Jiri Kozák is the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic.
The diplomat, 47, is a graduate of political science from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University in Prague. He has lectured on human rights, political education, and the formation of political parties and systems in a number of countries.
He is the author and co-editor of The Memory of Nations: Democratic Transition Guide, a 13-country comparative study of democratic transitions. He was in Addis Ababa last week as part of his country’s attempts to deepen ties with Ethiopia, where he met with Semereta Sewasew, the state minister of finance, and Misganu Arega, the state minister of foreign affairs. Samson Berhane of The Reporter met with the deputy minister at the Czech Embassy in Addis Ababa to learn more about the relationship between the Czech Republic and Ethiopia, as well as to shed light on human rights, democratic government, and economic collaboration. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: The Czech Republic provides around USD 10 million to Ethiopia every three years. Please walk us through the history of the relationship that the Czech Republic has with Ethiopia.
Jiri Kozák: Ethiopia has been one of the six priority countries for our development and cooperation. And this cooperation goes back for many years. This year, we are reviewing the previous period, and we are preparing for future cooperation. That’s also part of why I’m here with my colleagues; we are here to discuss with our partners what the areas where we can cooperate in the future can be and how to develop more efficient development and cooperation.
European countries, including the Czech Republic, are criticized for placing more emphasis on aid, as investing in Africa is considered risky by many investors and states in the west. Is there any plan to shift from the business as usual approach that European countries have been applying in Africa?
What you’re describing is a view that is only partially true and certainly will not be true in the future. Czechia has been involved in many African countries, both by giving aid for development and working together on economic issues. In many countries, we have been partnering with local companies in the fields of transportation, agriculture, healthcare, and building infrastructures. We are creating investments that build long-term partnerships, engage local people, and create jobs for the locals.
And even here in Ethiopia, you can see it, and one of the examples is in aviation, where we have a local partner that has been helping modernize training jets for the RMA, and it is done here in Ethiopia. And we believe this is the best path to take because our philosophy is to invest in long-term partnerships. That means you can not only come, sell, and leave.
This philosophy is based on coming to the country, looking for local partners, and training local people how to use and service equipment. This is what we have discussed with the Ethiopian authorities.
It is widely acknowledged that the breakup of Czechoslovakia into two countries was the most peaceful ever seen. It is unheard of for there to be such a peaceful revolution, particularly in Africa, and when it comes to Ethiopia, the situation is even more grim. So what can we learn from your country’s revolution? What should we learn, and how would the process be?
Well, the split of Czechoslovakia into two independent countries was, as you rightly say, peaceful; it has been a unique process. And what I believe was the most important element was that the politicians and people on both sides spoke to each other.
The solution was in the negotiations, not the fighting. That’s why we came to the conclusion that we could find a way to split Czechoslovakia into two countries peacefully. We engaged in negotiations and negotiated conditions that were favorable for both countries. When you look at the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s relations today, you can see that they are at their best. And that’s mainly because we understood each other’s desires and were able to negotiate about what the future of the two countries should be.
Do you have any advice for fighting groups in Ethiopia who have yet to lay down their arms? What do you think is the right way to express their grievances?
Well, I think the route that Ethiopia has taken after the conflict, the peace agreement, is the right path, because we see that the humanitarian corridors are being opened, that foreign troops have been withdrawn, that heavy weapons have been confiscated, and that this is the way to go. To begin, it is critical that everyone is on board with this process and understands where it is heading.
Reconciliation matters. It requires special consideration. Those who are responsible for the crimes or for the suffering of the people should be punished for their actions. This is an experience I have had. For 10 years, I was the director of an NGO focused on democratic transition and good governance. And the lesson that we have learned from many cases of post-conflict transition around the world is that you have to reconcile. If you don’t, that history will repeat itself.
So, those who are responsible have to be held accountable for their actions. And in the future, those seeking a peaceful resolution, such as the Ethiopian government, will need to engage everyone. The people must feel included in this process. If they don’t feel ownership of the process, there will be conflicts. So, it is important to keep everyone on board. And as I mentioned, it is important to talk to each other.
