THE PARIS OR ROME OF THE SOVIET TIMES
Exactly every Armenian knows something about the Czechoslovakia - the country that peacefully split into Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993. During the Soviet period the Bohemia glass, tableware and chandeliers were one of the finest luxuries available or known to the Soviet citizens - perhaps substituting for them the Venetian Murano. Also most of the Soviet people couldn’t travel beyond the Warsaw Pact borders and the Prague with its baroque and gothic architecture, marvelous Old Town, royal gardens and the romance allure seemed almost Paris or Rome to many. So the establishment of the Czech Embassy in Armenia is something noticeable itself.
The full-fledged Embassy will be opened at the end of year, but the Czech Republic maintains a Diplomatic Mission in Armenia for almost two years and the Charge d’affaires resides in the same building as the Embassy of Poland in Armenia.
Crossing the Armenian-Azerbaijani border
One attraction of the diplomacy and the life of diplomats are their personal experience and adventures in different countries – sometimes not less interesting than the details of the state communications and negotiations. However important the Armenian-Czech relations may be, I wish to start the article with the adventure of Mr. Petr Mikyska - the Charge d’affaires of the Czech Republic in Armenia crossing the Armenian Azerbaijani border on a diplomatic car with Armenian license plate.
Last spring, in 2013 Mr. Petr Mikyska decided to leave to Baku with his wife on diplomatic car with Armenian plate. He crossed from Armenia to Georgia then entered the Azerbaijani border- check point. The officers looked at the machine, at the documents, at the Armenian plate and turned to ask: “You are going to drive to Baku with Armenian plate?” “Yes”, was Mr. Mikyska’s answer, “Is there any problem? I’m a Czech diplomat, this is my machine and I’m leaving to the Czech Embassy in Baku. Do you have any reason to forbid me?” The officers went aside to advice, talked on phone for almost half an hour, finally, after more than one hour, granted the allowance to cross the border. Perhaps for the first time in some 20 years a car with Armenian plate entered into Azerbaijan.
Nothing extraordinary occurred along the way, the car safely and successfully reached the Czech Embassy in Baku. The Armenian and Azerbaijani license plates have the same shape, same fonts, only one letter differs from AM to AZ. Surely not so many people would notice that detail, but the guard near the hotel in Baku noticed the difference of plate. They didn’t have any objection but for safety anyway asked not to leave the machine with Armenian plate on the street, especially at nights. The visit to Baku was a nice one, after several days Mr. Mikyska drove back to Yerevan through the same border crossing.
Mr. Mikyska explained why he was trying to cross the border with Armenian licence plate, something that seems insignificant to many and impossible to others: “I realized that the distrust on both sides of the border is huge and both parts are not used to see even minor things of daily life from the other side. Anything from the other side is unknown, suspicious, scary… I am not part of it, nevertheless somehow I bear it on my shoulders, too. During my times in Cuba we were always trying to promote confidence between the Government and the opposition, trying to push both sides of the problem to sit down and talk. For that both sides have to get accustomed to the idea that there is the other side and the other side has its right to exist and to express itself. So with my driving the Baku streets with Armenian license plate I wanted to remind that there are cars with Armenian plates, that there is Armenia… Different Armenia from the one presented on TV, and now and here represented by something so inoffensive as a passengers car. Since then I am asking my colleagues in Baku to come to Yerevan with their cars. How do you think the reaction here would be?”
To my opinion nothing will happen to any car with Azerbaijani license plate in Armenia, equally like nothing happens to Turkish cars and lorries endlessly traveling to and out of Armenia. Yet in Azerbaijan…
One year later, exactly this summer another European diplomat decided to repeat Mr. Mikyska’s adventure. He intended to drive on his motorcycle with Armenian diplomatic license plate from Yerevan to Baku and further to another country. But for this time the Azerbaijani border control didn’t allow him to enter the country. They told whether it’s a car, or motorcycle, or bicycle, any vehicle with Armenian license plate - whether diplomatic or ordinary – should not enter the Azerbaijan. The diplomat had to return to Yerevan and take another route through Iran.
Not Just One Embassy, but One in Yerevan
Now as we got acquainted a bit with the Charge d’Affaires of the Czech Republic in Armenia let’s see how the Mission was established and when is it going to turn into full fledged Embassy.
In May, 2009 the Czech Republic hosted a high profile EU gathering where the EU Eastern Partnership Program was inaugurated and since then the Prague along with Warsaw and Stockholm is a key player, almost a conductor of Eastern Partnership policy. In the decisive period of the Eastern Partnership advancement in 2009-2014, the Czech diplomat Stefan Fule supervised the program in the capacity of the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy.
So the Eastern Partnership region appeared to be tied to Prague with numerous ties and surprisingly Armenia was the only country involved in EaP program where Prague didn’t maintain resident diplomatic mission. The residence of the Ambassador of Czech Republic to Armenia is in Tbilisi. It was the year 2010, Europe hasn’t recovered from the economic recession yet and when the issue was raised in Czech Foreign Ministry about the establishment of Diplomatic Mission in Armenia the first reaction of Ministry leadership to Minister Schwarzenberg´s proposal was the astonishment. “What? We are closing Embassies around because of financial restrictions and you’re suggesting to open a new one”. “Not just a new one, but one in Yerevan”, was Schwarzenberg´s answer.
