Interviews

Martin Dvořák: Bombing Yugoslavia was the right thing to do

Published: 22. 12. 2021
Author: Luboš Palata
Photo: Photo archives of Martin Dvořák
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“I was then – and I remain to this day – convinced that it was the only way to stop the genocide that was being committed by Milošević’s regime on the civilian populace of Kosovo," says Martin Dvořák even now, years later, about the controversial decision to bomb Belgrade, Serbia. He is a diplomat and former UN administrator to Kosovo.

You are one of the new government’s key experts on foreign policy. What should be the changes that we make in this regard and what is there to build upon from the past?

I feel that Czech foreign policy has been surprisingly consistent in its basic principles pretty much since the fall of Communism in Czechia. Besides one short episode after Minister Zaorálek took office, we have diligently supported the safeguarding of human rights from tyrannical oppression, have been a member state in both the NATO and EU, have aided democratic powers in a number of places around the world, and strived towards better connections with countries of the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans. What should change is not this fundamental bedrock or the direction of our foreign policy, rather we should make sure to hold to these principles in practice and avoid empty promises when there is no real intention to make good on them.

You have acquired quite the diplomatic expertise during your missions all over the world outside the European Union. How does the Union appear through the lens of New York, Washington, Iraq, Kuwait, or Kosovo?

The expertise you speak of has formed over quite a long stretch of time, during which the EU itself has changed, as did the way it is perceived. The feeling I get from meeting with partners in all of these places is that the EU is gradually making a name for itself, and people are becoming aware of its potential and capabilities. The United States is starting to see the EU as a more comprehensible and respected partner in negotiations about key topics of transatlantic cooperation. This does not, however, stop the US from other bilateral dealings with individual Union member states, primarily those that have a greater deal of influence over the EU. The Balkans are looking to Europe for an example and for salvation of sorts, they expect it to provide this most delicate region of the Old Continent with material aid and a pathway towards democratic standards. Local governments claim readiness for reform that would allow them entry to this imaginary European home, but they often run into boundaries set by tradition and the political development of each individual country. EU has also shown to be an enticing partner for the Middle East. In Kuwait, I have witnessed several occasions when an opinion presented by a representative of the EU was taken more seriously than if the topic was broached by any of the individual member states. We, Czech diplomats that is, have found EU support to be very beneficial, to which my colleagues can also attest.

Shortly after the Kosovo conflict ended, you served as administrator of one of its regions close to the Albanian border. What are your memories of this time and how would you rate the current state of Kosovo and the Western Balkans?

I do have fond memories of those times, although the conditions were often very cruel over there and some experiences were very visceral. But my work made sense, I was helping people as well as the region, of which I was the “administrator”. During the first months of my mission, my main objective was to find housing for as many people as possible in a region where two-thirds of it were burned down by the Serbians before they retreated. Standing on a hillock overlooking the village I worked in and counting newly rebuilt roofs of houses was very satisfying. Putting together city councils and taking a part in getting life back on track in decimated villages was a very fulfilling learning experience. I have come to realize how similar the situations are when a society makes the transfer from a non-democratic system to a free and democratic one even when it happens in very different parts of the world. Kosovo, as well as other countries of this area, are still very keen on becoming a part of Europe. The slow speed of the journey towards this goal, as well as unmet expectations and unkept promises are slowly making them more and more impatient and opening the door for other parts of the world to influence them. I see a certain risk there.

Should the EU add the Western Balkans as soon as possible then, or do you understand the restraint that the Union is showing in further expanding its numbers based on your experience with this region as well as that of the EU with current Polish and Hungarian governments?

I think that I have already answered this to some extent. The Western Balkans have been a priority of our foreign policy efforts for many years, we have long-term plans, goals, and strategies there, as well as partners that we have experience dealing with.  On the other hand, we must take notice of how slow the local countries are in picking up the standards of how a democratic society should function, which is the reason why some EU countries are hesitant when it comes to incorporating the Balkan countries into the structures of the Union. So we are left with a dilemma – do we insist on strict adherence to all the conditions, and in so doing, push back the process of integrating the Balkans in the EU, while running the risk of the local countries’ growing frustrations being abused by states that consider the EU to be an adversary?

There are still heated discussions among the Czech people to this day as to whether NATO should have bombed Serbia during the Kosovo conflict in order to get it to retreat. What was your opinion back then, and has it changed over the years?

It has not. I was then – and I remain to this day – convinced that it was the only way to stop the genocide that was being committed by Milošević’s regime on the civilian populace of Kosovo at the time. Coming across mass graves, seeing remains of dismembered bodies that the Serbian paramilitary units left in their wake, that is something that haunts me to this day.

Your other big diplomatic experience was New York. What does one learn from being a diplomat in this multicultural megalopolis and focal point of world politics and business?

The Consulate General in New York, of which I have had the honor of being director for five years, is mostly involved in passport and visa issues, economic diplomacy, and the expat agenda that goes hand in hand with the day-to-day running of the Bohemian National Hall. But of course, there are also dealings with people from the UN Headquarters in New York and frequent visits of high-ranking Czech officials. The opportunity to meet a wide array of fascinating people from all over the world and observe how they conduct themselves in such positions was an invaluable lesson.

You were also the Czech Ambassador to Kuwait, a country that is heavily dependent on oil. How do countries like that view the efforts of the EU and the West to stop global warming by reducing the use of fossil fuels? Do they not see it as an attack on their prosperity? Is the Arab world ready for a time without oil?

Kuwait, as well as other Gulf countries, are positing themselves as being in favor of reducing the use of fossil fuels and taking on accountability for solving global environmental challenges, at least verbally that is. On the other hand, it is quite understandable that the actual implementation of these measures is progressing rather slowly, which, to be fair, is not just an issue of governments that are heavily dependent on oil production. I see the fact that even the countries in this part of the world realize the urgency of this issue and want to participate in solving it as very positive.

CV BOX

Martin Dvořák

Born November 11, 1965, in Prague, graduated from the University of Economics in Prague.

After school, he worked as an economist in the East Bohemian Meat Industry, was reassigned to the Technical Department for disagreements with the Communist regime, and later worked in production

In the municipal elections of 1990 and 1994 he was elected Mayor of Hradec Králové.

Between 1999 and 2002, he participated in the United Nations Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), where he served as administrator of Istog and Gyakovä for 28 months.

Since July 2003, he worked in Iraq as an expert of the Transitional Coalition Administration

From January 2005 to August 2009, he served as a commercial counsellor at the Embassy in Washington.

In 2009 he was appointed Director of the Department of Bilateral Economic Relations and Export Support at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. He remained in this position until August 2012, when he was appointed Consul General in the USA.

Since September 2017 he’s been the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Kuwait and Qatar.

Speaks English, Russian and German, partly Polish.

He is married, has daughters Dora and Alžběta and son Adam. He likes theatre, music, literature and sports.

Diplomacy

Martin Dvořák has been through a truly bountiful diplomatic career. What is the one moment that is imprinted in his mind? “Hard to pick just one,” he ponders. “But the initiation of the first Czech Presidency of the EU in 2009 would have to be among them. Sadly, so is the dissolution of the Czech Government during this majestic moment of our participation in European history. Handing over deeds of appointment to the Emirs of Kuwait and Qatar was probably the very peak of my diplomatic career.”

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