Little-known 37-year-old in frame to be Czech foreign minister

Jakub Kulhánek

After the Social Democrats’ initial candidate for foreign minister rejected the opportunity to succeed Tomáš Petříček, the party announced a new nominee on Tuesday night: hitherto deputy interior minister Jakub Kulhánek. However, critics question the 37-year-old’s past engagement at a Chinese firm.

The Czech Republic’s liberal, pro-Western foreign minister Tomáš Petříček was fired on Monday after failing in a bid to replace Jan Hamáček as chairman of the Social Democrats.

Opposition figures said Mr. Hamáček’s move to oust his rival was poorly planned, as his initial candidate to take over at the Černín Palace, arts minister and political veteran Lubomír Zaorálek, made accepting the post conditional on major changes.

A former foreign minister, Mr. Zaorálek said the post had been “gutted” since he left it in late 2017.

Lubomír Zaorálek | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

One issue he highlighted was the fact the government’s commissioner for Russia, Rudolf Jindrák, is not a ministry official but serves President Miloš Zeman, known for his warm relations with Moscow.

“For me it’s essential that if there is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then Czech foreign policy should be unified. Russian relations have to be part of the activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; it must be within its remit and under control.”

Capping a dramatic appearance before the media, Mr. Zaorálek also questioned the credentials of Jan Birke, the man slated to replace him at the arts minister.

Soon after that news conference it was reported that Jan Hamáček – who is now acting foreign minister as well as interior minister and head of the Czech coronavirus taskforce – had collapsed, citing pressure, and had to go home for the afternoon.

Forced to return to the drawing board, the leadership of the Social Democrats came up with a new nominee for the post of foreign minister – and one that is unfamiliar to many.

Jakub Kulhánek, who is 37, has hitherto been Mr. Hamáček’s underling at the Ministry of the Interior.

Despite his lack of name recognition, Social Democrats deputy leader Roman Onderka told reporters on Tuesday night that he was qualified for the job.

Jan Hamáček | Photo: archive of the Office of Czech Government

“Jakub Kulhánek is a graduate of Georgetown University and speaks a number of world languages. He is currently a deputy minister at the Ministry of the Interior. In the past he has been a deputy at the ministries of defence and foreign affairs. He has ‘classified’ security clearance, so I think he is a good candidate.”

However, critics have also pointed to other entries on Mr. Kulhánek’s CV.

In the past he has worked for China’s CEFC Europe, which was meant to spearhead investment in the Czech Republic.

This fact led to security concerns when Mr. Kulhánek joined the Ministry of the Interior and has sparked fresh doubts from the likes of former politician Miroslav Kalousek, who has suggested a vote of confidence be called in the government.