Bohuslav Sobotka, prime minister of the Czech Republic, discusses the fall of communism in both a historical and current context.
ACKERMAN: Good morning and welcome. We're here to welcome and hear from Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, the prime minister of the Czech Republic. You have in your materials a history of his career. I just want to highlight one thing is that he's had many, many posts, both political and for four years he's served as minister of finance, so he has a range of interests and capabilities that I think will enable him to answer many of his questions.
What I'm going to do, if it's all right, I'm going to start by having a conversation with the prime minister and asking him a few questions, and we'll extend that to around 9:00 o'clock and then I'll stop, and then I hope this will serve as a basis for questions that come from the floor.
So, welcome, Mr. Prime Minister. We're delighted to have you here. You're here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. And the first question I would have for you is could you just reflect on those 25 years and talk about the things that you think have been meaningful over that period for your country.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Thank you very much. Good morning. Thank you very much for inviting me to this interesting debate and your prestigious institutions. The 25 years, obviously, changed the landscape of our country.
We've underwent a transformation that consisted not only in creating a new democratic system and renewing the structures of civil society, but also it consisted in moving from our centrally planned economy to market economy. A very important part of that was our integration into the E.U..
We also became members of the NATO, and this year is, obviously, a very interesting year, very ceremonial year because we are celebrating a triple anniversary, 25 years since the Velvet Revolution, 15 years since our entry into the NATO, and also 10 years since our membership in the European Union, so the year 2014 is really very pregnant with anniversaries.
It's a very important year for the Czechs and I'm very glad that I personally had a chance to commemorate the anniversary, not only in the Czech Republic, but also in the United States. And, for the Czech Republic, it is a great honor that today we are going to unveil the bust to dedicate it to Vaclav Havel in the American Congress.
Vaclav Havel was the leading figure of the changes of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and he was a person who was courageous enough to stand up against the regime, lead the dissident movement and also contributing (inaudible) to the transformation.
ACKERMAN: All right. The next question I would have, which is a follow-on, is tell—tell me how you feel the evolution of our relationship—your relationship with our country has been over the last 25 years and the most important elements in it.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I'm very glad that our relationship is very intensive and very close. I think that there are three areas that I would like to mention. First of all, we have a very good relation in the area of defense and security.
Obviously, this is an end (ph) swing from our membership in the NATO, but also in the fact that the Czech Republic, since its entry into the NATO, plays a very active role, and we definitely want to continue playing our active role. We are continuously active in terms of deployment of our military missions, be it in Afghanistan or Western Balkans and Mali in Africa.
The second area I would like to mention is our cooperation in business relations. The United States of America are an important investor in the Czech Republic. They've been a very important investor in the Czech Republic. They've been a very important investor for the past 25 years.
And, also, we are managing to increase the mutual trade and American exports is growing the fastest, even in comparison with the European Unions. So apart from our defense and security cooperation, there's a very, very promising and very well developing business relationship between the Czech Republic and the United States.
We are also supporting the TTIP agreement conclusion that should be concluded hopefully soon between the E.U. and the United States. And there's going to be yet another impulse once, or if, we sign it.
And the third area I would like to mention, it is related to our international politics and it is our cooperation in the area of sharing values of human rights, promotion of human rights, supporting democracies, civic societies, and I should not also forget something which is a traditional element of our cooperation, and that is, obviously, the fact that there's many Czech Americans who are very active and those are Americans today who have—they are ancestors. They came from the Czech Republic and they continue maintaining very cordial relationship with the Czech Republic and, hopefully, this will intensify in the future as well.
ACKERMAN: After here, down to Waco and explain why, just for a second.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): After the ceremonial event in the Congress, we will be heading to Texas to visit our Czech Americans in the City of West, and, unfortunately, there was a very unfortunate accident and we are going to lay a founding stone—or foundation stone of Sokol (inaudible), which is in fact a very important building for our compatriots and that is going to be one of the highlights of our trip to Texas.
ACKERMAN: Let's move on to a more difficult discussion about what's happening in the Ukraine.
