Although the conflict in Ukraine has attracted attention world-wide, citizens and politicians in East and Central Europe are particularly eager to follow what is happening on their doorstep. In understanding Russia’s actions, they naturally rely on their country’s experience from the twentieth century. However, they don’t always interpret this experience in the same way. This was demonstrated clearly by Czechs this week when a US military convoy arrived in the country, leaving controversy in its wake.
The convoy is returning to bases in Germany from exercises in the Baltic, and are on Czech soil for about 24 hours. On their way across the country, both supporters and opponents greeted them, as the convoy – code name ‘Dragoon Ride‘ – awakened a broad range of historical sentiments.
This is just one shot – Check out #dragoonride for more. [UPDATE: so a dragoon is just like a dragon, right? Wrong. Turns out it is some type of military unit. Better yet, when used as a verb, to dragoon means “1. To subjugate or persecute by the imposition of troops; 2. To compel by violent measures or threats; coerce“. Seems like a poorly chosen code name, to me.]
The Czechs, who have been US allies since the end of communism, and sealed this by joining NATO in 1999, are ambivalent when it comes to this military partnership. Some welcome being under the NATO umbrella, and view it as a guarantee of protection against Russia. Others reject Czech NATO membership and oppose NATOs approach with regard to Russia in the current conflict. Yet others are uncomfortable with supporting Russia, but are simultaneously reminded of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion by a foreign military presence.
This debate is a repeat of the 2008 debate over a NATO anti-missile shield that would be based in the Czech Republic and Poland. This initiative, which never ended up being realized, provoked a great deal of debate with an uncommonly high degree of societal involvement. As it does today, with Dragoons riding across the country, the way people responded had a lot to do with how they view the Czech Republic’s place in history. Then as now, both sides of the debate accuse each other of being secretly communist – either because they don’t support the US, or because they support Czech adherence to a larger military alliance.
This debate was wonderfully captured in the 2010 documentary Czech Peace (Český Mír – trailer, IMDB). Brought to us by Remunda and Klusak, the creators of Czech Dream (the documentary that showed what happened when you promise people a fake megamall), Czech Peace does a great job of illustrating how passionately a lot of people approach this debate and how they make use of the Czech 20th century experience to make their points. In particular, it shows how versatile that experience is in serving as a source for a bunch of completely different ways of approaching things like a US dragoon convoy or an anti-missile basis.
Unfortunately, this is all in Czech and there’s no subtitles. And that trailer is too short – so you can’t really get a sense of the powerful portrayal of these arguments [UPDATE: I found a longer ‘teaser’ video, which I now linked to, which gives a better sense]. The angry mustachoed man makes some great points though, saying to one protester: “I don’t want to go into your personal background, that’s what communists did. But I bet you’re the son or grandson of one of those communist bastards”. The protesters treat the man (who appears drunk) with good humor and gentleness, even though he uses several words that president Zeman employed recently as well. But towards the end, one of them can’t resist the temptation to say “I’ll tell you one thing: I voted green, I’m not a communist!”