the time I spend away from home,” Kolar says, “I can see great differences each time I go home. Both the government and the citizens are involved and making changes. Young people, especially, take this matter seriously.” Noting the age of the Czech Republic’s embassy in Washington, the Ambassador says, “we should build an environmentally friendly embassy. There are lots of green buildings in the Czech Republic, built with the owner’s own money. It’s always better to have a building that saves you money.”
The Czech Republic faces major issues during the first half of 2009, when it inherits the EU Presidency from France. The common task between the US and the EU, Kolar says, is “to destroy as many barriers — trade, exchange, economic, administrative — as possible.” The slogan “Europe without Frontiers” must be not just geographical, but must extend to free markets. “We need to make Europe an open and transparent space, governed by the rule of law, that works for all its people.”
The Czech Presidency sees some very important factors. First, there will be a new administration here in Washington. Second, there will be a US-EU Summit during their presidency, held in the US. And third, there will be changes across Europe, including a new European Council and elections to the European Parliament. “My headache and nightmare,” Ambassador Kolar says, “is knowing who will be where, and how to interact with them. It is not easy to predict how to work with all these variables.”
In the meantime, however, Kolar is focusing on “being Ambassador to all of the US, not just DC.” The US is a “huge country,” he says, with 50 states, one district, four dependencies and numerous Trust Territories in the Pacific. “The US is not one administration, or one to three politicians,” he says. “It’s a very colorful place with its different views.” While he acknowledges the stereotype of the ignorant American, as well as acknowledging the stereotype of the cynical European, he finds it “interesting that people in the United States are so impressively informed about international affairs, even in small places.”
He does not believe that “the credibility of the US has been damaged. Perhaps some US politicians or administrations might be less popular in some places yet that does not damage the credibility of the country. The worst times for Europe have always been when the US was isolated from the world. Europeans are the best partners for the US — we share the same archetype of civilization and culture. We are like two branches of the same tree, and we need to make sure that the two branches grow close together.”
The Ambassador contrasts his time in Washington now to when he was a Research Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in 1991, “the freely-floating scholar vs. the diplomat.” He says he loves Washington and finds it very beautiful, “though summer can be difficult.” He hopes to attract more investors to the Czech Republic, and to see Czechs invest more in the US. “I want Americans to see how vibrant, growing and progressive a country the Czech Republic is today. We are expanding beyond our traditional wares of beer, glass, and automobiles into IT, biotech and other value-added research and product areas.”
Ambassador Kolar summarized his office this way: “It is not only challenging to be Ambassador to the US — change here could influence dramatically all international politics — but it is also very nice. I like it even socially, living here. I get to meet both politicians and other citizens, the basic backbone of the country. I like America. I like Americans.”