ACKERMAN: Let me try again. All right. If you could talk to us about how you see the events in the Ukraine and what it basically means with respect to NATO relations with Russia and, of course, the Czech Republic's relations with Russia.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, I consider the crisis in Ukraine as one of the biggest security challenges, crisis, since the wars in Balkans in the '90s. Obviously, it places a very important emphasis on, first of all, solidarity of the member states of the NATO, as well as a unified approach of, namely, the member states of the European Union as well as E.U. together with the United States of America.
It is a great challenge, namely because there was a very explicit breach of international law. Russia intervened in the sovereignty of Ukraine. It broke the borders which were guaranteed by international contracts from the beginning of the '90s, and it was Russia that belonged to the signings of the declaration from Budapest that guaranteed the independence of the borders of Ukraine in exchange for the nuclear weapons that remained in the territory of Ukraine and international laws were—it is very that the international community respond—responded in an adequate way because, obviously, there was an incursion on the sovereignty of Ukraine and, obviously, there was the occupation of Crimea by Russia.
What also needs to be mentioned in this respect is a different perception of the integration processes as far as the potential integration of Ukraine as well as countries such as Moldova or Georgia into the NATO and the European Union. I think that is kind of a clash of opinions or concepts.
On the one hand, it seems like Russia is trying to base its international policy on the spheres of influence which is a kind of instrument that we saw being used during the cold war times and some time back in the history. It seems that Russia views Ukraine, and perhaps some other countries as well, as its own spheres of influence, a part of its sphere of influence, and they believe that those countries should not be members of the NATO or E.U., or their membership they view as a kind of threat to their spheres of influence.
On the other hand, Czech Republic views this situation in the manner that nations should have their own right or they have right to decide on their own fate, on their future through democratic instruments. And they should be able, through democratic means, fulfil their sovereignty and decide on their own fate and where they want to go and whether they want to be integrated into the European Union or not. So it is a kind of clash of concepts or opinions.
Also, it's a kind of debate on what sovereignty of various countries should be based upon and how the international politics and international laws should be implemented, whether it should be based on democratic instruments, freedom, or spheres of influence game. So I think it is a kind of geopolitical clash that we are witnessing here and different perceptions.
And the last comment I would like to make on Ukraine, Ukraine undoubtedly will require major reforms—major reforms. This country needs political and economic stability. And what can be done for Ukraine, apart from showing that international law needs to be respected, we also help Ukraine to transform its own society, arrange for its civic society structures to make sure that their politics is not based only on the clashes amongst the oligarchs, but we help Ukraine to become a part of the Western democracies and also give spur to the transformation of their economy so that we very soon see transparency allowing further investment from the West into Ukraine.
ACKERMAN: With sanctions, whether they should be strengthened, are they at the right level right now? How would you see that evolving?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, perhaps one note that might be interesting from the point of view of Czech Republic and Ukraine relationship. We, in fact, have a Czech minority, quite a major—actually, their ethnic Czechs who used to live in Ukraine and they came back to the Czech Republic, and today they're actually the biggest minority. Before that, it was the Slovaks. But, today, those—Ukraine—actually, sorry, Ukrainians. Ukrainians they form the largest minority in the Czech Republic at the moment, not only the Czech Ukrainians but also Ukrainians together with them.
Obviously, the future - as far as the sanctions are concerned, the Czech Republic as well as a number of other countries, they have very intensive business contacts with Russia. There's a number of countries that undergo stagnation. There's a number of countries which are affected by the sanctions. Of course, the debate on the sanctions was very complicated on the European level.
Czech Republic always tried to agree with the rest of the countries in the European Union. And, so far, the European Union was able to agree on the sanctions, and I'm sure that we will be able to continue this trend. And if the European Union agrees on the sanctions, that it's also important that we also coordinate our approach with the United States in view of the sanctions.
And I believe, also, important—I also believe that it is important to always leave—to leave—always leave a room for dialogue, for political communication with Russia because Russia plays an important role in many other areas related to international crisis and international challenges.
And, for instance, in terms of Ukraine, Russia performs this kind of negative role, but then, of course, as far as a fight against terrorism, then Russia can play—in many instances, play the role of an ally of the Western world. So in spite of the complicated and complex situation in the Ukraine and in spite of sanctions being applied against Russia, I think that we should maintain political dialogue with Russia because of the other topics, challenges and issues.
ACKERMAN: The sanctions are becoming costly to the business community in Europe and in your country as well. Do you see the corresponding pain on the other side with the business community in Russia and whether that's creating, in your opinion, pressure on Putin to basically moderate his behavior?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I'm convinced that sanctions are effective so they have negative impact on the Russian economy. Similarly, as sanctions against Iran had and have an impact on the economy of Iran.
However, on the other hand, it is, of course, subject to discussion and I'm sure that we will have a debate about that to what extent the economic impact of the sanctions may influence political decision-making of the current Russian leadership. The second issue here is to what extent does this influence the psychology of the Russian society.
ACKERMAN: For a moment to the general discussion of NATO and how you see its future, particularly with respect to the crises we've just discussed. You might want to talk about Turkey and its relationship to NATO. And, also, the outer area threat, of course, with is ISO, the most prominent one with ISO. So we'd like to hear from you about that as well.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, first of all, I would like to appreciate how important step it was to become members of the NATO and also the enlargement of the NATO was the right step forward, and it was conducive to the stabilization of the security in Central and Eastern Europe.
The fact that countries such as the Baltics became members of the NATO in the situation where we see that Russia is becoming more and more unpredictable, it really brings additional stability and gives more assurance to those mentioned countries, vis-a-vis, the crisis in Ukraine.
It was clearly defined that NATO will uphold its obligations and that all the articles will be followed and all the member states can rely on solidarity and protection from the side of their allies. This is a very important element, and I'm very glad that there was a very clear declaration of that commitment.
As far as the situation in relation to ISO or ISIS or the Islamic State is concerned, this is, of course, one of the major security challenges. The position of Turkey, as I view it, is quite complex due to the complicated nature of their relationship with the Kurdish nation.
On the other hand, I have to say that the Czech Republic, in spite of military forces not being directly present in the area, tries to help and assist as much as they can to Iraq, to the peshmergas, to the Kurdish people.
Immediately after the plea made by the Iraqi government, we approve a supply of ammunition for the Kurdish fighters. The ammunition will be used mainly in the area of Kurdistan in their fight, in the fight of peshmergas against the ISO, and Czech Republic is also ready to provide facilities and capacities for training of the Iraqi soldiers.
And I would like to also reiterate here that the Czech Republic is also still holding its embassy in Syria, which also is a kind of—is a representation of the United States there as well, so is at the same time the embassy for the United States in Syria.
ACKERMAN: Do you care to comment on whether we have given the Ukrainian government enough support with respect to armaments?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think that Western world sent a very strong message. It is very important. I'm not saying this—I'm saying this as the prime minister of a country which had a very difficult history and you're probably familiar with the Munich Treaty, where the other countries agreed amongst themselves behind the back of the Czech Republic about trading the country to Hitler. So we actually have our own historical reminisces (ph).
So, of course, I don't want to make or draw some simple parallels here, but I think that I may have mentioned this subject. I think what the Ukraine really needs—and I actually mentioned it in the very beginning. Ukraine, apart from international solidarity and, of course, the appeal to keeping the human rights, freedom and democracy, we really need to provide help in order to stabilize the government, stabilize the state.
And I think the European Union actually played a very, very good role of an intermediary as far as the supplies of gas and oil are concerned. Without this intermediary role of the European Union, there actually was a big threat of humanitarian crisis during this winter.
And what is also important to be mentioned here that we should help the economic stabilization of Ukraine by not supporting projects that would bypass the terrorists (ph for Ukraine as far as the oil and gas supplies are concerned from Russia. Those projects, unfortunately, in the past used to be put into implementation without any regard of the fact what might there be the impact on the economy of Ukraine.
ACKERMAN: On Saturday you had an article in the Wall Street Journal that some of you might have read here, but in it you talk about the history of the Czech Republic under Vaclav Havel's presidency in having made Vaclav Havel—and I'll quote here - "major strides, not the least in a foreign policy that actively promotes human rights and offers assistance to countries undergoing political transitions." The question I might have, to the extent you care to comment on, is that there's a huge debate in this country about the input of democracy promotion activities as part of our foreign policy. And I don't know if you have a view to share about how that mix with respect to our own foreign policy should change or what are your thoughts about that?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, I would like to say that during my trip to the United States, I'm actually in the middle of this trip, but, of course, whenever I talk to our counterparts in the European Union and North Atlantic Alliance, I actually realize what an important role Vaclav Havel played in the perception of the Czech Republic by the general public and by the world.
It is—it might seem strange, but Vaclav Havel during his second term as a president played a more important role abroad or his role was, kind of, more visible in the outside world than domestically. And when we look at Vaclav Havel's values, they're actually a continuation of a long-term tradition going back to Masaryk, this—in fact, the dissident movement in the '70s and '80s actually follow up on the ideas and values of Masaryk, human rights, human freedoms.
And, in fact, it was in stark contrast to the previous regime, but—in fact, I believe that our 20th Century experience as the Czech Republic as a country, we actually underwent the experience of two totalitarian regimes. This experience, I think, is very binding. It's very binding for the future.
And you asked us whether we feel this obligation, and we truly feel this obligation. The Czech Republic must be and will be active in promoting human rights, supporting civic societies whenever possible. And I have to answer yes. I have to answer yes. We feel this obligation. We feel this commitment. And as the prime minister of this country, will make sure that we continue this tradition.
Twenty years ago we were actually going to celebrate this anniversary next year when talking about the anniversaries here. Next year we're going to celebrate the 20 years of existence of Radio Free Europe in the Czech Republic. And I think that Radio Free Europe has played and plays and will play a very important role in spreading objective information supporting democratic movements in countries where people are usually dependent only on official information of the totalitarian regime. So this is, in fact, a channel of free information.
Before 1989, I actually used to listen to Radio Free Europe as a student. In fact, a number of people actually listened to Radio Free Europe during the communist Czechoslovakian era. The Czech government is, of course, ready to fund and support projects of NGOs and any other projects that reinforce the power of citizens.
In the years coming after the Velvet Revolution, we actually exerted a lot of effort in transforming the society. You actually need the infrastructure of the civic society. You can promote democracy, but you need to have an infrastructure in place so that the democracy does not get introduced only formally so that the society embraces it fully. And, obviously, democracy needs to rest upon a kind of firm bedding.
ACKERMAN: We can now move to the general group here to ask questions. What you do is identify your interest in asking a question. Wait for the microphone to come, and, please, when you ask your question, make the question concise so we can answer as many questions as possible. So let's start here. Also, if you don't mind, please identify yourself.
QUESTION: I'm Hattie Babbitt with the World Resources Institute, and I want to just reinforce how grateful the rest of us who work in democratization and human rights are to the leadership of the Czech Republic.
I want to just reinforce how grateful the rest of us who work in democratization and human rights are to the leadership of the Czech Republic on the issues you were just talking about. For a tiny country, you have an enormous global reach, and we thank you. My question is this: You said earlier in talking about Ukraine, back to Ukraine, and the effect of the sanctions, that they had both—there was an economic component and then there was, and I think I'm quoting this correctly, the issue of the psychology of Russian society. And I wonder if you could expand on that.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Right. I actually mentioned this from the experience of a country that has a very strong Ukrainian minority, so, obviously, we have a lot of information, first-hand information from the Ukrainian citizens living in the Czech Republic and we have very intensive contacts with Ukraine.
But coming back to Russia, Russia before the Ukrainian crisis, based on all the information that we had, was not in the best economic shape ever. So it is very probable that a number of economic problems in Russia would have appeared even without the sanctions every being introduced.
However, the sanctions kind of overlapped the previous economic problems that of course now can blame sanctions for all the economic problems that the Russian population is suffering from. From short-term perspective, obviously, of course, you cannot perhaps long-term claim that all of this is because of the sanctions. But, obviously, Russia is undergoing economic stagnation and, at the moment, it seems government is quite successful in convincing the general public that it is because of the sanctions and because of the E.U. and because of the U.S.
QUESTION: Good morning. (inaudible), Mr. Prime Minister and thank you for being here. My name is Tom Dine, and I lived nine years in the Czech Republic as President of Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and I'll come for the anniversary. And I also am President of the American Friends of the Czech Republic, even though I'm not a Czech American. I'm just a Central European combination.
My question to you is back to Russia. The Whitehouse—the Whitehouse. The National Security Council of the Whitehouse has been very unhappy with the Czech Republic's attitude toward sanctions, and they've particularly been unhappy with President Zeman. Have you been able to deal with that unhappiness in your trip? Have you been able to have frank discussions with our Whitehouse and do you think you've advanced the U.S.-Czech relationship in your conversations?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, I have to say that this subject so far has not been brought up during the meetings in which I've participated in, and did not have impact on the major subjects and issues discussed during my trip in the United States.
I think it is very important to separate between some of the statements from the acts (ph) and the true politics and policies introduced by the Czech government. I suppose that the representatives of the U.S. administration are very well informed and briefed on the concrete steps taken and undertaken by the Czech government in this respect.
I have to say that I'm very glad that the friends of the—I'm very glad to see friends of the Czech Republic who are not directly Czech ancestors or don't have Czech ancestry. This is a very good and positive signal that our country has a very positive reception amongst even non-Czech Americans.
QUESTION: Meto Kolawsky (ph), UMD and Southeast Europe Coalition. And I think all of us in the room can agree that the Czech Republic has been our role model, I think, for the region and human rights and democracy. And congratulations on your anniversary.
My question has to deal with 2015 has two anniversaries, actually, coming up on the Balkans, 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords, and also the 20th anniversary of the signing of the UN interim accord between Macedonia and Greece. So I'd love to hear your opinions and views about what the Czech Republic and that you can do to help resolve some of the issues in this region.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, first of all, I would like to mention that the situation in the Balkans is, actually, much more stabilized than it was the case 15 years ago. If you look at the situation in the Balkans 15 years back, there was a major improvements. There was a major progress. A great number of countries in the Balkans became integrated into the E.U. Some of them became members of the European Union. Some of them became members of the NATO. I think later it was actually Albania, if I'm not mistaken.
The countries which, so far, have not been integrated in the European Union are on their path and they're acquiring step by step the candidate status for the membership. The last country having acquired the status and getting ready for the accession negotiations is Albania as well.
There are certain countries which integration is a bit more complicated or complex than the others. Perhaps we can mention Macedonia here. It is a country which, in my opinion, is ready from a great part to be integrated into the North Atlantic structures, as well the European Union.
However, that is the conflict that they have with Greece, and the position of Greece as the member state and NATO member—E.U. member state and NATO. I think this is really a great—an important task for the European Commission to conduct a dialogue between Macedonia and Greece, and I think Europe can play a vital role in resolving this conflict and making—or helping Macedonia out to integrate.
I appreciate that Slovenia, Macedonia managed to stabilize their relationship with the Albanian minority, especially the Albanians of Slovak origin. And I think that the model of Macedonia and the (inaudible) of the Macedonians—or the Slovak people of Macedonia and Albanians could serve as a very good example of several ethnicities living together.
Obviously, we could also mention Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we managed after years of war and clashes and violence create a certain statutory status quo, a certain state. Of course, further integration has not been successful as far as their integration into the Western democratic structure is concerned.
QUESTION: Mike Massety (ph), PBS Online NewsHour. You talk about spheres of influence, and Ukraine is obviously part of—Russia considers is part of its sphere of influence. But don't you think that they also consider much of Central Europe part of their second sphere of influence?
And you have a country being run by a former KGB station chief who uses every form in their tool kit, bribery, intimidation, talking about nuclear weapons, to split up your society. I mean, you saw the thing, your president yesterday was hit with tomatoes, that you have a divided society and this is what Russia is playing on to try and weaken Czech Republic, the Baltics, and pry them away from the United States and the West?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think—and I spoke about this shortly. I believe that what happened 15 years ago was the right step. And that was the enlargement of the NATO towards the East. Russia, actually, had to accept the fact that a great number of the countries of the former Soviet bloc became members of the North Atlantic Alliance and, later on, of the European Union.
So I think this issue has been sorted out by a democratic decision of the individual Central and Eastern European countries. The Czech Republic and its democratically elected government decided to file its application for becoming NATO members. People in public referendum decided to be members of the European Union. We became members of the European Union. And I think that this is how the Czech Republic's position was not only well stabilized, but it is also very clear where we stand.
As far as the situation the Czech Republic concerns, specifically, I think that for the past 10 months the situation in our country got stabilized, thanks to the fact that our government has a strong support in both chambers of the Parliament and we're not undergoing any major political crises. The country is not really torn by any corruption scandals or anything of that sort.
And I think that we try to play an active role in the European Union. I think that we sent a stronger signal than before that we're committed to the European project, as well as to our commitments with the NATO. And maybe I will come back to one of the previous questions here.
That is, there's virtual reality on one hand. On the other hand, there are concrete steps and acts and actions of the government. For instance, as far as defense is concerned, we decided—the government decided to increase its government spending on defense. For the past seven years we were decreasing our government spendings on defense, and my government changed this trend. We shifted it in such manner that by 2020 we would like to see at least 1.4 percent of the total GDB representing spending on our defense.
QUESTION: Hello. Lucy (ph), at (inaudible) Times newspaper. Thank you for your speech. Twenty-five years ago the Velvet Revolution changed East Europe and the world. About 10 years ago, a book called "Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party" was published, and it showed (ph) a tide of quitting the Chinese communist party and its (inaudible) associations in China and around the world. (inaudible) today, there are more than 118 million people who quit (ph) a Chinese communist party and its (inaudible) associations. Was there a comment on this quitting the Chinese communist party trend inside China that has been going on in the past decade and its influence on the Chinese communist party in China. Thank you.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I see that our debate is really reaching truly a global nature and has a global impact. Of course, our country has been developing our relationship with China lately. Obviously, we're focusing on the economic or trading area and there is also a very intensive dialogue that has been started between China and, not only Czech Republic, the other Central European countries.
We actually respect the territory integrity of China and other principals that are respected by the rest of the country, such as the United States or Germany or the U.K. or France. So we're not interfering into the internal politics of China.
We also have a very intensive political dialogue with China. As a part of that dialogue, there is the issue of human rights that should be mentioned. So once more, again, it's going to be a part of our political agenda.
QUESTION: Thank you. Fred Tipson. I'm at the Institute of Peace, sir. Would you reflect on the Czech transition of 25 years ago personally and what lessons you think the rest of the world should draw from the experience, the strategy, the solidarity, the discipline, the non-violent commitments and so forth. What do you think the world should take away from that transition?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think the transformation was not free of mistakes, and the Czech Republic cannot serve as an ideal example of purely ideal democratic system and transformation. But if you want me to draw certain lessons from the process, I think it is important to put an emphasis on the rule of law. The rule of law needs to be one of the most important aspects during the transformation.
A certain phase of our transformation, economy took precedence, and, in fact, there was a call for very quick economic reforms at the detriment of the rule of law or implementation of the new legislation, and that was conducive to a certain frustration of the society, mainly, in relation to the privatization process because there's a number of cases in which certain groups of population had better access to information, didn't have to respect the rules or they didn't play by the rules. So, certainly, I would—the first lesson drawn, place a lot of emphasis on the rule of law and proper legislation.
Then, it is very important to implement democracy in a society where there's no firm structure of political parties which grew out of the grassroots of society. That is, in fact, one of the weaknesses of the Czech democracy 25 years down the road. The civic society needs to be stronger. And, also, the political parties need to be stronger.
This is, in fact, kind of a paradoxical situation because in 1989 we were demonstrating in the streets of Prague for human rights and civic freedoms. And, today, a great part of the people does not want to use the political freedom.
