June 15, 2023 - 5:00pm

Czech President Petr Pavel has called for ordinary Russian nationals living in the West to be the subjects of a new system of mass monitoring by security services. His incendiary comments in an interview with Radio Free Europe, published today, even appear to posit draconian restrictions visited upon citizens of Axis countries in the West during World War Two as good practice that could now be applied to Russians. Pavel said:

When there is an ongoing war, security measures relating to Russian nationals should be stricter than in normal times. All Russians living in western countries should be monitored much more than in the past, because they are citizens of a nation that leads an aggressive war.

The Czech President, who was formerly the chairman of NATO’s military committee, then cited the U.S.A.’s famously harsh treatment of Japanese residents following Pearl Harbor as a precedent for the state surveillance of nationalities perceived as a security threat. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and live in internment camps throughout the rest of WWII, something for which the U.S. government later apologised and paid reparations, describing the incarcerations as the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” 

Pavel gave the impression that he thinks something similar is now worth considering. “When we look back, when the Second World War started, all of the Japanese population living in the United States were under a strict monitoring regime as well. That’s simply the cost of war,” he reasoned. Asked what a monitoring regime for Russians would look like, Pavel responded without elaboration that he wants all Russians to be “under the scrutiny of the security services.” 

This isn’t the first time Pavel has expressed strong concerns about Russians living in the West. In an interview which I conducted with him during the Czech presidential campaign at the end of 2022, he told me western countries should be wary of Russians fleeing Putin’s mobilisation, as welcoming tens of thousands of Russian men would pose “a risk to our internal security.”  

A hawkish attitude on the Ukraine war was central to his election as president, but it divided the nation. Supporters in the Czech political and media class see him as a bullish leader on the right side of history, while opponents describe him as a warmonger. Having helped to lead NATO negotiations with Russia during a glittering military career, his attitude can be uncompromising — he rejects calling the invasion of Ukraine “Putin’s war,” for example, seeing this as an attempt to absolve ordinary Russians of responsibility. 

His views are in keeping with those of the Czech government, which has been vociferous in calling for more punitive measures against Russians. A failed attempt last year to persuade the EU to ban all visas for Russians followed on from a decision by the Czech authorities to stop issuing new visas to Russians from only the second day of the war. This opened the floodgates for other restrictive actions throughout society, with universities and private companies refusing services to Russians and Belarusians if they refused to condemn the invasion.  

The McCarthyite atmosphere has dissipated somewhat in recent months, but Pavel’s harsh comments raise the possibility of new restrictions. As his own reference to the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII proves, this is a slippery slope, running contrary to the principles of liberty and equality that underpin the western way of life. More worryingly still, it suggests that in their eagerness to support Ukraine, some western leaders are prematurely acting on a wartime mindset.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz