The Czech Republic a Quarter Century After the Velvet Revolution
I took up my duties in the Czech Republic during a year of anniversaries. Only 25 years ago, the people of this country shook off the shackles of communism in what we now refer to as the Velvet Revolution. 2014 was also the 15th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the tenth year since it joined the European Union. Each of these milestones has provided an opportunity to reflect on the strength of the Czech Republic’s partnership with the United States and the remarkable progress that this country has made as it completes its transition from socialism.
Since joining NATO in 1999, the Czech Republic has gone from being a security consumer to a security provider. Czech soldiers work side-by-side with American and other NATO forces in Afghanistan, where, among other duties, the Czechs have the important and dangerous task of providing perimeter security for Bagram Air Base. After five Czech soldiers were killed there on July 8, 2014, some wondered whether Czech resolve might waver. But instead the government voted to continue its “in together, out together” policy with us in Afghanistan.
I had the privilege to visit with some of the Czech troops at Bagram earlier this year, and I was able to see firsthand their professionalism, discipline, and commitment. While I was there I also had the opportunity to participate in the Czechs’ inaugural use of the ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) system, a drone system provided by the United States that will allow Czech soldiers on patrol to see over walls and around corners to guard against danger that might await them there. The donation of the ScanEagle UAV system received broad and positive coverage in the Czech media, underscoring Czech faith in our strong and enduring military partnership.
We understand that many NATO members face budget constraints at home, and this has impacted spending on defense—we face these pressures as well. At the same time, it is clear that security challenges in Europe are becoming more complex. We applaud the Czech Republic’s commitment to invest more in our collective security, joining other NATO leaders in signing the Pledge on Defense Investment at the NATO Wales Summit in 2014. In a dangerous world, we all need to see how we can do more to support allied security and I am confident the Czech Republic will do its part.
The depth of ordinary Czechs’ positive feelings toward the United States and NATO was also illustrated this past Spring, when elements of the United States Army’s Second Cavalry Regiment, returning to their base in Germany from exercises in the Baltics and Poland, staged a “road march” that crossed the Czech Republic. In the weeks leading up to the convoy (called Operation Dragoon Ride), the media speculated about what type of welcome the troops would receive, and some social media sites called for or predicted anti-US protests. When the convoy arrived, however, protesters were nowhere to be seen. Instead, along every road and highway, on bridges and at rest stops, thousands of Czechs waited in cold weather and rain to greet the troops with applause and homemade signs. Some offered Czech food and beer. This manifestation of support from the silent majority did not go unnoticed by Czech politicians and pundits, who soon added their own vocal and visible praise for the operation.
This past summer, in what was a first for the Czech Republic, a Czech officer commanded a major NATO combined exercise—Allied Spirit II. The exercise took place at the United States Army’s Hohenfels Training Area in Germany and involved more than 4,500 troops from eight NATO countries. The exercise strengthened NATO relationships and interoperability, and by all accounts was a major success.
It is not just through its participation in NATO, however, that the Czech Republic contributes to US and global security. The Czechs are our protecting power in Syria, where we no longer maintain an embassy. And they have made valuable contributions to peacekeeping missions in places such as Mali, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai, and to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL).
The Czech Republic’s 2004 entry into the European Union has meant further integration into the world economy. As a country that derives 80 percent of its GDP from exports, the Czech Republic is highly attuned to the benefits of free trade. Support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—the free trade agreement being negotiated between the European Union and the United States—is solid.
Trends are very positive on the bilateral economic front. Trade between our two nations has doubled in the last five years. The United States is the largest non-EU foreign investor in the Czech Republic. US firms have gone beyond investing in the Czech Republic as a manufacturing base, creating innovation centers, research and development facilities, and engineering hubs. For example, US-based pharmaceutical giant MSD recently opened a Global IT Innovation Center in Prague focused on developing and applying advanced capabilities in information sciences, information security, mobility, social media, and big data in the healthcare area. It is one of three major MSD Innovation Centers in the world and a hub for Europe. Rockwell Automation has an important Research & Development Center in Prague. The Center develops process controls for different industry sectors. It cooperates closely with the Czech Technical University and the Technical University in Vienna and is part of Rockwell Automation’s Advanced Technology Laboratories. Honeywell Technology Solutions opened its new Research Development & Engineering Laboratories in Brno in 2014. The Center—an expansion of Honeywell’s Center of Excellence in Brno—supports Honeywell’s Aerospace and Automation and Control Solutions Divisions on a global level and is now the largest research and development center in Central Europe.
While Czech integration on the security and economic fronts has been remarkable, the success of the country’s transition to democracy is perhaps even more impressive. There is, of course, work yet to be done in the areas of good governance and transparency—as is the case throughout the region. But the extent to which democratic institutions and practices are now entrenched cannot be overstated. Twenty-five years after the fall of communism, the country has a vibrant, multi-party political system and an active, free press. Czechs take for granted that they can travel across the world and can easily study, work, and live anywhere in Europe. Often when I speak to groups of university students, I ask how many were born after 1989. Ordinarily every hand in the room goes up. And while the opportunity to grow up in freedom—with the attendant lack of communist-era “baggage”—is overwhelmingly a positive thing, it also means that some in this new generation do not understand the fragility of democracy and the sacrifices that were made to win it. They also might not have their parents’ instinctive appreciation of the importance of a robust transatlantic relationship. One of my responsibilities as Ambassador here is to keep that sentiment strong.
At the beginning of this article I noted that I have been at this post during some important anniversaries for the Czech Republic. I have also been here during an anniversary of more personal significance. The week of my arrival in Prague marked 75 years from the date on which the United States Embassy in which I now work issued the visa that saved my mother’s life. As Jews living in a city that had been occupied in early 1939 by the Nazis, she and her family were desperate to find refuge, and the United States provided it. The chancery in Prague then was the same building as today, and I cannot help but think of my grandparents or other relatives standing in our building, hoping against hope that they would be permitted to enter America. To be back here now as the representative of the United States has been profoundly meaningful, and I hope that in my remaining time here I will be able to make a contribution worthy of the opportunity that I’ve been given.
United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic