Commentator Daniel Anýž: Zeman set to dominate Czech-US relations during Trump presidency

Daniel Anýž, photo: archive of Economia

What will Donald Trump’s presidency mean for Czech-US relations? And is his ex-wife Ivana really in line to become American ambassador to Prague? Ahead of Mr. Trump’s inauguration on Friday I discussed those questions and much more with Daniel Anýž, a well-known commentator on Czech-US affairs who was based in Washington for several years.

Daniel Anýž, photo: archive of Economia
But I began by asking Anýž whether prior to November’s presidential election the Czech foreign policy establishment had favoured either candidate.

“It’s more a question of who’s in charge of the foreign policy of the Czech Republic.

“Because we know that we have two centres [of foreign policy]. One is Prague Castle, with [President] Miloš Zeman. The other is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Minister [Lubomír] Zaorálek.

“Before the election at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs you could hear that they preferred Hillary Clinton. Because she was predictable – we knew what we could expect. With Donald Trump, we can see, it’s a different story.

“Then we have Miloš Zeman, who really was probably the only head of state in Europe – if you don’t take [Hungary’s PM] Viktor Orban as a head of state – who openly supported Donald Trump.

“When Zeman quoted what Donald Trump said about Hillary Clinton, this nasty sentence ‘if she couldn’t satisfy her husband, how could she satisfy the whole country?’ This is what our president quoted...

“I was concerned at the time about how Czech-US relations could continue on a normal track if Hillary Clinton were elected and not Trump.

“Miloš Zeman’s wild bet paid off: Donald Trump made it.”

“But Miloš Zeman’s wild bet paid off: Donald Trump made it. Last Thursday there was an interview with Miloš Zeman in Washington Post with the headline ‘Meet the pro-Russian, anti-Muslim European president who has just been invited to the White House’.”

If we can speak about the people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and perhaps people at the Ministry of Defence – was Trump’s “unknowness” their only concern prior to the election? Or was there anything else that concerned them about him?

“Definitely his position and views on Russia. At this moment, it’s quite clear that he wants to start his own chapter in relations with Russia.

“Throughout the campaign and now as president-elect he has been denying the possibility of Russia hacking the Democratic servers, stealing emails and then giving them to WikiLeaks.

“So there was some nervousness about what we can expect from him concerning Russia.

“Because when you read the US media, which is what the people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence do, and receive information from the Czech Embassy in Washington D.C., the most common narrative is that Trump may make a deal with Russia. Some kind of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger-like deal in which Ukraine will become something like Finland. Talk about spheres of influence would return.

Donald Trump, photo: CTK
“That’s what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence were nervous about.

“But as I said, in my opinion Czech foreign policy has been kidnapped and, especially now, Czech-US relations will be kidnapped by the Castle.

“Because the head of the foreign office at the Castle, Mr. [Hynek] Kmoníček, is now going to Washington, D.C, as ambassador. And he will probably serve more the interests of the president than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

In April Mr. Zeman is meant to be going to Washington, to the White House to visit Mr. Trump. There’s also talk of Mr. Trump coming here to Prague. As you said, Mr. Zeman was unusual in Europe in publicly supporting Mr. Trump. If those visits happen, will they represent a major publicity coup for Mr. Zeman?

“Definitely. Mr. Zeman didn’t have good relations with Obama’s White House. We saw what happened here in Prague, when he shut the door to the US ambassador, Mr. [Andrew] Schapiro.

“There was some communication between the US embassy and the Castle, but not really at the top level. What our president was doing was more like an insult.

“But I know for a fact that he still wanted to be received at the White House, even by Obama.

“When they met last year at the UN General Assembly, when President Obama held a dinner for 100 national leaders and had his picture taken with each of the leaders coming in – it was just a normal picture, like the other politicians all had – they [Zeman’s office] immediately put it on the website of Prague Castle. It was an honour they had met.

