Thursday, 24 September

A number of protest actions that have recently overwhelmed the Czech Republic is a traditional way of demonstrating democracy in this country, says Ambassador of Ukraine to the Czech Republic Yevgen Perebyinis. About 120 thousands Protestants came to Wenceslas Square on June 5, expressing their disagreement with the appointment of Justice Minister Marie Beneseva, as well as with a number of other actions made by Prime Minister Andrej Babis. According to some estimates, this rally has become the second largest demonstration by the number of protesters after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. However, according to the Ukrainian ambassador, these actions are unlikely to lead to some fundamental changes in the agenda of political forces and domestic policy of the Czech Republic. At the same time, certain changes have taken place in the Czech migration policy towards Ukraine. The Czech government has decided to double the quotas for Ukrainian workers and boost their salaries. Opinion has managed to talk with the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Ukraine to the Czech Republic Yevgen Perebyinis about this, as well as about elections to Verkhovna Rada in the Czech Republic.

What do those recent protest actions in Prague mean and how can they threaten the Czech Republic?

The Czech Republic is a democratic country and here any kind of protest is normal. Traditions of peaceful protests are deeply rooted here, the most famous example of which is the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It resulted in the collapse of the communist regime, and the presidency of Vaclav Havel. Such mass protests occur here from time to time when an active part of the population does not agree with some actions of the authorities. One of the waves of such protests was, let’s say, between 2000 and 2001, when people disagreed with the wrong, according to the protesters, way to appoint a head of public television. Back then protesters almost completely filled Wenceslas Square too. Now that some of the Czech activists and political forces criticize the current government for some of their actions, these protests have also reached a fairly large scale. However, one should be objective and say that the current prime minister’s rating is still quite high – almost 30%. It is a rather big figure, in fact, Andrej Babis got the same result during parliamentary elections 2 years ago. That is, despite all the scandals that accompany this policy, his support is almost unchanged.

Photo by Natalia Zahola

What does it mean? The strong hand of the Kremlin, the fact that the Czech electorate doesn’t differ too much from the Ukrainian one that mostly doesn’t want to take care of values, but only thinks about the standards of living? Or is it about the fact that the most progressive and active part of the Czech society lives in the capital, where we can see protest?

I can only agree with the fact that the most active part of Czechs lives predominantly in the capital. Prague traditionally votes for the opposition to the current government. The regions mostly support Andrej Babis. However, I don’t agree that the Russian factor is a big deal, speaking about the support of Babis. His government is rather pro-western and, accordingly, pro-Ukrainian. In particular, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of this Government, Tomas Petricek, is one of our closest friends in the EU. He supports Ukraine in all areas that concern countering Russian aggression, as well as he supports Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO. In principle, the Prime Minister has the same position. Now we are talking about the intensification of bilateral relations between our countries, in particular, about the possible visit of Prime Minister Babis to Ukraine. Nowadays, the Czech Republic has a very complex political configuration and it should not be examined in a simplistic way, from solely one perspective. On the one hand, there is President Milos Zeman, with whose statements and position, in particular, when he’s talking about Ukraine, we can not agree. At the same time, the government headed by Prime Minister Andrej Babis is a partner to us and supports Ukraine.

What is the EU’s position towards the protests, something may change in the domestic policy of the Czech Republic?

In the first place, this protest concerns the conflict of interests of Andrej Babis, who is one of the richest people in the Czech Republic. From the point of view of European lawyers, as outlined in the recently published draft report of the European Commission, Andrej Babis continues to control his former firms, while the law dictates that he has to get rid of them as a Prime Minister. Babis himself refutes this and, in response to calls for his resignation, Prime Minister stresses that political changes in the country should be based on elections’ results and not on protests. Moreover, despite all of it, he is still one of the most popular politicians in the country.

Speaking about migration policy, there is information that the Czech Republic has doubled labor migration quotas for Ukraine. Is this true?

Yes, recently the Czech government has decided to double the quotas for issuing employment permits for Ukrainians from 19 to 40 thousand per year. The Czech Republic continues to be in a very difficult situation in terms of the availability of labor resources. On the one hand, the Czech economy shows strong growth, and on the other, they have the lowest unemployment rate in the EU today, about 2.3%. According to some estimates, the Czech Republic needs 200 000 additional workers in order to ensure that all enterprises are functioning normally. At the same time, Ukrainians are traditionally perceived as the most desirable workers in this country. They are hard-working, quickly adapt to local conditions, learn the Czech language rather fast, they are responsible and professional.

Photo by Andrii Hudzenko / Liga.net

But here comes the problem for us, because the mass exodus of our citizens abroad (and the Czech Republic is not the only country where they leave), creates significant challenges for Ukraine. The issue of manpower’s outflow, those people who could work, contribute to the development of our state, as I see it, today, is one of the most challenging among the problems our country faces. This problem, however, will continue to exist as long as we have a wage gap with neighboring EU states that is not in our favor.  Here, a “ball” is on the side of Ukraine. We have to raise our standards of living. When we will have at least a relative parity with the European states at the level of wages, then the outflow of labor will stop naturally.

The task of the diplomatic institutions in this situation is to ensure the observance of our citizens’ rights – insurance, living conditions, fair wages, etc. Let’s say, along with the norm for increased quotas, the Czech government has decided that the salaries of Ukrainians should correspond to a coefficient of 1.2 to the salaries of the Czechs at the same workplaces. That is, there should be so-called “positive discrimination” towards Ukrainians. This means that under certain conditions Ukrainians in the Czech Republic may receive more than the Czechs at the same place. This norm has already caused dissatisfaction of trade unions and various professional organizations. The logic of such a decision is that now, there is some kind of competition for Ukrainian workers, in particular, it is between Poland and Germany, so the Czech government is actually trying to outrun them here.

On the other hand, whenever I meet Czech businessmen and hear that they need Ukrainian workers, I urge them to invest in Ukraine better, to create their businesses and to pay Ukrainians in Ukraine at least 70% of the salary they pay them in the Czech Republic. And then nobody will go anywhere. Ukrainians will stay with their families at home, earn good money, and on the other hand, they will develop production and Czech companies. I think that this approach can create a win-win situation for both sides. By the way, some entrepreneurs are already doing it, although not to the extent we would like it to be.

How the process of preparation for the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic is going? Do you plan to increase the number of polling stations?

Our embassy has already begun preparations. We are currently working on organizational issues. Within a few weeks, the personal composition of the election commissions should be approved. We already have the experience, despite the fact that in Prague there were a lot of voters during the presidential elections – over 4000, the organization and optimization of the work of the electoral commission allowed us to virtually get rid of the queues during the run-off – in 11 hours they were gone. I am convinced that during the parliamentary elections everything will be done in order to make the voting as comfortable as possible. Traditionally there are two polling stations in the Czech Republic – at the Ukrainian Embassy in Prague and at the Consulate of Ukraine in Brno. We don’t plan to increase the number of polling stations, for we are confident that the electoral commission is able to cope with the number of voters who will vote, according to our preliminary assessment.

Photo by Natalia Zahola

By Natalia Mizyukina

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