A Jewish prayer book and a Koran. A wooden plaque from the Nebraska National Guard. A display of women’s shoes by Spanish-Czech fashion designer Manolo Blahnik. Photos with Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Bloomberg.
All these are artifacts a visitor might expect to find proudly displayed throughout the official residence of Hynek Kmoníček, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the United States.
But the hides of a Mongolian wolf, an Australian kangaroo and a Sudanese crocodile?
“The crocodile was really killed by me, but obviously on a farm, not in a river,” Kmoníček quickly explains when asked about the trophy animals. “I was in a situation where I had to show I was tough. So I did what I had to do.”
An ambassador who hunts is unusual. A Jewish ambassador from the Czech Republic who hunts — a bit more so.
Yet nothing about Kmoníček is typical. In 2008, as Prague’s envoy to India, he helped Emil Kučera, a Czech entomologist who had been arrested by officials in the Indian state of West Bengal for illegally collecting rare beetles. In 2015, Kučera discovered a beetle in China and named it
This musician-turned-diplomat, who speaks fluent English, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic in addition to his native Czech and a smattering of other languages, enjoys gourmet cooking and collecting hot sauces. He’s headed the Czech Embassy on Washington’s Spring of Freedom Street since March 2017.
Kmoníček agreed to be interviewed on Oct. 29, the day before welcoming hundreds of dignitaries to celebrate 100 years since the establishment of Czechoslovakia — a political entity born in 1918 that outlived communism and ended with the “Velvet Divorce” of 1993 that split the former Soviet satellite into separate Czech and Slovak republics.
We asked Kmoníček what that 100th anniversary means to him and the world.
“It means that we succeeded in one very difficult task: just surviving. That’s our major achievement,” he replied. “As a small Western nation living in the center of Europe, we could have ended up as Germans. And as Slavs, we could have easily been eaten up by the Eastern powers. So the basic task of Czech diplomacy since 1945 has been to stay Western without becoming Bavarian — and to stay Slavic without becoming Russian.”
More broadly speaking, said the ambassador, Czech history over the last millennium or so can be roughly divided into three periods: 700 years as an independent kingdom; 300 years as part of the Austrian monarchy; and the last 100 years as a republic.
“In total, out of the last 1,100 years of history, we’ve had only 35 years of true democracy,” he said. “This has taught us some lessons: We must rely on ourselves, but it’s not enough without powerful friends because most of the tragic decisions of our national destiny were not taken by us.”
Rather, they were taken first by Germans during World War II and then by the Soviets after Moscow and the U.S. “liberated” Czechoslovakia and the country became a one-party communist state until the government’s collapse in 1989.
Under the 1938 Munich Agreement that allowed Nazi Germany’s annexation of western Czechoslovakia — an act of appeasement that led to Hitler’s rise to power — the ambassador argued “it was France and England that decided we were not worth fighting for. And communists would never have taken power in 1948 had there not been an Allied understanding that [after the war], we would be in the Soviet zone of influence.”
The ambassador’s blunt talk may stem in part from the fact that he had no intentions of becoming a diplomat in the first place. Kmoníček, 56, originally studied to be a musician. His abilities as a lute player and classical guitarist allowed him to join an orchestra, which gave him the chance to go abroad. “Under socialism, you could travel if you performed classical music because there was no lyrics — and it’s hard to make protests out of Bach,” he quipped.
After studying at Charles University in Prague and Israel’s Hebrew University in Jerusalem — he holds a degree in classical Koranic Arabic — Kmoníček joined the Czech Foreign Ministry. His previous ambassadorial postings include India (where he was also responsible for Czech relations with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Before coming to Washington, Kmoníček represented Prague at the United Nations in New York; it was there that he met his Uzbek-born Muslim wife, Indira Gumarova. He has a son and three daughters.
In addition to his overseas experience, Kmoníček was chief foreign policy advisor to Czech President Miloš Zeman, a populist leader who this past March unleashed angry protests after he used his inauguration speech to attack the media for criticizing his anti-immigrant, pro-Russia rhetoric. In October 2017, Zeman brandished a replica gun inscribed with the words “for journalists” at a Prague press conference. Earlier that year, he joked with Russian President Vladimir Putin that some journalists need to be “liquidated.”
He has also likened Muslims who believe in the Koran to anti-Semitic Nazis; doubts the existence of climate change; and supports holding referendums on Czech membership in the European Union and NATO.
But Zeman’s divisive rhetoric and cozy ties with Putin, which have caused a schism with the EU and alienated Muslims, hasn’t hurt him at the polls. He was narrowly re-elected in January, bolstered by his popularity in the Czech countryside.
Despite the tensions between the Czech Republic and the EU, the country is firmly entrenched in Europe’s political, economic and social landscape, with universal health care and education, as well as high rankings for quality of life, democratic governance and ease of doing business. In fact, considering its chaotic history, Czechia — as the country is informally known — isn’t doing badly at all.
“Currently, we are in the best shape we’ve been in the last 100 years. We’re in the EU, we’re in NATO and we easily rank among the fastest-growing economies in the EU,” Kmoníček told The Diplomat. “We are the sixth safest place in the world. Every year, we attract more tourists than our entire population, and we produce one car every 23 seconds.”
Last year, Czech GDP expanded by 4.3 percent, even as unemployment held steady at 2.9 percent — the lowest among the EU’s 28 member countries. The growth stems in part from government tax incentives for foreign investors and companies, along with a strong manufacturing base.
With 10.6 million inhabitants in its 79,000 square kilometers of territory, the Czech Republic is roughly equivalent to Nebraska in size and Georgia in population. Demographically, it’s not likely to change much over the next 30 years.
