Czechia: the peace movement could do much better than this

The petition “Peace and Justice” does not offer a counterbalance to the naive triumphalism of the Czech government and parts of the media, writes Ondřej Slačálek. It sees the situation from the point of view of "European households and companies" and throws the Ukrainians and Russians overboard.

After ten months of killing in Ukraine, who wouldn't want a quick end to the war? The petition for "peace and justice" seems to capture this wish. But the appeal is disappointing. It essentially calls on us to throw Ukraine and ordinary Russians overboard and pursue our own economic interests first and foremost. The tradition of the peace movement is worthy of better attitudes.

The manifesto is not just a projection of the ambitions of the former chairman of the Green Party, Matej Stropnický (who has now swiftly taken the position of "chairman" of at least this initiative) or of the visionary Petr Drulák, who has gradually moved from the supposed revival of the left to the far right (as an advisor to [SPD leader] Tomio Okamura's presidential candidate Jaroslav Bašta). Among the first signatories of the petition, there are also some respectable names, and this is the first more structured appearance of the anti-war movement. Since the government and much of the Czech media cherish the idea of resolving the conflict with a landslide Ukrainian victory (and then perhaps some Nuremberg tribunal with Putin), some opposition to such naive triumphalism is in order. But let us see what the "for peace and justice" initiative has to offer.

Whose "security concerns"?

The petition acknowledges (it can hardly fail to acknowledge) that Russia is responsible for the "direct unleashing" of war. But it immediately hastens to add that this happened because Russia's "perceived and real security concerns were ignored", and therefore Russia "switched from a confrontational, failed diplomatic dialogue to physical fighting on the territory of the invaded state". If the authors meant Russia's long-term security concerns, they are correct. Russia has had reason for "security concerns" ever since 1999, when NATO's eastern expansion was punctuated by the bombing of Belgrade, and more recently since 2008, when George W. Bush and his Central European friends pushed for invitiing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. One might as well sign Pope Francis's more caustic formulation that NATO's dogs have been barking too long at Russia's gates.

If the statement gives more space to the problems of European households and businesses than to the problems of Ukrainian and Russian civilians (and, after all, soldiers), it shows a dubious ladder of values.

But the 'security concerns' of the world's largest country are not the only security conerns in this conflict, nor are they the most important; there are also the 'security concerns' of the subsequently invaded Ukraine. These are not mentioned at all in the text of the declaration, just as the word 'Crimea' is not mentioned once. The statement does not say when the 'conflictual, unsuccessful dialogue between diplomats' took place, or when the 'physical fighting on the territory of the invaded state' began, and the absence of any mention of the Russian occupation of Crimea and Russian military interference in eastern Ukraine since 2014 makes it seem as if Russia had acted only diplomatically until February 2022. In reality, military aggression preceded diplomacy. Surely an understanding of Ukrainian security concerns is somewhat more relevant that of Russian concerns. Or have Ukrainian forces been occupying Russian territory and annexing it to their state in rigged plebiscites over the past decades?

Let's feel sorry for ourselves

Apart from the introductory paragraph, which describes the cruelties of war in general terms and acts as an alibi, the text does not pay much attention to the situation of Ukrainian, let alone Russian, society. Ukrainians are portrayed only as passive victims of the war, Russians are not mentioned at all, although the war brings considerable hardship to them as well.

All the more poignantly, the petition speaks of our own stomachs, of the fact that the sanctions 'have not stopped the Russian advance, have not eased it, and have not even done any major damage to the Russian economy. On the contrary, they are hurting European, including Czech households and businesses. Europe, and the Czech Republic in particular, is being crushed by inflation, to which the war is a significant contributor. Life has become more expensive for all of us... We are saving money so that we can wage war. We put off investment so that we can wage war. We are going into debt in order to wage war."

One can only feel sorry for us. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have already been devoured by Putin's meat grinder. However, our primary attention deserves to be paid to European households and businesses. It is our own situation that ultimately justifies trying to end the war, not the situation of the attacked society or the society that the Putin regime has made into the aggressor. We will not, even in the face of a shocking tragedy, make any small sacrifices.

Of course, we must also talk about the economic impact of the war in the countries to the west of Ukraine. In the face of the unequal impact of the war on different social groups, it is absolutely obscene that our government insists on not raising taxes and that it does not compensate for the impact of the war with a progressive tax policy. It is also necessary to talk (even more boldly than the petition does) about the different economic impacts of the war on Europe and the US. The US can hardly demand solidarity from Europe, when US companies are making huge profits from Europe's plight. But above all, priorities must also be weighed. The petition shows a questionable value ranking. It gives more space to the problems of European households and businesses than to the problems of Ukrainian and Russian civilians (and, after all, soldiers),

A gift for the aggressor

The initiative speaks in fine words about a ceasefire (part of which would be to stop supplying arms to Ukraine) and a "just peace", which they leave to diplomats - we mere mortals "do not know its exact form, cannot know it and should not want to know it". Nothing less! So, the contours of a just peace remain hidden in forbidden territory. The authors of the declaration apparently, in the words of the classics, "cannot even hint" at anything regarding the principles of such a peace and the concessions it would demand from the victims of aggression. Of course, it is quite clear what the declaration demands: to leave Ukraine at the mercy of the aggressor and force it to accept Putin's terms. And, presumably, to end sanctions against Russia - in rather screwball language, the statement asks the government to "refrain from any support for the imposition of further sanctions until the effects of existing sanctions have been evaluated (...) and, if they prove to be ineffective for Russia and detrimental to European countries and their populations, to call for their lifting".

