Miloš Zeman: Pushing Czech Foreign Policy East

October 28th marked 98 years since the founding of Czechoslovakia. A national holiday in the Czech Republic, the day provides an opportune moment for reflecting on the plethora of social and political changes that have marked the country since the days of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president. Indeed, such reflections have become particularly topical amidst the latest political scandal to attract media attention in the country.

Jiři Brady photographed at an event at Strossmayerovo Náměstí

A mere week before the celebrations on the 28th, news emerged that Jiři Brady, a Holocaust survivor living in Canada for the past 67 years, would have his nomination withdrawn for the state award of the Order of Tomáš G. Masaryk. The precise nature of the controversy stemmed from the idea that this was ostensibly done due to Brady’s relative, Czech Minister of Culture Daniel Herman, meeting with the Dalai Lama in mid-October. Supposedly, Brady received notification well in advance that he was nominated for the award and was told to make himself available to come to Prague to receive it. Subsequently, just prior to the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Czech Republic, current Czech President Miloš Zeman warned Herman to refrain from meeting with the Dalai Lama, else Brady may not receive the award. President Zeman has adamantly denied that the issue of the award is related to Herman’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, and has claimed that there was never any intention to give Brady the award. This game of he-said-she-said has attracted international attention, and has created a small uproar at home. Many see a clear link between the award and the meeting in Zeman’s desire to forge stronger economic and political connections with China. More concerning for many, Zeman’s foreign policy positions, coupled with his conduct in office, have shown strong indications of a Czech departure from “Western Europe.”

Czech demonstrators wave red cards in protest of Zeman on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Since assuming the presidency in 2013, Miloš Zeman has taken a decidedly different approach to both his role as president, and to Czech foreign policy. Following the dissolution of parliament in 2013, Zeman appointed a political ally, Jiří Rusnok, to serve as head of the interim government. This move angered opposition leaders, as past presidents Václav Havel and Václav Klaus opted to select candidates approved by parliament. More broadly, he has worked to improve Czech relations with Russia and China over the past few years, despite the fact that Czech foreign policy is normally supposed to be conducted by the government, currently headed by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, and not by the president. Following the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia after the Crimean annexation, Zeman commented that the Czech Republic should not be quick to interrupt good trade relations with Russia. He also attended the commemoration events of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in both Moscow and Beijing – events that his EU counterparts elected not to attend – and met briefly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has courted Chinese officials with great success, and has claimed to secure 50Kč billion ($2 billion) worth of Chinese investment in the country. His activities have not gone unnoticed neither domestically nor abroad. Indeed, celebrations on November 17th in 2015 commemorating the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia were marked by massive demonstrations against Zeman precisely for his comments on Russia and the Crimean crisis. Thousands waved red cards over their heads calling on the president to resign. Across the pond, comments by The Washington Post have described Zeman as a “virtual mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Zeman has also taken a particularly critical stance on the European refugee crisis. He has infamously said that the Czech Republic should not accept refugees in order ensure that “barbaric attacks” are not committed on Czech soil. This rhetoric has put him at odds with the Czech Prime Minister, who has taken a decidedly pro stance to the European refugee crisis (though he ultimately rejects the imposition of mandatory quotas). When pressed on the rift between the two, Zeman commented (in a manner that he insists was anything but serious) that two solutions existed: a democratic method, and “non-democratic option [with] a Kalashnikov.” In November 2015, Zeman appeared at a rally, organized by the since dissolved political group Islám v ČR nechceme (We don’t want Islam in the Czech Republic), alongside the initiative’s co-founder Martin Konvička. Konvička has turned many heads for his comments on Facebook suggesting that Muslims be placed in concentration camps and for staging a fake ISIS attack in the Old Town Square of Prague.

Address by His Excellency Miloš Zeman, President of the Czech Republic
Miloš Zeman, President of the Czech Republic, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session

To be fair to Zeman, it would be a misrepresentation to describe him as being anti-EU. He has criticized the British “yes” vote to Brexit (though has maintained that he supports having a similar referendum in Czech Republic, including one on NATO membership) and he is hardly the only European politician to suggest withholding an imposition of economic sanctions on Russia. He also is not the only head of state that has criticized EU refugee policy. Furthermore, 60% of Czechs are opposed to accepting any number of refugees into the country, and the president himself enjoys a little over 50% approval from the public. Generally speaking however, his actions have produced scandal after scandal: he has built a bit of a reputation for being a drunkard and for using crass language at times, and this most recent case has led many Czechs to question the nature of their democracy.

Brady has since been lauded by numerous governmental bodies and societies, including his home province of Ontario. Zeman, however, stayed true to his word; Brady did not receive the official state award. Zeman, Sobotka, and the heads of both houses of parliament in Czech government have since come together to officially distance the Czech Republic from the actions of Herman. In response, opposition parties were quick to criticize the government for letting China dictate Czech policy. A separate celebration was held in Prague to the official October 28th celebrations. Speaking to the crowd, Brady said, “I am happy that I was able to help democracy. This is no longer about me, this is about democracy. I see that democracy lives, and I look upon the Czech Republic with pride. Hold on, and don’t give up.” This latest crisis has led to a further politicization of Czech foreign policy and has enlarged a rift in Czech society. Zeman is currently cautiously supported by Prime Minister Sobotka, and though the political climate in Czech Republic is not nearly agitated enough for a massive upheaval, future crises may build a social momentum strong enough to usher changes in the upcoming parliamentary elections in October of 2017.