Clash between Czech president and foreign minister revived in neighbouring Austria

Miloš Zeman, Heinz Fischer, photo: CTK

They were supposed to have buried the hatchet a week ago but a clash between Czech President Miloš Zeman and the country’s foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, was revived on Tuesday. Most remarkably, during the president’s visit to Austria. All it took was a few words to again shake things up. The president suggested if he couldn’t reach agreement with the foreign minister on ambassadorial posts, he would sidestep him entirely.

Miloš Zeman,  Heinz Fischer,  photo: CTK
On Tuesday, Miloš Zeman began his second foreign visit since becoming president, meeting with his counterpart Heinz Fischer in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Issues given top priority were traditional, such as safety at the Czech Republic’s Temelín nuclear power plant, a top concern for nuclear-free Austria. But it was not Temelín that made the most headlines at home. Instead, it was Mr Zeman’s revival of a weeks-long clash with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg over ambassadorial posts. The two have been at loggerheads over who should fill key positions. The shot fired across the bows was delivered by the president at the Hofburg, as his counterpart listened:

“[Czech] ambassadors are named by the president, requiring the counter-signature of the prime minister. So either I will reach agreement with the foreign minister or I will reach agreement with our prime minister.”

To many it seems unfortunate that Mr Zeman brought up the issue on a foreign visit, highlighting the power struggle on the domestic scene. For weeks, critics have charged that the president was overstepping his bounds, as it is up to the foreign minister to appoint candidates and up to the president to approve them. The truth is, neither man can enforce their vision upon the other: the only reasonable solution, many have postulated, is for the two to sit down behind closed doors and hammer out an agreement, name-by-name, on new ambassadors to Vienna, Bratislava, Moscow and elsewhere. The alternative, a continuation of the current clash says political analyst Jiří Pehe, only leaves everyone looking foolish:

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“I think that the continuation of the conflict we have seen on the Czech political scene now in Austria is quite unfortunate. Something that should have been solved diplomatically behind-the-scenes between the foreign minister and the president has now escalated to the point where it is damaging the Czech Republic.”

Prime Minister Petr Nečas himself has been highly critical and voiced irritation not only over the president’s words on Tuesday but also the foreign minister’s reaction. Mr Schwarzenberg had responded by saying that any deal between the prime minister and the president behind his back would lead to the immediate collapse of the government. While he received backing from Mr Nečas, it was with a reprimand from the prime minister that the entire episode was “childish”. It is unclear whether his words will be enough to reel in either the country’s strong-willed foreign minister or president. As it stands, neither man is showing any signs of laying down arms just yet.