What I want to say by that is that they—that the numbers of people attending elections or their active involvement in the parties is lessoning. And in order to have a functioning democratic system, you need also a number of democrats or people taking part in the democracy.
And the third lesson I would like to mention here—or, perhaps, let me—allow me two notes on this account. I think you need free media. Free media is a must. What we are experiencing in a number of countries, which is a kind of symbiosis between media, politicians and businessmen, that is actually creating a very risky mix and a rather big challenge for democracy in the future.
And each democracy, whether—if it wants to enjoy the support of the citizens, it has to have strong social roots. If you lose the support of the middle class and other classes in the society and, namely, if the middle class is not able to identify with the functioning of the state and with the democracy, then that is a great fret coming from the extremists, from a lot of demagogy and propaganda.
And I think, therefore, we should devote attention to the social issues and to the middle class. So this is, in fact, one of the other experiences or perhaps lessons that we drew from our transformation.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Minister. I'm Erica Schlager from the U.S. Helsinki Commission. I understand that the most recent report of the Czech Intelligence Services that was released in October says—concludes that the greatest internal threat to democracy in the Czech Republic comes from interethnic tension. And I'm wondering if I could ask you to address that and talk about some of the things your government is doing to counter that. Thank you.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I agree with you that this topic can be actually misused or abused many times. And when I spoke about transformation in the Czech Republic, this transformation, obviously, left some of the groups of people aside or on the periphery. There are certain regions with very low economy, high unemployment.
Also, we have Roma minority living with us in the Czech Republic and there are great challenges regarding their involvement in the education system as well as in finding jobs. You actually asked what the government can do or is doing in terms of improving.
I think as far as the Roma minority is concerned, I think it is absolutely vital to help integrate that Roma children into the education system, since the very beginning, since the preschool education, not—to avoid any kind of discrimination and disparities.
So we try to introduce some measures and we change legislation in such ways to make sure that we help not only of course Roma children, but also children from other socially excluded groups, that they become integrated into the education system from the very beginning, from their early age, so that the chance for their integration into society, finding a good job and having a good life increases.
Then, the other issue is the labor market and unemployment. We, as the government, try to launch programs to help less privileged people in regions with lower economy helping them to find jobs or to create jobs in those regions. So this, in fact, is the two areas that we're focusing on, creating new jobs and business opportunities for less privileged people, as well as creating a functioning educational system and providing education possibilities for everyone.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Jeff Price from Johns Hopkins (inaudible). And, first, congratulations. As a boy, I was in Prague during Prague spring and it's very gratifying to see 25 years of (inaudible) in democracy in the Czech Republic.
My question is regarding your immediate neighborhood. And I wonder if you have any thoughts you might volunteer about the developments in Hungary and the direction that (inaudible) had been taking there in the political sphere.
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, I have to say, this is not easy for me to comment on matters like that because I'm not an independent analyst or a journalist. I'm the prime minister of a country which has vested interest in good cooperation with all the countries, not only in the regions, but also within the Hurvian (ph) Union.
Obviously, there is a number of—there's information on problems that exist in Hungary and their society as well as on the political level. I think, overall, our communication with Hungary on the level of a visa grant (ph) full group, as well as the Hungarian government within the E.U. structures, does not really have any problems.
I don't know whether you're familiar with the visa grant (ph) for a group, and visa grant (ph) is a country composed of countries such as Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, and within this group our coordination and cooperation is really excellent and very smooth, and we don't see any wrong signals or negative aspects from the Hungarian side on this level.
When I talk to the prime ministers of the other neighboring countries, at the moment I don't see any clashes that would be existing their respective countries and Hungary. Of course, what is a special element or aspect here is giving Hungarian citizenship, by that definition also, a voting rights to the Hungarian minority in the neighboring countries of the region.
QUESTION: Maybe I could extend on that question for a moment. You said Mr. Orbahn (ph) has talked about the idea that others have advocated in different formats about a liberal democracy. Is there such a thing, in your mind?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think one might speculate whether there's like—this type of—I can only imagine anything like this. Of course, there's (inaudible) debates and still speculations, but I can't imagine that there can be a society which on the one hand would be democratic and on the other hand it would not be a liberal society. It's very difficult to imagine something like that.
