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The New King of Prague Castle

March 12, 2013 - Pavol Szalai - Articles and Commentary

Václav Klaus has been replaced by another political heavyweight at the helm of the Czech Republic: Miloš Zeman. Contrary to his predecessor, the new Czech President is regarded as pro-European, although much is yet to be clarified, including his position on Russia.

I had to cross a muddy road to enter the country estate. On a foggy November day, I sought out Miloš Zeman in a small Moravian village. Zeman was attending a traditional Czech hog-killing and blended perfectly with the rural crowd. He gave me an interview in a thick woolly jumper, speaking over a mug of beer. Despite his political retirement, the former prime minister has followed politics closely. He has criticised the centre-right government for its healthcare reform and the president for his Euro-scepticism. “I am glad that Slovakia – contrary to the Czech Republic – ratified the Lisbon Treaty,” Zeman told me back in 2008.

Last Friday, Zeman was wearing a suit as he was sworn in as the President of the Czech Republic. He had won the run-off of the first direct election. Collecting 55 per cent of the vote (at a 59-per cent turnout), he comfortably beat the foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg.

Before the ceremony, he promised the European flag would blow over Prague Castle and called for early elections to dismiss the unpopular centre-right cabinet. But Zeman is far from an antidote to the outgoing President Václav Klaus. The two have respectively united the Czech political left and right, but also shared power via a government-opposition treaty between 1998 to 2002. Today, Zeman shares some of Klaus’s nationalist and pro-Russian attitudes. Moreover, Zeman was supported by Klaus in the second round against Schwarzenberg.

A strong weak Czech president

Miloš Zeman will replace Václav Klaus at the helm of a parliamentary democracy. According to the Czech constitution, the president is weak. The most important powers include a legislative veto, formal nominations (of constitutional judges, central bank board members, ambassadors etc.), and granting amnesties. The veto can be overruled by the parliament and most of the nominations have to be countersigned by ministers.

Yet, under an “extensive” interpretation of the constitution, the president can manoeuvre. Klaus left the European Union in a limbo for several months, refusing to sign the Lisbon Treaty despite its approval by Czech legislative and executive bodies. In addition, along Czechoslovak and Czech political tradition, the president enjoys a lot of respect, participates in public debates, but also intervenes “behind the scenes”. Klaus was, for example, accused of participating in the fall of the government during the Czech EU Presidency in 2009.

Zeman may intervene even more, having been elected by a popular vote. “He has a much stronger legitimacy than a president elected by parliament,” Jacques Rupnik from the Paris-based think-tank CERI told me in a phone interview for this article.

Klaus: a pro-Russian Euro-sceptic

Václav Klaus has left a strong, yet controversial blueprint in Czech and European politics. As prime minister in the 1990s, he co-negotiated a peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia and was hailed as a reform-oriented free marketeer. He engaged, however, in a bitter rivalry with the late President Václav Havel. Havel accused Klaus of overseeing “mafia capitalism”. Klaus’s recent presidential amnesty halted the prosecution of several prominent businessmen and officials charged with fraud, for which he was accused of treason by the Senate, now to be judged by the Constitutional Court. Juraj Marušiak from the Political Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences sees a link between “mafia capitalism” and Klaus’s amnesty. “He symbolised the politics of partocracy,” Marušiak explained over phone.

Klaus showed no less controversy in foreign affairs. Under his premiership, the Czech Republic applied for EU accession, yet as a president he compared it to the Soviet Union. “As a result, the Czech Republic found itself in a marginal position inside the EU,” Marušiak said.

He was, on the other hand, much friendlier towards Russia than many of Europe’s presidents. He took sides with Moscow during the US-led invasion to Iraq and the Russian-led invasion to Georgia. The Russian translation of his climatosceptic book Blue, not Green Planet was paid for by the Russian firm Lukoil, whose representative he invited secretly to the castle.

