Czech President Miloš Zeman has come under fire over a series of incidents in recent days, such as his handling of the celebrations of Czechoslovak Independence Day, statements made during his visit to China and most recently the fact that he used vulgar language in a live interview for Czech Radio. I asked commentator Jiří Pehe whether he thinks the president is overstepping his mandate.
Miloš Zeman, photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“Well, I think that President Zeman has basically privatized the presidency into his own hands and the fact that he can do that is caused partly by the weakness of Czech political parties. We know that last year when he was trying to expand his presidential powers to the detriment of Parliament political parties were able to resist him and in the end made an effort to force early elections and put the president in his place. But now we have a regular government and political parties are divided into two camps – government and opposition – and Zeman has used this division, the weakening of the resolve to discipline him by political parties, to his advantage. Basically he is using the presidential office as his own tool to become more visible, to promote his own interests or the interests of people who surround him.”
As you said criticism from the government has been very cautious. Clearly ministers do not want to jeopardize their relations with the head of state, but recently the foreign minister has countered some of the president’s statements. Would you say that the Czech Republic has a unified stand on foreign policy or are we seeing a situation reminiscent of the former president Vaclav Klaus who was anti-EU and did not seem to care what the government’s line was?
Lubomír Zaorálek, photo: Filip Jandourek
“Well, I am afraid that the Czech Republic has never had a unified foreign policy and although in recent months the president and minister of foreign affairs seemed to be speaking with one voice on issues such as China there were always dissonances and disagreements over the Czech Republic’s policy towards Russia for example. Zeman is much more conciliatory, while minister Zaorálek is more critical, so I think that the fact that Zaorálek has now distanced himself from Zeman with regard to the human rights situation in China which the president refused to criticize while the foreign minister says criticism is needed – that is nothing new. I think that unfortunately Czech foreign policy is adversely influenced by the Czech Constitution which is really not clear on this issue and makes it possible for the president to formulate his own foreign policy on a number of issues rather than follow the line that the government formulates.”
Mr. Zeman’s behaviour has also become increasingly provocative – I am now referring to the vulgar language he used in Sunday’s live interview for Czech Radio- what is behind this? Is he increasingly more on the defensive, because he is so much under fire these days?
Miloš Zeman in China, photo: CTK
“I think that any person – and that person needn’t be a president – can resort to vulgarisms and aggressive language when they know that they are in the wrong. And I think that Zeman knows that with regard to his trip to China at least he is on very thin ice, that he should have been more assertive. There was no reason for him to pander to his Chinese counterparts with statements that were not even solicited by the Chinese side. So that is one thing, another thing is that he cannot resist the temptation to reward his friends and supporters and use for that purpose even the highest state orders. At the same time he is intelligent enough to know that this is not correct. So my interpretation is that when he is asked about such issues he goes on the offensive and resorts to vulgar statements and very aggressive language.”