“Zeman kept telling Czech diplomats in Washington, You should arrange for me to be received at the White House. Now his dream will come true with Donald Trump.”

“And I know that he kept telling the Czech diplomats at the Czech Embassy in Washington, You should arrange for me to be received at the White House.

“Now his dream will come true with Donald Trump. It will be enormous publicity. He will enjoy it.

“I’m not sure when Donald Trump is coming, whether he’ll really manage to do it before the end of Mr. Zeman’s term. Because he has quite a packed schedule. But even this visit of Mr. Zeman to the White House will be great news [for the Czech president]”.

I guess then that it goes without saying that the future of Czech-US relations will depend hugely on who wins the parliamentary election this year and, of course, the presidential election at the beginning of next year?

“This year, when Miloš Zeman is still president, we are ‘safe’, which I mean ironically. Relations will be handled by President Zeman.

“And I think if ANO wins the election and will be the leader of the government, relations will still be good.

“Because in my view ANO doesn’t have a real foreign policy. Mr. [Andrej] Babiš is not interested in foreign policy at all, so he will follow suit and have good relations with the United States.

“He will take Donald Trump as a real politician. They are both populists and can find common ground.

“Speaking about Parliament and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, if there is a big issue, such as the enlargement of the Temelín power plant was during the Obama term, then we could see some cooperation.

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek
“Otherwise, it will be just normal relations with few issues to discuss, like in the second term of Obama’s administration when there was no special connection.”

So the only thing that could cause a big change then will be if Zeman runs and doesn’t win in the presidential elections?

“That would be interesting. But I wouldn’t say it will happen.”

The American ambassador, Andrew Schapiro, like many political appointees has to basically clear his office and get out on January 20. He and his predecessor, Norman Eisen, pursued a rather liberal agenda here in Prague – they were against corruption, they supported gay rights. That will all end immediately, right?

“Definitely, that’s over. It’s not unusual that the political appointees have to leave immediately after inauguration or on the day of inauguration. The same thing happened with Richard Graber, the last Republican political ambassador to Prague under President Bush.

“But there could be and there have been exceptions. I was told that Schapiro was interested in staying for a couple more months so his kids could finish the school year. He wasn’t allowed to.

“But in fact this is quite logical. I can’t imagine him serving under President Trump, or that Miloš Zeman would go to the White House and Mr. Schapiro would be sitting there.”

Ivana Trump, Donald Trump’s ex-wife, has reportedly put herself forward as a possible US ambassador to Prague. Do you think that’s a likely development?

“In the framework of how strange and new everything surrounding Trump has been it won’t be that surprising if Ivana becomes ambassador.”

“I don’t think so.

“In the framework of how strange and new everything surrounding Donald Trump has been – the election, the campaign – it won’t be that surprising if it happens.

“But I have been told that there are some other names in the pipeline and it probably won’t be her.”

Obviously Donald Trump had a Czech wife and at least two of his kids speak or at least understand Czech. He’s been here. Do you think that he has interest in or knowledge of the Czech Republic, any special connection to the country?

“I would say that it makes a difference. He’s not interested in Europe, in the European Union. We saw that his first European guest after his election was Nigel Farage

“He will communicate with the strong nations: Germany, France and Great Britain, outside European Union.

“If you look around, why should Donald Trump be interested in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic? So I think this is now in fact our advantage.

“Whatever you think about Donald Trump’s style and views and the way he will conduct himself in the White House, this is a good connection.

Ivana Trump, photo: Christopherpeterson, CC BY 3.0
“Donald Jr. is fluent in the Czech language. There was a nice Vanity Fair piece 10 years or so ago when he spoke about his memories of when he used to visit his grandparents near Gottwaldov, todays Zlín. They used to go on rivers, fishing and making fires in the forest.

“Donald Trump himself was here a couple of times, although he wasn’t that well known here.

“So if there is a difference, a reason why the Czech Republic will be more visible on the map of Europe or of Visegrad, then that’s fine.”