Bilateral relations with Moscow have been strained since Brussels imposed sweeping sanctions following the Russian occupation and later annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. EU individual and corporate sanctions have since been expanded and extended numerous times, and are now due to remain in place at least until 15 March 2019. In the meantime, the Czech government is now moving to establish a normal working relationship.
Although Czech President Miloš Zeman paid an official visit to Russia last autumn, accompanied by a 130-strong delegation representing Czech businesses hoping to sign energy and transportation-related contracts, until this week, it had been more than 10 years since a Czech parliamentarian had visited Russia in an official capacity.
ANO deputy Radek Vondráček, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, returned on Wednesday from Russia where he discussed the Czech government’s position on maintaining the EU sanctions and commitment to the NATO military alliance with his counterparts in both houses of the Russian parliament.
Vondráček said in an interview with Czech Radio that the aim of the visit was to try to improve relations and political dialogue, as well as to discuss a range of practical issues affecting Czech businesses with operations in Russia and individual citizens living there.
“We succeeded in addressing a wide range of concrete issues, for example within the health and insurance sectors, which need attention. And I fulfilled my man aim – to re-establish contact between lawmakers on the official level. It had been more a decade since a Czech MP has been there in that capacity, and no foreign minister has visited Russia in the past 13 years.”
“So, the aim was to establish let’s say ‘standard relations’, meaning a political dialogue – because our two states now essentially have none, even though half a million Russian tourists come here every year, there are a range of Czech businesses and active investments there, and many Czechs also travel there as tourists. So, it would be good to have a standard approach as to how to communicate on matters beneficial to both sides. Germany, for example, maintains relations with Russia on a practical level. That is our aim.”
Vondráček’s visit came just as a new Czech foreign minister was named to the post, vacant for close to four months, as President Zeman had refused to nominate the previous candidate of ANO’s junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats.
Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, who will outline his policy priorities on at a debate Thursday evening, like President Zeman, has called for “unity” in the country’s foreign policy approach. But unlike Zeman, Petříček supports sanctions against Russia, having called them among the few instruments available to the EU to push Russia to “respect international law”.
For his part, Vondráček said that he had discussed the EU sanctions with Russian lawmakers, saying it was a “difficult conversation” but that no subject should be taboo if the aim is to establish a normal working relationship.