“Many countries east of us are shrinking in population, some by as much as a third,” said Kmoníček. “But our birth rate is growing, even though for political reasons immigration has disappeared. Also, our demography is changing because of the conflict in Ukraine. Of our 14 national minorities, the Slovaks used to be the biggest. Now it’s the Ukrainians.”
The Czech-American relationship is strong and has been bolstered over the years by the strength of its immigrant communities across the United States.
As a result, the Czech diaspora flourishes in some pretty unusual places. In absolute numbers, Texas is home to the nation’s largest ethnic Czech population (about 120,000 people), but an estimated 5.5 percent of Nebraskans claim Czech ancestry. For this reason, the Czech army has official ties with the National Guards of both states. And the Iowa city of Cedar Rapids is home to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
This year, Kmoníček logged 12,000 miles driving through the Midwest and checking in on various Czech communities, some of which had never been visited by a Czech ambassador.
Both the United States and the Czech Republic have long shared common values such as freedom, respect for human rights, a free-market economy and the rule of law. But both have also been shaken by a rising tide of populism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
In December 2016, a month after Trump’s election but before his inauguration, Kmoníček predicted that the new administration would be “a combination of the aggressive isolationism of Andrew Jackson together with the strategy of Richard Nixon minus Kissinger.”
He told The Diplomat that both Trump’s election and Zeman’s re-election victories prove that “established political parties, over the years, have lost touch with their own electorate. This is because the topics changed. For example, the left-wing socialist parties used to be the parties of the working class. But the working class — the blue-collar guy who goes to the steel mill every day — has virtually disappeared. How many of them are left? They’ve been replaced with mid- and high-level educated IT designers and engineers.”
Burdened by political correctness, socialists in the Czech Republic as well as Democrats in the United States “basically lost the ability to be understood,” according to the ambassador. “So even if they speak about the correct topics, the voter feels alienated. As political parties get weaker and weaker, somebody must fill the vacuum.”
Asked why authoritarianism is gaining strength across the formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe that suffered under Soviet domination, Kmoníček said the answer is partly based on reality, and partly on misunderstanding and ignorance.
“It’s very hard to define how to measure liberalism. I would go by the World Justice Project, whose most recent Rule of Law Index ranked the Czech Republic 17th in the world, France 18th and the United States 19th,” he said.
Poland, meanwhile, dropped to 25th.
“I understand there’s been some backsliding, and we are not happy about that. But I do not buy that this represents a threat to Western democracy. I can look at that same chart, which says Greece went up to 39th place, and this shows you the complexity of the discussion. Should I praise Greece but criticize Poland?”
Kmoníček would not comment, though, on Viktor Orbán, the controversial prime minister of Hungary (which ranked 50th on the index of 113 countries and territories). In mid-September, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to condemn the Orbán government’s brand of “illiberal democracy,” citing concerns about judicial independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom and the rights of minorities and migrants.
“We have very close ties with Hungary, and we prefer to discuss these things directly with them, and not through the media,” Kmoníček said. “The Czech role is to talk to everybody without naming, shaming or prejudice. We do this through the Visegrád Group, and we think this is the only productive way.”
Like Hungary, the Czech Republic under Zeman has taken a very hard line against immigrants, angrily opposing the EU’s refugee quotas and taking in just 12 of the nearly 2,700 refugees allotted by the European Commission.
“We were not a target country anyway, but a transit country,” Kmoníček argued. “There was no real appetite on the part of these immigrants to settle in the Czech Republic. Our social subsidies are lower than in Germany, the language is much harder to learn and our annual beer consumption — 138 liters per capita — is the highest in the world. Beer is cheaper than bottled water — not exactly something you’d advertise in Afghanistan.”
For these reasons and others, the Czech Republic is today home to no more than 20,000 Muslims, or barely 0.02 percent of the population. And they face widespread discrimination, according to a recent Al Jazeera report.
While anti-Islamic sentiment runs strong in the Czech Republic, anti-Semitism is not a major problem, said Kmoníček. The country’s relations with Israel are excellent — so excellent, in fact, that it intends to become the first in Europe to follow Trump’s lead and move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. During a Nov. 27 visit to Israel, Zeman is to officially inaugurate the Czech House as part of his government’s goal of completing the embassy transfer to Jerusalem by year’s end.
While that would certainly make the Trump administration happy, an even bigger priority — some would say obsession — of the 45th president is making Europe pay for its own defense. Even back during his presidential campaign, Trump was castigating NATO member states that spend less than 2 percent of their GDP on military expenditures. That would include the Czech Republic, which at present spends just over 1 percent on defense.
“We know it’s not enough,” Kmoníček said, noting that the Czech government is dramatically stepping up its military spending. “We will get to the 2 percent mark by 2024.”
Meanwhile, Czech soldiers continue to serve with NATO allies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have suffered heavy casualties.
“NATO, for us, means promoting security far away from our borders to make sure that the danger doesn’t come closer,” said Kmoníček. “When you live in the place where two world wars started, you never take your security for granted.”
But Kmoníček said all this talk about immigration, illiberalism and unfair defense burdens is off the mark.
“For me, the major discussion we should be having is what kind of European Union we are creating. That will be the crucial discussion of the next 20 years. Are we creating a political animal in the shape of the United States of Europe? Or an economic zone bound by the same interests, same currency and part of the same law? These two things are dramatically different.”
Some 80 percent of the Czech economy depends on exports, and 80 percent of those exports go to other EU member states. A strong European Union is definitely in Prague’s interest, Kmoníček emphasized.
“We are not happy with Brexit,” the ambassador noted, although he added that Great Britain’s departure from the EU is unlikely to encourage more countries to abandon ship. “Quite the opposite. After everybody sees what Brexit means in real terms, it will lower the appetite of some political powers to play that card.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.