Considering what you’ve said, you’re also familiar with post-conflict processes for democratic governance. Keeping that in mind, they say that the situation in Africa is a bit complex, especially during transitional justice. Even in Ethiopia, the government is calling for the end of the UN human rights experts’ mandate in the country, claiming that it would jeopardize the peace process. How do you see the concerns of Ethiopian officials?
I believe the problem is that we need to focus on the needs of the people, because it is the people who matter. Everyone, regardless of tribe, nationality, or country, has basic needs that must be met. If the politicians don’t think about this, they will argue among themselves, and that’s where the conflict starts.
If you focus on the people, on the needs of the people, on the reconstruction, and on helping the people, then you will understand that this effort crosses boundaries. If you do this, then you can talk to each other and talk about the differences that you might have and look for solutions. There will be fewer reasons to argue if the country develops peacefully and economically.
I’ve noticed that, when it comes to the peace process in northern Ethiopia, both Europe and the West ignore the fact that the conflict has a long history that goes back as far as 30 years. For example, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US has overlooked this factor. So, did you see this part of the conflict as well?
Yes, you are right. If you don’t factor history into your plans, history may come back to haunt you. We are pretty much aware of the history of the conflicts, but the thing is that if you don’t look into the future, if you don’t have the well-being of the people in your mind, you will always go back into history. And this could go in circles.
You have to have somebody who says, “Stop.” We have argued enough, and our people have suffered enough. So, if you consider the future and concentrate on people’s well-being, you can leave differences behind and concentrate on development.
One of the major reasons that we are seeing many conflicts in different parts of Ethiopia is also because of the resurgence of identity politics. The same thing is also happening across the world. What’s your view on that?
Well, I think it’s about accepting that people are different and that we are all different. But we all have the same needs and the same goals. We see it now in Europe because of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. It was a decision of the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin to start the war. But it is the Ukrainian people who are suffering, not him. So we really need to think about the well-being of the people.
The solution is very simple. If Russia leaves Ukraine immediately, there will be peace. Nobody wants to fight Russia; Ukraine is only concerned with defending itself, its nationality, and its sovereignty. These conflicts can be resolved if we respect each other and focus on the future. But if we don’t respect one another, we’ll have problems and conflict.
African countries have also suffered due to the Russia-Ukraine war because imports come from Ukraine and Russia. Is there any support that the Czechs intend to provide for Africa, or even to invest in Africa in order to fill the gap?
Well, the Russian aggression toward Ukraine has caused many food security problems in African countries. It is a big problem because Russia has been blocking the ports, which could be exporting grains from Ukrainian warehouses to African countries. Czechia has been part of the grain for Africa initiative, which has granted supplies of wheat to African countries, and we will continue to do so.
However, there are three solutions. The first solution is that Russia withdraws completely from Ukrainian soil. If the Russians leave, the war will come to an end, the warehouses will be available for use, and the grain could be exported to Africa. The second is that we have to focus on getting the grains that have been produced. We need to figure out how to get them to the countries that need them. That is what we have been logistically and financially supporting as the European Union and as Czechs. These are short-term solutions.
The third is a long-term one. That means African countries should prioritize food self-sufficiency. This entails increasing agricultural capacity, which is one of the goals of our partnership. We have a Czech university that has been working with Ethiopian academics to improve farming in your country. We have companies that can supply skills and equipment as well as train people here to be more efficient in food production. So, having direct food production in Ethiopia and other African countries is the way to go in the long run because you will be able to easily balance the insecurity that comes from conflict, such as the Russian aggression.
The US Secretary of State said that even the US supports Africa’s attempt to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. What is your position in this regard? Are you planning to provide support for African countries to secure a permanent seat at the Council?
The African Union’s role is critical for regional stability and collaboration with other regions around the world. And the greater the African Union’s engagement, the better; there is cooperation between the European Union and the African Union in many fields, and besides, the European Union is not even a member of the Council. What we are seeing now is a process in which one of the permanent members has broken the UN Charter and other international laws.
This is one of the reasons why we need to have serious discussions about the role of the UN and the Security Council. In this process, I think we also have to include talks about the role of unions such as the AU or the EU, but this has to be a global discussion about the current situation and plans for the future.
