Sobotka joins criticism of Zeman’s use of plane owned by richest Czech

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

Eyebrows were raised when the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, returned from a state visit to China not on a government plane but on a private jet hired by the Czech Republic’s richest man, Petr Kellner. Now Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has entered the fray, describing the head of state’s decision as a “political mistake”.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
President Miloš Zeman travelled to China on an official Czech Air Force Airbus. However, he returned from the four-day state visit on a private plane hired by Petr Kellner, a publicity-shy businessman whose wealth is estimated at over USD 10 billion.

The entrepreneur was not on the plane but had earlier taken part in a meeting between Mr. Zeman and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Mr. Kellner’s PPF investment group has sizable business interests in China in the form of loans provider Home Credit and signed a fresh contract during the visit.

The Czech president’s office said Mr. Zeman had taken the private plane because it would not need to refuel and would get him home two hours quicker – allowing him to attend an event early on Tuesday, which was the most important state holiday of the year.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for PPF said the plane had not been Mr. Kellner’s private jet but had been hired on a one-off basis.

However, the head of state’s move raised eyebrows. Political scientist Michael Romancov is among those who have questioned the decision, also saying it carried a security risk.

“In my view it is a highly unusual step for a president, or any constitutional official of any democratic state. There is at least a huge suspicion of conflict of interest… I think the idea must have caused great disquiet on the part of those tasked with ensuring the president’s safety. On the other hand, he is the commander in chief and he gave an order, so they had no choice but to accept it.”

For his part, former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg suggested that in another EU country Mr. Zeman would have to resign over taking the plane.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: Filip Jandourek
After initially refusing to be drawn on the subject, the Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, entered the fray on Thursday. In an interview for Czech Radio, he was critical of the decision.

“It is a political mistake that has unnecessarily damaged the otherwise good image of the president’s visit to China. The president, a senior statesman, should pay attention to the prestige of his office. He should go on foreign visits on a government plane and also return on a government plane.”

The prime minister also reacted to a controversy over the selection of recipients of high state honours handed out on Tuesday night, saying if he were in Mr. Zeman’s position he would have changed some of the names on the list.