The Issue That Will Not Die
In the foreign affairs department, the new Social Democratic government in the Czech Republic has certainly had a rough start. Zeman's controversial words regarding the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft was a blunder without question, but the German election campaign has obviously made more of it than it was worth.
Zeman's point of view, after all, is essentially correct: all three organisations -- the Communists and Republicans in CR and the SL in Germany rejected the 1997 Czech-German Declaration, so it seems to make little sense to invite their representatives to any of the bodies created by that Declaration.
Moreover, Zeman's possible implication that the SL can be considered a radical organisation in the same way the Czech Communists and Republicans are considered radical is correct. The SL, and several Bavarian politicians or CSU support the idea that CR's entry into the EU should be tied to the Sudeten cause. This is certainly not the opinion of the overwhelming majority of people and politicians on either side of the border nor of officials in Brussels. The very concept smacks of economic and political blackmail, and if any of this were better known outside of Bavaria, Western leaders might well rebuke their German counterparts. Calling it radical -- unpopular, desparate and drastic -- is completely fair. Not only Zeman's comment was correct, but also his implication (intended or not) was right on the money.
In politics, however, being right is not always the most important. One has to think not just of what one says but also of where and when one says it. Knowing that Germany is coming up to an election, Zeman ought to have weighed his words. He should have also been aware that August is a slow news month, so the press is desparate for any story. (The real question that needs to be asked is why a new Prime Minister takes a long holiday just a few weeks after coming to power. I accept that everyone needs a holiday, but the timing seems off.)
Kohl raises the stakes
Kohl went a bit too far by claiming that Zeman was interfering in the German campaign. Zeman's ill-timed statement might have an effect in the upcoming elections, but that effect is hardly one that Kohl should complain about. If anything, Zeman's words offered the German right (CSU and CDU) its chance to turn Czech-German relations into an election issue, and that will probably only benefit the right as they will be seen by some to be defending the blood of the nation.
I have said before that the Declaration was useless from the outset, but now it seems to not only be pointless but actually harmful. It is not providing recncilliation, but yet another point of conflict between Bonn and Prague. Also, Neubauer's ability to win space in the Czech press was again clearly shown.
The reaction last Friday from the Castle was a bit surprising in its subtle criticism of Kohl, but it was certainly a fair remark. The Castle has truth on its side when it points out that the Czech-German issue (somewhat remarkably) was not a factor in the recent Czech Parliamentary elections, and that it ought not to be a factor in the German elections.
But again, truth is not always everything in politics. Let's hope that Bonn's reaction to Havel's words, which for the moment seems oddly positive, does not escalate the problem any further.