Milos Zeman - outgoing prime minister

Milos Zeman

Will Czech politics be better or worse off without him? Did his famous candid statements harm Czech foreign policy or lower the general standard of the country's political culture? The man in the spotlight is the outgoing prime minister, Milos Zeman. You can find out more about one of the most remarkable figures on the Czech political scene in this edition of Profile with Pavla Horakova.

As soon as his term of office ends the Czech prime minister Milos Zeman plans to retire from politics and spend his days reading, listening to music and "hugging trees" - as he put it - in the woods surrounding his country house in the South-East of the Czech Republic. But before he does so, it's time to look back on his life and the years he spent at the forefront of Czech politics.

Milos Zeman was born in 1944 in the central Bohemian town of Kolin. He was an only child. His parents soon broke up and little Milos grew up with his mother, a schoolteacher, and his grandmother. Milos Zeman describes his childhood as solitary, and admits to spending more time with books than friends. After graduating from an economics secondary school, he was denied, for political reasons, access to any third-level education. It took four years before he was able to enrol at the University of Economics in Prague, from which he graduated in 1969.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, Mr Zeman joined the Communist Party led by the reformist Alexander Dubcek, but after the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia he was expelled from the Party because of his criticism of the new hard-line regime. In July 1968, Mr Zeman applied for membership of the re-emerging Social Democratic Party but it wasn't long before the Communists put a lid on the party again. Mr Zeman was consequently hard put to find employment. Later he found a job in a sports organisation where he developed a centre for prognostics, predicting future trends. The centre was closed down in 1984 for its critical studies of social developments in the country. Mr Zeman then found employment at an agricultural organisation where, however, the same situation arose again, and he was dismissed in 1989.

In November 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought down communism in Czechoslovakia and new political groupings started to emerge. The most prominent one was the Civic Forum headed by the then dissident Vaclav Havel. Milos Zeman joined it and became a deputy of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly in 1990. In 1992, he became a member of the relaunched Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party and was re-elected to the Federal Assembly in the first free elections held in the same year. In 1993 Milos Zeman married his second wife Ivana and later in the year, their daughter Katerina was born.

After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party changed its name to the Czech Social Democratic Party. Milos Zeman was elected Party Chairman and subsequently confirmed in this position at three other party congresses. In the 1992 elections the Social Democrats took only 6 percent of the vote, barely crossing the 5-percent threshold. In 1998, after five years with Mr Zeman as party chairman, the Social Democrats emerged as a major force in Czech politics, with 32 percent of the vote. The party's symbol of a red rose and this song filled the country.

From 1996 to 1998 Milos Zeman was the chairman of the lower house of the Czech parliament while the leader of the right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party, Vaclav Klaus, was prime minister. After the early elections in 1998, the two men swapped positions.

In July 1998, Milos Zeman's years of hard work paid off when he was appointed prime minister. Observers predicted his minority government wouldn't last long, but Mr Zeman managed to keep it in power throughout its four-year term, partly owing to a power-sharing pact with the chief rival of the Social Democrats - the Civic Democratic Party of Vaclav Klaus.

Mr Zeman as a politician never seemed to care much about his image in the media and he never tried to hide his contempt for journalists. Dirt, scum, amateurs, liars, idiots, prostitutes are the terms Mr Zeman frequently used to describe journalists. A chain-smoker and a man particularly fond of the Czech herbal liqueur Becherovka, Milos Zeman did not seem to mind being shown on TV with a glass or a cigarette in his hand. The media themselves never thought twice when they had a chance to show Milos Zeman in his ill-fitting suit dozing off in the parliament or making a passionate speech with a thick ball of spittle sitting on his lip.

While he had many friends in Europe's left-wing parties, Milos Zeman's blunt statements earned him notoriety in other parts of the world. Earlier this year on a visit to Israel he compared the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler. When an Israeli TV journalist asked Mr Zeman whether he implied that there were similarities between Hitler's Third Reich and Arafat's Palestinian Authority, the Czech prime minister had the following to say: "Of course, it is. First of all, let us define the terrorism. The terrorism I think is the political movement which uses the civic victim as a tool for political tasks. Let me finish by some English slogan. If it looks like a duck, if it goes like a duck, if it cries like a duck, and if it tastes like a duck, it is a duck."

Milos Zeman,  photo: CTK
Milos Zeman spent six years in top political posts, however, he says, high politics did not cloud his mind and he knows when to leave the scene. Last year, Mr Zeman handed over the leadership of the Social Democratic Party to Vladimir Spidla, who is currently trying to form a new government after last weekend's elections turned out well for the party. Mr Zeman has often said that after the elections he will retire from politics and he will live a reclusive life at his weekend house in the hilly Vysocina region in the South-East of the country.

On Saturday, the second and final day of the general election, Milos Zeman was a guest at the international festival of brass bands in his native town of Kolin. After listening to a few songs, Mr Zeman said he would like a Kolin brass band to play at his funeral. To calm down onlookers, the culture minister, Pavel Dostal, promptly said: "Don't worry, Milos Zeman is so malicious that he will outlive us all."

Observers agree that Mr Zeman might be back in the limelight sooner than we think. What was perhaps unthinkable only a few months ago, Milos Zeman becoming Czech president next year, is not now - given the outcome of the elections - beyond the realms of possibility.