Jiří Pehe pens first political biography of post-89 heavyweight Václav Klaus

President Václav Klaus has been a dominant figure on the Czech political scene ever since the early 1990s. The founder of the Civic Democrats was finance minister and later prime minister, before becoming head of state seven years ago. It is perhaps surprising then that the first political biography of Mr Klaus has only now been published. “Klaus: A Portrait of a Politician in Twenty Images” by the political analyst Jiří Pehe has provoked heated debate between the president’s supporters and opponents.

Mr Pehe, President Klaus is today known abroad mainly for two things: his strong views of the EU, and his denial of man-made global warming. But at home, he remains one of the most popular, or trusted, politicians. How do you these two facts coming together?

“I think we have to distinguish between Klaus as a politician and Klaus seen as the president. In the Czech Republic, basically any politician who becomes president will be popular, in my opinion. It’s not so much their personality that people evaluate but rather the presidential post.

“I think when Václav Klaus leaves the office in 2013 and perhaps decides to go back to party politics, his popularity will not be by any means as high as it is now.”

In your book, you mention the year 1997 as the crucial year in Mr Klaus’ political career. Is that when he stopped being the driving force behind the reforms, and focused more on staying in power?

“I think that one can trace a slowdown in Mr Klaus’ political drive to even earlier times, like 1994 and 1995, when some of his reforms started to have significant problems. It was really in 1993, after the split of Czechoslovakia, when he became nearly the supreme ruler of the country; there was hardly any leftist opposition, and I think that really contributed to some serious mistakes in his reforms.

Václav Klaus
“In 1994 and 95, there was already a series of scandals which became more and more pronounced and in 1996 and 97, there were some austerity measures adopted. So I think the period roughly between 1994 and 97 was when his energy changed; I think he realized that he got into a very difficult position and he began to focus on stabilizing his power.”

So around 1995 and 1996, he went from being a reform-oriented politician with courage and daring ideas, someone you could still admire despite his failures, to a politician who began working on staying in power: a technologist of power.”

In 1997, part of the Civic Democrat party rebelled against Mr Klaus in what became known as the “Sarajevo Assassination”. As you point out, one of the reasons why that happened was that no one was willing to take the blame for all those scandals and dodged privatisation projects. How did Mr Klaus manage to avoid being blamed for that, the central figure he was in all this?

“Václav Klaus has many skills, and one of them which serves him very well is that he manages to divert attention from his own failures. This is why he has survived in Czech politics for 20 years in the highest positions of power. He’s always been able to come up with certain interpretations of things which in the end deflected blame from him.

Václav Havel
“At the same time, he’s been able to turn these interpretations into some sort of mythology. For instance, his mistakes in the mid 1990s which contributed to his downfall in 1997, the botched reforms and so on, he interpreted as the doing of the central bank which in his opinion adopted policies hostile to his reforms. He managed to blame some of his political mistakes on his coalition allies who were not cooperative enough, and in the end he enlarged this interpretation to a wide-ranging conspiracy involving president Havel and others.

“This is Mr Klaus. He has one uncanny ability, and that is really the power to interpret things in a way that he manages to sell to the media that in turn repeat his interpretations of events.”

Talking about the 1990s and Mr Klaus’ unique position as a dominant power-holder, he had one important opponent – president Václav Havel. How did Mr Havel do throughout the 1990s in conflicts with Václav Klaus?

“In conflicts with Václav Klaus, Mr Havel always stayed on a rather general level. He was always very careful not to pick a direct fight with Mr Klaus. I think that was partly due to his personality, or let’s say it was the difference in the personalities of these two politicians.

“Mr Klaus is basically a bully. He is someone who is aggressive, who does not really care about being too diplomatic and too gentle with his opponents, he is willing to offend them. He projects something that Havel often called ‘negative energy’, and I think that Havel was always afraid of this negative energy as he described it. He simply did not like being around Mr Klaus, and he often said so. But it had nothing to with Mr Klaus’ political views. Havel disagreed with many of his views but he disagreed with the views of many other people, and yet he would not mind being around them.

“I think it was these features of Klaus’ personality which were unpleasant to Havel, who is an artist in his soul, an intellectual – in fact, the exact kind of intellectual that Klaus despises. It was a very difficult relationship between the two and I think Mr Havel in his later years did all he could not to meet Mr Klaus in person very often.”

You say that the greatest defeat Mr Klaus ever experienced occurred when he signed the Lisbon treaty. Do you see that as a final stage of his career, some sort of symbolic demise of Mr Klaus in Czech politics?

“One should never say that there is a final stage in Mr Klaus’ political career simply because we have seen time and again that he does best in situations when he seems defeated. In 1997 and several times later, such as the first presidential election, he rose from the ashes, so to speak. So one cannot really underestimate him.

“But what I’m trying to show is that there is a tendency towards a gradual decline. Some of his views in the last few years have been more or less bizarre; he picks themes and topics that are really marginal as far as the Czech society is concerned, and he’s trying to raise his international profile with these issues. In most cases he’s not succeed so he would abandon some of the controversial issues, such as ‘human rightism’, ‘NGOism’, and other supposed ills of modern society, and move on to something else, such as global warming.

I think the Lisbon treaty was really a hard defeat for him because he invested huge political capital into it. His struggle against the treaty had concrete political ramifications and in the end, he had to conclude this fight, either by signing or not signing. After he lost on all battlefronts he did sign it, although it was clear it was the last thing he wanted to do.

It seemed to me he betrayed himself and his principles. It would have much more visible and I’d say honest exclamation mark at the end of his career if he had simply resigned rather than sign the Lisbon treaty. That’s how he posed the question: that it went against all his political principles. But in the end, he behaved like many Czech presidents before him.”