PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Dec. 7 (UPI) — Last month I made pit stops in Morocco, Spain, Germany and Hungary. Those stops brought with them intense emotions with memories of the Velvet Revolution, the fall of communism and current political affairs. Several of my mentors and leaders of those times have recently passed on. It is all interconnected.
I sit in the wonderful French brasserie Milleme, where I often write my Prague filled columns. Christmas trees marvelously light the front of Jiriho z Podebrad square. Children rush about in costumes still celebrating St. Nicholas — though it was yesterday.
Nils Jebens, old friend and Prague-based Norwegian entrepreneur — owner of the venerable Kampa Restaurant Group — he has hosted the likes of Hillary, Albright, Havel and movie stars to boot — and I discuss whether the rumors about President Obama coming to Prague to sign a security treaty with President Medvedev in 10 days are true. I confirm the information with several sources. All tell me it is true.
Just days earlier, I have been speaking to Sen. Alexandr (Sasha) Vondra, the former Havel spokesman, foreign minister and Czech ambassador to the United States in the parliamentary dining room. He has held other government portfolios as well. Sasha and I are friends from way back, and about the same age. He is not excited about the new U.S. administration — though he initially had been hopeful.
Like most people from the conservative leaning ODS, Vondra does not like Obama’s movement towards Russia. A pragmatist, Sasha knows the relationship with the Russians cannot only be one of tension. But he senses Obama and his advisers are naive about Russian nature. “The special relationship developed under the Bush administration with the Central European countries has been weakened.” During his time as foreign minister, Vondra and other members of government took great political risks to support the U.S. position on missile defense and troop placements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Czechs stood with the United States on the ground.
“The Obama administration wants us to tell them what we want — what the new missile shield should look like.” It seems a bit disingenuous to me,” Vondra says. “I wonder if they know what they want.” “Either way, it means the Czech Republic will now refocus on the Berlin, Paris, and London axis.” “We took risks in supporting the U.S. We will not make the same mistake again. We will not be throwing all our eggs into one basket.” A great friend of the United States, a painful thoughtfulness crosses Vondra’s face as he says this.
We discuss that energy will continue to be a leading area of public policy. We ponder that the United States will seek joint projects with Russian on energy. I wonder if the Termelin Nuclear Power Station will be one of them. Vice President Joe Biden had just been in Prague two months ago to lobby the Czechs on behalf of Westinghouse for the project. The Russians are the other bidder.
Five weeks earlier, in my last conversation with him before his death from cancer, I had spoken at length with Justice Vojtech Cepl. Oxford and U.S. educated, Cepl was a renowned law professor, Constitutional Court judge and co-author of the Czech Constitution. Vojtech was concerned about the direction of the U.S. administration and the influence of Russia in Central and Eastern Europe. “The young president must be very careful; his inexperienced staff extra so — especially with Russia.” Justice Cepl was a mentor and member of the Prague Society. I already miss his wisdom.
Before his death in August, Vladimir Lomeiko — former long-serving Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s and later Mikhail Gorbachev’s spokesman — a chief architect of Glasnost and Perestroika — had admonished me. “You know us Russians, Marc, it is important to show us strength. We do not respond well to weakness. Does President Obama understand this?” Vladimir played politics like a maestro — passionate, intense, sometimes piano and sometimes mezaforte, and occasionally a grand crescendo. Like Justice Cepl, Vladimir was felled by cancer. Both knew the Cold War well. Vladimir still had hope that Obama and Medvedev would form a partnership. “They must keep Putin out,” were among his last words to me.
As the Cold War was being scuttled, Morocco’s King Hassan II died in July 1999, and his son Mohammed VI ascended the throne. King Hassan was a cold war warier and international broker. King Mohammed would focus on democratization, something he could do because Morocco was no longer caught between the East and West divide. When I sat down with Hassan Abouyoub, one of the King’s chief minders, last month in Tangier, we shared many a Cold War story. I asked if AFRICOM will be located in Morocco. Abouyoub demurred. The command is now in Stuttgart, Germany. I know negotiations take place behind the scenes as I write this.
The Cold War’s end changed the global political dynamic.
As if to prove the point, tomorrow former Prime Minister and Social Democratic Leader Jiri Paroubek hosts his counterparts Prime Ministers Gordon Brown (U.K.), Jose Luis Zapatero (Spain) and George Papandreou (Greece) in Prague at the annual Party of European Socialists conference.
Something impossible 25 years ago.
And — if — the communists would have barred me from covering it.
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political personalities and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)