The arguments in favor of move were strong, so finally the decision was taken to establish Czech resident Mission in Yerevan. Mr. Petr Mikyska who had previously served in American countries and at that time guided a division in Ministry was nominated Charge d’Affaires of the Czech Republic in Armenia. In 2012 he arrived to Yerevan and was the only member of the mission staff. A bit later the Assistant joined him. The Mission occupied some room of the same building with the Polish Embassy and nonetheless the Czech flag waves on the building many people in Armenia including the journalists aren’t much aware of the Mission existence. Perhaps it’s because the citizens often associate an Embassy with consular services and issuance of visas.
In 2013 the economic recession was overcome and the Czech government allocated financial resources for full accomplishment of the Embassy staff and services in Yerevan, including the consular services. Now the Embassy premises are about to be leased on the Sakharov Square in central Yerevan and the reconstruction and security fortification works will start. Mr. Mikyska hopes the Embassy would open its doors before the end of 2014.
Anyway not sticking to the height of the status or its size the mission works hard upon the increase and development of bilateral relations. Mr. Mikyska mentions the successful cooperation with the Armenian Ambassador in Czechia Tigran Seiranian, the visits of President Serzh Sargsyan to Prague twice only this year, visits of Czech Minister of Foreign Afairs and Minister of Culture in Yerevan last year, some social assistance projects, etc.
Just one-two weeks ago, on September 11-12 the first meeting of Armenian-Czech Inter- governmental Commission for Economic Cooperation took place in Yerevan. On that occasion not only the governmental officials but also the Czech businessmen arrived to Armenia. “They represented mainly the banking sector, the energy sector, the transport and machinery”, Mr. Mikyska told. “Why the banking sector first - because it’s the locomotive of business cooperation, sometimes there may be valuable ideas, business plans that need financial sourcing. When you have the operating banking mechanism then through them the Czech financial sources may become available. For the moment there’s certain trade between the Czech Republic and Armenia but almost 80% of all trade relations is conducted by Armenians on both side. There is nothing bad in the situation that Czech exporters are using intermediaries, but I feel that sometimes the deal dies there. Now we have to engage here also the Czechs, especially investors. And here’s a lot to do”.
That One Second of Silence is Our Anthem
The only country of the former Warsaw Pact that I’ve ever visited is Slovakia. I was there in 2006 making a film entitled “The EU through the Eyes of New Member States”. At that time both Slovakia, Czech Republic and all other former Warsaw pact countries had just joined the European Union (in May, 2004). The path those countries passed towards democratization, market economy, rule of law, peaceful co-existence was largely the same for most of them and pretty educative for the East European countries that currently are moving towards the EU in the framework of Eastern Partnership program.
Still there is one particular, admirable fact about the Czech Republic and Slovakia that makes them different from all other countries of the East Europe turning them into kind of etalon of the deeply human, rational and civilized conduct while establishing new statehoods and nations. In contrary to everyone around the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated without any problem or complexity. How it happened? It’s something that I couldn’t resist to ask Mr. Mikyska.
“You see before the 1989 there was suppression of any moves or talks about the separation or nationalism. But historically the Slovaks always felt themselves oppressed and inferior whether in the frame of the Austro- Hungarian Empire or in Czechoslovakia, although the development of Slovakia in first twenty years of Czechoslovakia was noteworthy, and all that thanks to Czech investment and assistance. Nevertheless in some sense Slovaks even cherished the Nazi German rule during the WWII because the Nazis recognized them formally independent.
So in 1989 when the Berlin wall fell the talks about the independence emerged. First the Moravia region, part of Czech lands, which are Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, voiced about the independence aspirations and there was even a joke supporting their “historical right” for independence. The anthem of Czechoslovakia always consisted of two parts - the first part sung in Czech and the second part in Slovakian. And between the two parts naturally there was a second of silence. The joke tells the Moravians considered that one second of silence their national anthem and proof of their independent stand along with Czechs and Slovaks. I can afford to say that, as I am half Moravian – my mother comes from Brno.”
Surely, witty but Mr. Mikyska continues: “There were talks about the separation for about a year, but no one actually knew how it may be realized. On the other hand at that time already the war in former Yugoslavia has erupted and the people were just horrified with that perspective. Amid all those uncertainty and talks, in the elections in June 1992 one party won in Czechia and another party in Slovakia. The leaders of two parties - Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar, who by the way actually experienced a long dislike towards each other but on the other hand also respected each other, met in Brno, capital of Moravia and on the half way between Prague and Bratislava by the end of August 1992. Just two of them sat in a garden, talked with each other and eventually came before the waiting press and declared that the Czechoslovakia will be dissolved and on January 1, 1993 two new states will be established. That was something unexpected for the most of Czechs and Slovaks, even for those in authorities, but it was a rather wise and rational decision that avoided any confrontation or hostilities. Everybody knew that this solution is probably the best and there was no way back, although some voices were asking for referendum. Thus the history was made”.
Perhaps the peaceful separation of nations is the most valuable lesson that the Czechs and Slovaks had given to the world.