QUESTION: Maybe we can talk a little bit about the economic dimension of what's going on in Europe and how you foresee events over the next two or three years. And, in general, what kind of policies would you like to see the E.U. implement that will accelerate growth in the region?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Obviously, this is a very complex issue. Let me start by saying that I appreciate the fact that the European Union was able to handle the financial crisis and, obviously, the debt crisis that followed the economic crisis. These were our biggest tests and challenges, and that crisis put the European currency, the Euro, under a lot of stress and it was a stress test, so to say.
There were many predictions that E.U. would be abandoned or that the Eurozone would crumble apart, and nothing of that happened. In fact, we can see that a number of countries using Euro has slightly increased since the crisis. Therefore, I believe there's going to be a growing trend of countries within the European Union in the coming years of countries that use Euro as their currency, and I would like to see Czech Republic is one of those countries.
As far as the challenges ahead of us and that I see as very important in Europe is the trend to keep our public spending healthy. Then trying to give spur and support to competitiveness. I believe that in Europe we have to invest, namely, into research and development and innovations, and there needs to be greater incentives for private businesses to invest into research and development, helping buy public grants and funding, and funds of the European Union should be also used for that purpose.
We should also really complete the concept of the unified market within the European Union. Obviously, still now we still have certain hurdles and barriers, and I think that the common market functioning is going to be an important spur to the economy. And then, of course, the unified and common infrastructure of the European Union.
The Czech Republic is very much interested in promoting the idea of a common energy market that might be conducive not only to better prices of energies, but also creating a better energy mix and, by this, creating a better energy security in Europe.
What is also worth mentioning here is that's the European economies, and of course we're devoting utmost attention to it and the (inaudible) of it as well is the priority given to education in general. I think education is the key. There's a number of areas that we must improve in the Czech Republic, including better connection between our education system and higher education system and universities with the academics and institutions abroad.
In fact, our universities are and our research capacities are suffering from the fact that we still so far have not been able to participate in terms of international purchase and also having greater number of international academics active in the Czech Republic and teaching in our universities and higher education system.
ACKERMAN: I think—is there any—I don't see other hands raised, so I'll assume that we've exhausted the questions from the group here. But let me ask you one last one. Since I'm now the last person to ask a question, let me just remind everybody that the meeting we've had today has been on the record. So I want to ask you one last question. And, perhaps, it's a bit unfair because we're asking you to put on the glasses of what you see the future like. But we're now celebrating the first 25 years. What do you hope or expect the next 25 years will look like in your country with respect to NATO and Europe and Russia, all the things that we've covered, as you see fit to discuss?
SOBOTKA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, I spoke about this already. The Czech Republic, even in the future, should be a country capable and able to be more active in the area of international politics and international security far beyond the size of the Czech Republic.
In fact, I'm mentioning here our ambition to continue promoting the role of an active and responsible approach to security, human rights, and support of civic society. So I fully trust that the Czech Republic will be able to continue to expend its energy and efforts in these areas.
Although, our—of course, wish and our enthusiasm sometimes goes beyond the capacity of a small country. However, I believe that this is a very great contribution. This is a very important contribution of our country to the functioning of the international community.
I would like to see the Czech Republic in 20 to 25 years to come as a society being able to provide good functioning democracy for its citizens, a country which uses Euro as its currency, a country which is a valid member of the European community, a country which will undergo a successful economic transformation.
We are a county which is strongly industrialized. You can actually say that we form a strong industrial base of the European Union. In fact, our total share of the GDP of—in terms of industry is very high. And, therefore, we would very much like to modernize our industry to focus on our production with higher value added, introducing new technologies. That will require, of course, a greater and more intensive contact between the business community and research and development. So there's going to be a lot of work ahead of us in this area in order to keep the prosperity of the Czech Republic and its growth up high.
ACKERMAN: Thank you very much. Enjoyed having you here, and I think we're all grateful that you've come and had a chance to visit with us and talk about the wide range of issues that I think were on our minds. So thanks again for being with us.