Archive | March, 2013

Czech presidents: Welcome Mr Zeman!

8 Mar
Klaus a Zeman

Milos Zeman (R) and Vaclav Klaus (Photo zemannahrad.cz)

A small country rarely features on the world news agenda. However, CzechRepublic with its population of 10.5 millions has hit headlines many times, mostly because of its presidents. A new man has taken office today, following the first direct presidential elections in January. Like his predecessors, Milos Zeman has the potential to get onto international news pages. The following is a brief summary of what Czech presidents have been famous for abroad.

Vaclav Havel

The international community had known dissident playwright Vaclav Havel even before he became the first Czechoslovak post-communist president. His plays, banned in his own country, had won him recognition in theatres around the world.

When Czechoslovakia split into two countries in 1993, CzechRepublic kept Mr Havel as a head of state and gained with him the prestige that Slovakia has never had.

He was nominated several times for the Nobel peace price and collected a number of other international awards for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience.

Mr Havel’s death in December 2011 was mourned around the world. The news of his passing away was shoved off front pages only by the dead of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, announced around the same time.

Vaclav Klaus

Mr Havel’s heir in the office has never shared the world’s admiration for his predecessor. There was a lot of tension between the two men, dating from the time Mr Klaus was a prime minister and going on when he became a president and Mr Havel, although retired, continued to comment on the Czech politics.

Mr Klaus has played down the part dissidents, such as Vaclav Havel, played in bringing down communism, suggesting the regime collapsed on its own. “The role of individuals is usually exaggerated,” he was quoted as saying on the Czech news website Novinky.cz.

The British weekly newspaper The Economist included Vaclav Klaus in its list of controversial Eastern European leaders, who tend to dismiss conventional diplomacy and seek negative publicity. Mr Klaus, for example, has refused to talk to foreign journalists unless they have promised to print his answers in full.

Mr Klaus has been especially noted for his views on the EU and global warming, existence of which he denies.

“I have never seen any sings of the Earth being destroyed. I don’t believe any serious, intelligent person could say such a thing,” he said in 2007.

 

Mr Klaus has also used one of the harshest eurosceptic parallels for the European Union. “The EU and the RVHP (an economic organization under the leadership of the Soviet Union) are very similar, not ideologically, but structurally. Decisions are not taken in your country,” he said.

Because of Mr Klaus’s long refusal to sign the Lisbon Treaty, CzechRepublic – one of the smallest EU member states – delayed the streamlining of the block’s administration.

Perhaps the greatest fame for Mr Klaus came after his visit in Chile in 2011 when a video of him pocketing a pen adorned with a semi-precious stone got viral on Youtube.

 

Milos Zeman

Former left-wing Prime Minister Milos Zeman was the presidential favourite of Mr. Klaus.

Although the two men come from opposite sides of political centre, they have much in common. Mr. Zeman made a comparison in his memoir:

 

“We have differed as followers of Keynesian and neoliberal economic models… I speak better Russian and much worse English. My poor German cannot be compared to that of Klaus. I believe to be a better speaker… but I have read Klaus’ published texts with a lot of interest. We have completely disagreed over European integration, where I have backed federalism. Klaus likes jazz, I like Abba. Klaus is a sportsman, while I am a lazy fat guts who at the very best goes on bike or cross-country ski. We both like bread with pork grease and onion… I could go on with similarities and differences… The important thing is that Klaus is suited to be a president and I dare to say that he is in this office much better than I would be,” he wrote in 2005, two years after he lost presidential vote by parliament.

Like Mr. Klaus, Milos Zeman has had reservations about Vaclav Havel: “I would say that Vaclav Havel was an excellent dissident, but during his political career he did not prove to have the skills of a true statesman,” he wrote in the same book.

The media has often portrayed Mr Zeman as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking politician.

Notorious for his strong language, he gained a nickname “the vulgar prime minister” when he was a head of government between 1998-2002.

He caused uproar on several occasions, once for likening Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.

At an international conference in 2011, Mr Zeman called Islam an enemy and an anti-civilisation: “Two billion people live in it and it is financed partly from oil sales and partly from drug sales,” he said.

The new president shares his predecessor’s dislike of journalists, labelling them in the past “manure” and “hyenas.” However, he has often specified he meant Czech journalists in particular.

The election victory of Mr Zeman, was widely reported around the world. The news found its way not only to the BBC and The New York Times, but also to the media of countries, in which the interest in tiny Czech Republic would not be expected, such as the Iranian Press TV, Turkish Hurriyet, Pan-Arab Al Jazeera and Chinese Xinhua.

Milos Zeman vowed to take the presidency more actively than his predecessors.

“The president is not a ficus or an oleander (plant) standing in the corner of the room, whose role comprises merely being watered from time to time,” he said in an pre-election debate.
Combine this decision with Mr Zeman’s views and personal style and we can expect to hear more about him in the future.

A prediction made by respected Czech commentator Martin Komarek in 2003 might well fail. He said only Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus will be remembered in a hundred years time. “History will take no notice of Mr Zeman,” he said.

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