Czech weapons producers are pushing for a change of the government’s system of approving arms exports. Sales of Czech-made weapons abroad last year rose by to nearly seven billion crowns, and the country’s weapons producer, Česká zbrojovka, posted record revenues of some 2.2 billion crowns. But the industry says the current system of licensing arms exports is ambiguous which hurts Czech producers. I discussed the issue with Jiří Hynek, the head of the Defence and Security Industry Association, a lobby group.
“The advantage of the Česká zbrojovka is that they have invested a lot of money to develop new products, new weapons and technology. I think that because of that, the firm will increase their sales a little bit more every year.”
What is the situation in the other couple of dozen arms and defense dealers in the Czech Republic? Do you see the same trends in these companies as well?
“I think there is a very similar trend going on. We have a lot of different types of products, mainly electronic systems such as radar technology, passive surveillance systems, communication and data transfer systems. The quality of these systems is high; that’s crucial for increasing the exports of these products in the future.”
In terms of the exports, you said recently at the Idet defence trade fair in Brno that you saw the potential for doubling Czech arms exports. Where exactly do you see that potential?
“I do not think it is possible in the short run, however, at the fair I saw a lot of new technology and new products, for example, the firm ERA came up with a very modern and unique system. I can say that there is no other company in the world that has PCL (passive coherent location) technology and I think that this technology can be used not only by the military but also in air control systems at civilian airports. I believe that over the next ten years we can double our exports.”
When you look at the structure of Czech exports, is it mainly firearms, as in the case of Česká zbrojovka, or is it mostly technology systems?
“All of them. Partly technologies, partly small firearms, partly modernization of Soviet products, and partly homeland security products. Homeland security systems are very modern and we have spent a lot of money improving our technologies. The global situation is very complicated and we see it as a potential for new markets.”
When we look at the destinations of Czech arms exports, with exception of the United States who have a large market for firearms because of gun control laws, the majority of the exports seem to go to North Africa and Southeast Asia. Is that correct?
“It may surprise everyone, but more than 50% of our exports are to the European Union. It is generally in cooperation between our companies and foreign companies but besides that, it is hard to say which is the biggest importer. For example for Tatra trucks, the biggest importer is India, for radar technology, it is Vietnam, and for spare parts and engine overhauls, it is North Africa. Basically, there is no country that is the biggest importer from us.”
In terms of your objections to the current licensing system, you have criticized it for being too complicated and ambiguous. Why do you think that the system should change?
“The Czech system is very complicated. Every company that is interested in selling or already sells military products must receive a special licence from the government. What we criticize is that there is more than one voice in the governmental bodies. For example, the Foreign Affairs Ministry may say that it is possible to deliver arms to a specific country while the Interior Ministry will say it is not.
“We think that the people in government should get together and discuss whether or not trades can happen with certain countries, and they should inform the companies why they are not allowed if such a decision is reached.“
Is it possible that reason is that the foreign affairs ministry sees different risks than the interior ministry?
“I think that the government should only have one policy. The government needs to get together and agree on a policy that all the ministers will follow instead of each minister making his or her own. Our country is led by one government and not a bunch of ministries.”
What will be the goal of this extra step that you are referring to? Your objective I suppose is to ease arms exports?
“Our goal is to increase exports but we do not want to sell weapons to unstable countries, we simply want to work under the same restrictions as companies in western Europe. We sometimes try to export to a certain country and are restricted by the government. But then I will read in the news that another country is supplying weapons there. For example, I saw that the Italian defence minister travelling to Libya and provide military support. For us, however, it is very difficult to trade with Libya. We just want to have the same conditions as the other countries in Europe.”
Couldn’t this be because of a difference in the foreign policy of the Czech government? For example under minister Schwarzenberg, there is a lot of emphasis on human rights. Could you respect that the Czech Foreign Ministry has different priorities than those of Italy and Austria?
“I don’t know if our policy is different. Minister Schwarzenberg has the same pro-export priorities but in practice, things are different. We don’t want to go against human rights but the word is not black and white. We can deliver our products to a country state, for example, Sri Lanka, and not support conflict. In fact, we helped stop this conflict and helped to protect civilians. I think that the general view is that those who protect human rights are good and those who produce weapons are bad. It is not right.”
The Czech Republic has been criticized for some of its arms exports, for instance to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and event Egypt. Aren’t you concerned that these firearms will be used to harm civilians?
“I am concerned about this but I believe it is the wrong way of thinking about it. There are always going to be countries willing to deliver firearms to these places but if certain people refuse because of human rights, civilians will have no protection. We need to choose the right side of the conflict and support and we can make the world safer.”
Finally, it seems that the embargo on arms exports to Syria will be lifted. Do you think that this will have an effect on Czech arms producers? Do you think that these producers will sell weapons to the rebels in Syria?
“I don’t believe so. I do not think our Foreign Affairs Ministry will agree to any exports to this conflicted area. This may be good news for German or French companies but not for us.”
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