Attitudes to the Ukraine war now form a major fault line on the continent
The war in Ukraine has made notions of peace controversial throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic, first-round presidential voting at the weekend has led to a run-off between two candidates defining themselves by their attitudes to war and peace.
The favourite, former NATO chief Petr Pavel, is one of the country’s sternest voices in opposition to Russian aggression and influence. His opponent, former prime minister Andrej Babiš, has meanwhile opened campaigning for the second round with adverts drawing heavily on the anti-war rhetoric of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
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Implying that the retired general Pavel is a warmonger, Babiš’s billboards promise not to “drag the Czech Republic into war. I am a diplomat. Not a soldier.” The advert has sparked major controversy — Pavel has not expressed a wish for the Czech Republic to go to war with Russia, and the president does not have the power to declare war anyway.
But Babiš is a wily campaigner, and he knows that, outside cosmopolitan Prague, many Czechs are unhappy with the country’s currently hawkish stance on the war and unshakeably pro-western orientation. A recent survey found that only a third of the country wants an overtly pro-western president, and some see Pavel’s unequivocal stance against Russia as symptomatic of alleged western diplomatic failings on Ukraine.
Babiš has never questioned the rectitude of the Ukrainian cause, but the new imitation of his friend Orbán is telling. Across Central Europe, an ideological fault line has opened up between those who apportion at least some responsibility for the war to the West and those who believe the fault lies entirely with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This divide tends to mirror wider attitudes to Western institutions such as the EU and NATO.
In this context, politicians like Babiš and Orbán imply that a neutral wish for peace is an act of popular rebellion against an out-of-touch Western elite. While the Czech vote was being counted, Orbán’s government in Hungary unveiled the results of a “national consultation” purporting to show overwhelming public opposition to Russia sanctions imposed by the EU. The results, ensured by a series of leading questions, were intended to give the impression that EU leaders are far more hawkish on Russia than the general public.
Yet while Orbán and Babiš use the desire for peace as a political tool, their opponents display a disturbing tendency to dismiss calls for peace as unreasonable, stupid, or even dangerous.
In one of the most controversial statements of the Czech presidential campaign so far, Pavel criticised calls for peace by declaring that “permanent peace is an illusion.” He is also fond of describing those opposed to NATO and EU membership as “extremists” — in a TV debate, he said that as president he would consider refusing to appoint members of eurosceptic and anti-NATO parties to ministerial posts, even if they formed part of a governing coalition following a general election.
Attitudes towards the war in Ukraine are, in this way, raising even more fundamental questions about democratic values and membership of the West. Increasingly, “peace” is now becoming the most contentious word in the political lexicon.