Miloš Zeman broke ranks with the EU over Russia, but Czech presidents are known for their iconoclastic streak.
PRAGUE – Placid and stolid, the Czech Republic revels in its reputation as the level-headed heart of central Europe, a sort of Bohemian version of Switzerland. So why can’t the country place a boring and uncontroversial president in the hulking Prague Castle?
While Czechs are among the central Europeans least likely to migrate (why leave a place where beer is so cheap and plentiful?), and owning a simple rural cottage called a “chata” is the acme of national ambition, all three Czech presidents have been larger-than-life figures casting bigger shadows on the world stage than their 10 million-strong homeland would suggest.
The latest shadow comes from Miloš Zeman, the Czech president who is breaking ranks with most EU leaders and making his way to Moscow for the May 9 World War II victory celebrations. Other leaders found it impolitic to stand alongside Vladimir Putin at a time when the EU has imposed sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. But Zeman, a one-time communist who makes little secret of his pro-Russian sympathies, plans to be there, despite causing fits for the more mainstream Czech government.
Charting a path that offends the government, neighbors and allies is nothing new for Zeman, and nothing new for his predecessors.
The string of eccentrics holding court in the castle began with Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first of the Czech Republic. Havel was a poet, dissident, chain-smoking surrealist, rock fanatic – spurring eventual friendships with Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones – and author of anti-establishment essays that made him a countercultural icon. He’s now surrounded by the glow of appreciation that comes from being a national icon (even Prague’s airport is named for him) but his country was much more ambivalent about him while he lived. For much of his time in office his uncompromising opposition to communism was also an uncomfortable reminder to many Czechs of their own docile complicity with the regime.
Havel was succeeded by his rival and ideological opposite, the bristle-mustached Václav Klaus – a supposedly libertarian economist who worked closely with the communist regime (unlike the dissident Havel). Klaus was a loud fan of Margaret Thatcher, something that gained him a lot of credibility with conservative US think-tanks. But his own support for Putin cost him friends: “It is quite clear that the Crimea was not part of Ukraine, you know it. The Crimea has always belonged to Russia,” is a recent example of his thinking. Washington’s Cato Institute backed away from the increasingly toxic Czech after initially making him a distinguished senior fellow and dubbing him a “champion of liberty.”
Klaus reveled in outraging international public opinion by comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union, and calling global warming a “religion” not science. In the 1990s he did help to integrate the Czech Republic into the global economy, but at a terrible price. The “voucher privatization” scheme that he helped create allowed some of the choicest parts of the economy to end up in the hands of well-connected fund managers and thieves. The Czech Republic is one of the most corrupt countries in the region. Klaus colluded with Slovak nationalists in breaking up Czechoslovakia, an outcome that a majority of Czechs and Slovaks did not want and which so dismayed Havel that he first stepped down as president of the federal state before agreeing to head up the Czech Republic.
Which leads to the incumbent. Zeman, a former apparatchik with basset-hound jowls, whose reported taste for booze is matched by a drive to avenge any perceived political slight. A slurred string of expletives on national radio last year targeted the Russian opposition group Pussy Riot, which has made a practice of criticizing Putin. Zeman’s presidential campaign was financed in part by the Czech subsidiary of Lukoil, the Russian energy company. Zeman has also described the conflict in Ukraine as a “civil war” and called for the end of EU sanctions against Russia — diverging sharply from the view of the Czech government. Little surprise then that Zeman is going to Moscow, although international pressure has prompted him to decide last month to skip the military parade – likely to include troops taking part in Ukraine’s dismemberment – for a more discreet wreath laying. Only a handful of EU heads of state or government will be in Moscow on the same day, including Robert Fico of Slovakia and Alexis Tspiras, the Greek prime minister.
Strange seat of power
The eccentricities of the presidential officeholders may have something to do with the location of the office.
Prague Castle is no simple medieval fort. Native son Franz Kafka once wrote of a fictionalized version that it is “neither an old knightly castle from the days of chivalry, nor a showy new structure, but an extensive complex of buildings, a few of them with two stories, but many of them lower and crowded close together.” The reality of the seat of power is even grander and Havel famously took to using roller skates to traverse the lengthy, labyrinthine corridors. More generally, the setting adds to what two-time foreign minister and ex-presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg calls the job’s “semi-monarchical” character.
