President Zeman’s choice of guests raises questions about foreign policy shift

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek

President Miloš Zeman’s list of invitees for official state visits has caused a stir among Czech human rights advocates. The list includes Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, set to arrive in April, as well as Turkmenistan and Uzbek leaders. The president’s office says two of these trips are return visits planned months in advance. But some observers voice concerns over a shift in Czech foreign policy. I discussed the issue with Oldřich Bureš, a professor of international relations at Prague’s Metropolitan University.

Viktor Yanukovich,  photo: CTK
“It’s important to look at the details of the individual visits, Yanukovich on one hand and the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the other, because the backgrounds of the visits are different.

“President Yanukovich has been invited both for a bilateral meeting with the Czech president but he has also been invited to attend a multilateral meeting of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative which takes place in Prague in April.

“With Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguli Berdimuhamedow, it’s obvious that economic interests play a role here but as far as I know, the Uzbek president’s visit is reciprocal because former Czech president Václav Klaus visited the country in 2004, and it’s expected to return the courtesy.

“Obviously, it’s not only the question who you invite but also what you discuss with them. So it will be very important to see what the debates are about with these presidents. All of these visits, but especially that of the Ukrainian president, are a good opportunity to invite opposition leaders as well.”

Human rights have been an important part of Czech foreign policy so are we a change of direction now?

“I think it’s too early to say. As for the visit by Viktor Yanukovich, the situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and it could be argued that we need to keep contact with both the government and the opposition. As long as we maintain official contacts with the opposition and express support for them, it’s a reasonable attempt to have some influence on the course of events in Ukraine.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“But it’s much more difficult to make the same argument about the visits by the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which are simply authoritarian regimes.

“So I do see a potential shift here but again it depends how we look at it in the long run, whether we also show support to the opposition, what pressure is put on these people who visit Prague, and of course, we should keep in mind the president is just one of two or three major players in Czech foreign policy, along with the Foreign Ministry and the prime minister’s office.”