Fat and tough Zeman years

Zeman’s Friday inauguration speech says little about change or continuity at Prague Castle. He pledged to “be the president of all citizens” and simultaneously to “be the voice of the 10 million unprivileged citizens”. His three main objectives are “calm and stability in Czech politics”, “supporting personalities bringing prosperity to the Czech Republic”, and “fighting … the economic mafia … neo-Nazi groups … and the essential part of the Czech media” (he considers the latter supportive of the centre-right and hostile towards him).

Zeman’s previous political engagement and presidential campaign say more of what to expect during his five-year mandate. As a social-democratic prime minister, Zeman oversaw a period of economic growth, intensified the preparations for EU accession, and brought the Czech Republic into NATO in 1999. When NATO bombarded former Yugoslavia in the same year, the Czech Republic supported the operation.

But Zeman’s rule is also marked by scandals. The “Opposition Agreement” his Social Democrats negotiated with Václav Klaus’s Civic Democrats eliminated some control over the government. Many Czechs hold both men responsible for embedding systemic corruption into Czech politics. Moreover, Zeman’s aides drafted a plan to discredit one of his political opponents and, during his rule, a top ministry official ordered the murder of a critical journalist.

Bonds to the West, nationalism and Lukoil

The campaign before the presidential elections provided a useful update of Zeman’s attitudes. He criticised the coalition in power as “anti-social”. In the run-off with the foreign minister, Zeman scored by highlighting Schwarzenberg’s links to the centre-right government and his forced exile in Austria during Communism. Rupnik believes that Zeman managed to position himself as “the true Czech”. “He is part of the left with a nationalist twist to it,” Rupnik said.

The new president’s opinions on foreign policy are blurry. The Czech media have revealed that his campaign was co-financed by Russian business and run by people with links to Lukoil. Zeman once said that Russia could enter the European Union in the long-term. However, “Klaus had much more pro-Russian declarations than Zeman has ever had,” Marušiak said. As for the financing, he believes Russia tries to influence Czech politics across the parties. Zeman shares Klaus’s view of Russia as an important business partner¸ Rupnik says.

At the same time, the new Czech President supports both the trans-Atlantic bond and European integration, an analysis by the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies shows. He supports the Czech military presence in Afghanistan, favours a pre-emptive strike against Iran, and backs Israel in the Middle Eastern conflict. And despite some nationalist twists and criticism of the EU’s bureaucracy, he has declared himself a “Euro-federalist”. He wants the Czech Republic to adopt the Euro and the EU to have a common foreign policy. He approves Serbia and Croatia’s EU accession (but not of the rest of the Western Balkan countries and Turkey). He is also expected to support regional cooperation in Central Europe – like his predecessor.

Heavyweight of Czech politics”

This curious mixture leaves, according to Rupnik, only one thing close to certain: “I expect him to bring the Czech Republic back to the mainstream of European affairs.” However, it is yet to be seen to what extent Zeman’s discourse will be fed by nationalism and pro-Russian sentiments.

In any case, much will depend on Zeman’s capacity to turn words to deeds. This will be determined by his interpretation of the Constitution and his relations with the major political parties. He will have to manoeuvre between the centre-right, the communists, his former party of Social Democrats, and his own new party (which has not yet made it to parliament).

Although it is unclear to what extent Zeman shares Klaus’s views on sovereignty and Russia, Prague Castle will continue to be a strong player. Even Zeman’s opponents admit he is an excellent speaker; Schwarzenberg, the failed presidential candidate, has called him “a heavyweight of Czech politics”. Zeman has made it clear that he will leave his own legacy on inauguration day. Contrary to his predecessors, he opened the square before the Castle to the “common people”. He fed them goulash, sausage, and tea.

Pavol Szalai is analyst in European affairs and energy. He has previously worked for the European Commission, the energy company EDF, and the Slovak daily SME, covering Czech and European politics between 2008 and 2010. He holds a Master's degree in European Affairs from Institut d'études politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, where he leads an association of students and alumni focused on Central Europe, V4SciencesPo.

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