The Czech “president’s role in foreign policy is as strong as the government is weak,” says Jiří Pehe, a political scientist and author of a book on Klaus. “They do whatever they can get away with.”
In a land where divided coalition governments are as ubiquitous as the beer this amounts to a lot.
A shift to a direct popular vote in 2013 saw Zeman interpret his mandate as stronger than his predecessors, though the position remains constitutionally weak and the president is meant to follow the government’s lead when representing the country abroad. Rarely do they do so and a noxious combination of healthy self-confidence, lust for attention and minimal consequences for missteps can make for a wild ride. The contempt that Klaus and Zeman show toward the Prague elite finds favor outside the capital, but can also spark backlash — as it did recently when thousands of Czechs turned out to greet a US military convoy that passed through the country, a showing that doubled as a surprisingly strong rebuke of the president’s Russophilia. While Zeman has raised (or lowered) the bar on boorishness – “he laughs at his own jokes,” Schwarzenberg notes – his king-sized ego is nothing new.
A recent public spat with the US ambassador over Zeman’s Moscow travel plans threatened to push Prague-Washington relations to a nadir unseen since a 1990 dustup over Frank Zappa. Havel appointed the rock musician as “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism” but then-US Secretary of State James Baker was unimpressed. “You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa,” he remarked. Havel opted for both and a month later found himself speaking before a joint session of Congress.
Thorn in the EU’s side
If Havel’s presidency captured the whimsy and optimism inherent in the post-communist 1990s, and ended with the Czech Republic a member of both NATO and the EU, Klaus took a more acerbic turn without sacrificing entertainment value. Contempt for the poorer Slovaks and the potential drain they might have on the Czech economy drove his push to split the country as prime minister (in reality the Slovak economy has outperformed the Czech in the two decades since the Velvet Divorce). That latent nationalism found new life while he opposed European integration as president. He was the last to sign the EU’s Lisbon Treaty and is largely responsible for the country’s reticence to join the eurozone. Klaus has also been one of Putin’s most loyal defenders, refusing to put blame on the Russians for the 2008 war against Georgia. He has been awarded the Pushkin medal from Putin and Lukoil underwrote the Russian-language publication of his anti-global warming book.
Unlike the Poles, whose suspicion of Russia dates back centuries, the Czechs have long been more sympathetic to Moscow, from the acceptance of Russian-backed pan-Slavism in the 19th century to seeing the USSR as a potential ally in the inter-war years.
Both Klaus and Zeman have a penchant for long-term grudges that have affected their country’s politics. Klaus reviled Havel, while Zeman just about derailed the formation of a Czech government in late 2013 because of his long-standing hatred of Bohuslav Sobotka, the man he blames for evicting him as head of the left-wing Social Democratic Party more than a decade ago.
Zeman’s foreign policy has a blundering nature about it. A trip to China last year saw him off script, reassuring the Chinese they had a territorial right to both Tibet and Taiwan. Amid some of the worst fighting in Ukraine last year Zeman took part in a conference put on by Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin, and the latter was a last minute addition to the guest list at a Holocaust memory conference earlier this year held in Prague Castle.
After U.S. Ambassador Andrew Shapiro was critical of Zeman’s planned Moscow trip, the president hastily decreed the ambassador was banned from the premises. “The door to Prague Castle is closed,” he said. Zeman’s unpredictability keeps more than the Prague press corps busy. As one top Foreign Ministry official noted, Czech diplomats and policy makers must regularly scramble to reassure allies of the country’s actual positions.
Czechs can take solace that the country’s constitution grants little formal power to the presidency. Though “people abroad do not distinguish what role the president has in the political system,” notes Vít Dostal, with the Association of International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank, it remains hard to take a pronouncement by Zeman on, say, the global challenge presented by the Islamic State as anything more than it is — meaning irrelevant.
It is hard to imagine Zeman serving a second term and Prague elites are already busy organizing themselves to cohere around a single (boring) candidate well before the 2018 election, and set about selling them to the rest of the country. But anybody looking to bet on an early front-runner would come up with one name: Andrej Babiš, an alleged communist secret agent (an accusation he strenuously denies) turned billionaire industrialist and media mogul, who is also the country’s finance minister and its most popular politician.
The chance for an even more powerful monarch in Prague Castle has never looked so real.
Autor: Benjamin Cunningham