In practical terms, the initiative thus calls for a reduction in pressure on the aggressor and, on the contrary, for pressure on the victim of aggression. It is as if both sides were guilty of continuing the war: the aggressor by attacking and the victim by defending itself. As if the Ukrainians were also to blame for the worst consequences of the war, i.e., in the logic of the statement, for the fact that the Czech Republic is saving, postponing investments and going into debt...

One can also wonder where the authors of the petition were in the spring: why didn't they call for a ceasefire back then, at the time of Putin's relatively overwhelming offensive? Why are they coming only now, after the Russian army has been beaten back and Putin's plan to use "General Winter" against the European capitals is not working out. Certainly, the war could still be brutal and the tables may yet turn again (military analysts warn of the optical illusion of past defeats and talk of the Russian military being far more capable than it looks, just decided so far by incompetent people, which may change). But why give gifts to a losing aggressor now is not clear.

Have courage

In his book of interviews Thinking Green of the World) Václav Bělohradský once described what bothers him about Western pacifism: not that it rejects violence, but that it does not think about how to resist an aggressor without violence. It is as if pacifists have no courage... The anti-war movement needs courage even today - at least the minimal courage to say, or at least to indicate, what it actually envisages by a "just peace". Is it just that the aggressor should withdraw (and thus be expelled from Crimea)? Is it just that the principle of the right to self-determination should be enforced (and therefore the international community should hold internationally guaranteed fair plebiscites on both sides of the conflict)? Do the prerequisites for a just peace include punishment of war crimes on the Russian and possibly Ukrainian side, arresting the criminals and bringing them to a just (international) court? Should the payment of reparations be part of a "just peace" - and if so, how to ensure that this does not have similar consequences to the payment of reparations by Germany after the First World War?

Most conceivable ideas of what a just peace might look like, however, go directly against the initiative's demands: a just peace would mean higher costs and more involvement of the international community, not less. Perhaps the Initiative has some other, non-intuitive ideas about justice, but then it should share them. The claim that we "don't even want to know" the circumstances of the peace we seek is blatant alibism.

Demands for complete justice will surely have to be discounted if they are not realistically achievable and insisting on them would fundamentally prolong and deepen the suffering of war. But the declaration does not speak of a just peace. It says that we no longer want to be bothered with war or to suffer for someone else's cause, even though our 'suffering' is quite incomparable to that of Ukrainian and Russian society.

Don't throw the Ukrainians (and Russians!) overboard

As Antonín Hořčica (of the group Levice) pointed out in a debate on the topic, the petition primarily throws the Ukrainian left overboard. The latter is facing two pressures - Russian imperialism and plans for a post-war neoliberal reconstruction of the Ukrainian state. Part of the demand for a just peace should include pressure to ensure that post-war reconstruction is not driven by the logic of opportunity for Western companies and the prescription of neoliberal prescriptions by Western economic experts. As Volodymyr Ishchenko explains in the latest New Left Review, the Ukrainian experience has strong universal relevance and the international left can learn much from it. But that would require the Western left, including in Czechia, not to think in colonialist terms, and to at least perceive the existence of the Ukrainian left. For the authors of this call for "peace and justice", unfortunately, even this is too demanding a requirement.

If the victims in Ukrainian society are mentioned by the appeal at least in the opening alibi paragraph, Russian society has disappeared from its horizon altogether. The petition only asks how much the sanctions are capable of damaging the Russian economy... It does not perceive that Russian society is another victim of Putin's war alongside Ukraine. It ignores Russian anti-war initiatives like Posle, Russian political prisoners, and anti-Putin emigration. The initiative seems to confirm that we have simply thrown the Russians overboard already. Yet it is here that the need for solidarity is particularly pressing, and it is also here that this petition for Peace and Justice could have shown a bit of ingenuity: how about proposing to lift part of the sanctions against Russia in return for Putin releasing political prisoners and stop criminalising criticism of the war? Right-wing Twitter would certainly not applaud the initiative for such a demand, but it would be an important signal that we have not stopped thinking about Russian society and do not see it as Putin's property or as his gang.

We need a movement for a just peace. But such a movement needs international solidarity, and somehow this has been forgotten. The initiative of bankrupt politicians like Stropnický and far-right advisers like Drulák has shown us what such a movement should not look like.

Ondřej Slačálek.

The author is a political scientist and columnist

Original title: “Ano, potřebujeme spravedlivý mír. Kavan, Hořejší a Stropnický místo něj zdůrazňují naše ekonomické zájmy” (Alarm, 10 January 2023). https://a2larm.cz/2023/01/ano-potrebujeme-spravedlivy-mir-kavan-horejsi-a-stropnicky-misto-nej-zduraznuji-nase-ekonomicke-zajmy/

Translated from Czech by Adam Novak

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