The Czech Republic is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with a thriving manufacturing sector and exports worth more than USD 160–170 billion, while Ethiopia exports USD four billion a year. So, what kind of economic model is the Czech Republic following right now? Do you prioritize the manufacturing sector over the service sector? What is Czechia’s experience in this regard?
Czechia has been an industrial country for many decades, dating back to the 19th century. So, we have a long tradition of industry, but the thing is that we have to focus on modernization, and one of the major industries is automotive. Heavy industry is also very important. Defense equipment is one of the most important areas, but we also have companies that are at the top of the world in healthcare quality.
My government is now heavily investing in nuclear technology and space technology, for example. And I believe that focusing on new technologies to increase value addition and modernization is also the way to go for Ethiopia. Because with these, you can more effectively compete on world markets, and modern equipment and modern solutions are the way to go. You have people with skills and a good education; use them to create a more volume-driven economy.
The issue with African states, including Ethiopia, is that we lack a solution for backward linkage. Despite its desire to export, Ethiopia continues to face a lack of inputs. The economy depends heavily on the agriculture sector, and successive administrations in the country have attempted to address these problems by bringing structural transformation to the economy and building an agriculture-led industrialized economy. Yet, given the current state of the economy, how can the government possibly make the transition from a primarily agricultural sector to a thriving industry? Africa missed the industrial revolution that took place in Europe during the 1990s, and thus it is struggling to catch up. Given this situation, what advice can you offer to Ethiopia and other African states?
I think the experience that we have had in the economic transition in the Czech Republic in the 1990s, after the fall of the totalitarian regime, is that we have opened our country to investment, which means that you have to offer a stable country that has a concrete and understandable legal framework so that investors know what to expect. If you don’t offer legal stability to foreign investments, they will not come. That’s the first thing you need to do if you want to attract foreign investment.
The second is to focus on education. For a company to invest, you have to have employees who will work for you. If you don’t have educated or skilled people, then the company will not have employees. So the investment will not work. So, in addition to stability, you must prioritize education. I think there is a great opportunity for African countries to transform their economy after the pandemic, since many countries realized that supply chains can be disrupted very easily.
Two years ago, the Czechs were in Ethiopia for a B2B session. Despite this, there has not been much investment in Ethiopia. Have you recently noticed any interest in investing in Ethiopia, or do you see any opportunities for them?
We discussed with Ethiopian authorities the potential that we see. You have to understand that during a conflict period, it is very difficult to attract companies. Now with the peace process and the route Ethiopia has taken, I think it will be much easier. We have also discussed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the possibility of organizing an investment mission for either Ethiopian or Czech companies to visit Ethiopia and discuss potential cooperation.
Which African countries have seen big Czech investments thus far?
We have Czech companies that are active in Senegal. We also have companies operating in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. We have activities here in Ethiopia as well.
So you tend to concentrate on West Africa?
Yeah, but we are also present here in Ethiopia. For example, in the aviation industry, we are active. There is also cooperation in the defense industry.
Where do you think the Czech-Ethiopian relationship will be in the next decade?
It will be based on economic, academic, and scientific cooperation. We have Ethiopian exchange students studying at our universities, and we are looking for ways to increase the number of students coming. So, these are the areas where we see a lot of potential for cooperation and building partnerships because, as I said, it’s not about money or business. This is about building partnerships that are beneficial for both sides.
My final question pertains to the activities your embassy is involved in within Ethiopia. From my observation, your embassy appears to be much smaller than those of other countries, such as Germany, which is known to be very active in this region. Germany, in contrast, has undertaken numerous developmental projects and attracted various investors who are involved in projects such as condominium construction. Do you have any plans to increase the scale of your operations in Ethiopia?
Yes, we do. In the case of the embassy, I have already discussed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the possibility of expanding our embassy, as we are considering either building a new embassy here in Addis Ababa or renting new, larger premises.
So, this is a process that we have been going through, and we discussed with your minister how they can help us find new premises for the Czech embassy. The number of people will grow in the coming months, with more and more people traveling to Ethiopia to work at the embassy. We are focusing on economic cooperation, and the entire embassy is dedicated to strengthening our ties.