Who's afraid of Karel Schwarzenberg?

Karel Schwarzenberg

Last Thursday Czech president Vaclav Klaus caused something of a stir when - rather unexpectedly - he refused to appoint a cabinet put forward by Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek in what was the prime minister's second attempt to form a viable government. Along with the president's objection that the cabinet was not guaranteed wider political backing, Mr Klaus also stressed his objection to the nomination of Senator Karel Schwarzenberg for the post of foreign minister.

President Vaclav Klaus
Why? He suggested Mr Schwarzenberg -a member of the former Czech / Frankish aristocracy - could be a threat to Czech-Austrian relations. President Vaclav Klaus:

"Even for the reason of fragile Czech-Austrian relations I find it hard to understand how the prime minister could see Mr Schwarzenberg as appropriate for the post of foreign minister."

Not surprisingly, Mr Klaus' words caused something of a political bombshell, although he is not alone in his opposition to the Schwarzenberg nomination. Others, even within the negotiation-leading Civic Democratic Party, also suggested they would favour a different candidate, and already there has been some criticism of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek for allowing the two smaller parties in the coalition to snag three key ministries: finance, local development, and foreign affairs. One of the Civic Democrats' key negotiators Pavel Bem:

"I'm unhappy that the Civic Democrats have given up the finance ministry and I am going to do all I can to see this change."

Meanwhile, Czech TV reported that Mr Bem also has strong reservations about Mr Schwarzenberg as nominee.

The question of why the senator's name rankles in some top political circles, including the president's is not an easy one to answer. The suggestion that he might somehow compromise Czech-Austrian relations, a number of critics have already labelled "absurd". Mr Schwarzenberg himself has even made clear he is not even an Austrian citizen although he did live in Austria for many decades. He does hold dual Czech-Swiss citizenship. For many, the senator remains a symbol of opposition to totalitarianism and his political pedigree and commitment to the Czech Republic remain without blemish: his own family lost property to the Nazis, then to the communists, escaping Czechoslovakia in 1948. In the mid-1980s, Mr Schwarzenberg was then a chairman for the Helsinki Conference for Human Rights, supporting Czechoslovak dissidents. Most recently former president Vaclav Havel, a close long-term associate, expressed support for him from New York - and of course he is continuing to be strongly backed by the party that nominated him, the Greens.

Will Mr Schwarzenberg ultimately take up the post? That will still involve many "ifs". Firstly, whether the current agreement is signed "as is", as promised, sometime this week. Second, if the government will then be appointed without further reservations by the president. Thirdly, if the new government then survives its confidence vote; there, for some, Mr Schwarzenberg's name could remain a problem. Even now one Civic Democrat MP has already threatened to withdraw support unless the current proposal is backed by his party's central executive committee - something the prime minister has so far refused, saying he has received the party's "blessing" already. All told, the Czech Republic has perhaps inched somewhat closer to gaining a new government, but it is clear in the coming days many hurdles still lie ahead.