Belarus suffers from many of the same issues as Azerbaijan.
The autocracies of Belarus and Azerbaijan retain the dubious unofficial descriptions as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and, according to the European Parliament, “the country having suffered the greatest decline in democratic governance in all of Eurasia over the past ten years […] Azerbaijan is a classic example of a dictatorship built on prominent cults and oil revenues. This allows the President to buy the favor of many countries and politicians”, respectively. Yet the Czech Republic retains ties with both countries to a larger extent than most other European countries, most notably Western EU member states. In the case of Azerbaijan, this can be attributed to the country’s considerably developed energy sector and the fact that Azerbaijan services the Czech Republic with roughly 1/4th of its annual oil consumption, yet part of it can also be attributed to increased attempts by Russia to influence political elites. Belarus and Azerbaijan both retain close ties with Russia, whom is considered the foremost economic and political partner to both countries. Connections with either country are thus arguably impossible to view as isolated bilateral relations independent of larger Russian sphere of interest.
Of the two countries, Azerbaijan is the country with whom the Czech Republic has developed closest ties. The Czech Republic and Azerbaijan has, according to the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, conducted 16 bilateral visits since July 2008, along with a recent visit by President Milos Zeman to Baku in September 2015. The nature of the bilateral cooperation primarily revolves around economic, energy and security relations. However, Azerbaijan’s track record in terms of human rights, press freedom, corruption, repression and prosecution against government opposition and critics, conduct of torture with impunity, and more, continue uninhibited without concern by international actors being catalyzed into concrete pressure to improve the situation.
Bilateral relations are to be expected as Azerbaijan represents the Czech Republic’s foremost trading partner in the South Caucasus region, as well as the market possessing the greatest potential for increased Czech exports in the region. However, the Czech Republic’s decision not to apply any substantial pressure on Azerbaijan in the aforementioned areas where Azerbaijan’s track record is abysmal is indicative not only of an undesirable dependence on Azerbaijan’s energy, but also indicative of a deterioration of adherence to European values and ideals in the Czech Republic – itself a marked shift from the Czech Republic’s early years under Vaclav Havel, where the Czech Republic was a beacon of human rights. That being said, the lack of pressure on Azerbaijan for flagrant human rights violations extends well beyond the Czech Republic, encompassing key international actors.
Given Azerbaijan’s close ties with Russia and it being an integral part of the Russian sphere of influence, sharing its political clout revolving around energy supply with resulting considerable influence, the Czech dependence on both actor’s energy enables the exertion of influence from either. Either actor conflicts with European and, by extension, Czech values, yet the Czech dependence on their energy undermines efforts and political will to promote said values in Azerbaijan. Thus, it is likely that the Czech Republic will pursue deepening ties with Azerbaijan, despite the country being a seedbed of corruption as well as an advocate of values that are inherently incompatible with any European country.
Compared to Azerbaijan, Belarus is less developed, and of less importance to the Czech Republic as a strategic partner. Similarly, Belarus’ status as “Europe’s last (open) dictatorship” coupled with its position inside Europe makes relations with Belarus a more delicate matter than with Azerbaijan, whose energy supply makes deepening ties more easily acceptable.
Due to this geographic reality, the Czech Republic’s bilateral relations with Belarus are also influenced by the overarching EU-Belarus relations, which are based on the Conclusions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council of October 15 2012, in which the EU adopted a policy of critical engagement towards Belarus. This policy encompasses restrictive measures targeted against those responsible for the violations of electoral standards, crackdowns and violations of human rights, as well as those supporting the regime or drawing benefit from it, sectoral dialogues and within the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership initiative, support to civil society and victims of repression, the negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements to the benefit of the public at large (launched on 30 January 2014), dialogue with Belarusian society on the reforms needed to modernise Belarus and on the potential for developing relations with the EU (including possible EU financial support). Additionally, Belarus is covered by the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership, but in the case of the former no concrete action plan has been implemented, and in the case of the latter Belarus only participates in the multilateral track.
Belarus suffers from many of the same issues as Azerbaijan; arrests and harassment of Human Rights critics and defenders, limits to media freedom, corruption, repression of freedom of association, compulsory labor for people deprived of liberty etc. Additionally, Belarus still retains capital punishment in law and practice. Coupled with the fact that the Czech Republic’s bilateral development with Belarus is limited by A.G. Lukashenko’s regime’s isolation, the Czech Republic’s connections with Belarus in recent years have largely been conducted through overarching EU policies and influenced by the EU’s stance towards the country. Economically, the perspectives of deepening relations between the two countries is rather limited, especially considering that contrary to Azerbaijan, Belarus is more dependent on Czech imports than vice versa. This applies to the EU in general as well, which explains the EU’s decision to impose sanctions on Belarus in 2012 to the criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Due to lack of economic perspectives, the connection between Belarus and the Czech Republic is neither deep nor necessarily meaningful. Additionally, due to Belarus’ affiliation with Russia – more overt and close than Azerbaijan’s – and the direct pressure on Belarus by international actors and parties to which the Czech Republic is associated, the connection between the two countries is limited as relations with Belarus are largely conducted by supranational institutions and frameworks.
Christian Kvorning Lassen, Europeum, Czech Republic, especially for charter97.org