Czech president denies blackmailing culture minister

By bne IntelliNews October 23, 2016

Czech President Milos Zeman has denied allegations that he decided against awarding a state medal to a Holocaust survivor because the country's culture minister - who is also the nephew of the academic ignored - met the Dalai Lama against his wishes, local media reported on October 22.

The allegations are the latest developments in an escalating a row over the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader's visit to Czechia earlier this month. That, in turn, is part of a long term feud between the coalition leading Social Democrat Party (CSSD) and Zeman, a former CSSD prime minister. However, the populist head of state may have bitten off more than he can chew this time, as the list of objections to his behaviour swells.

George Brady, 88, who survived Auschwitz, was supposed to receive a state medal at celebrations marking Czechoslovak Independence Day at Prague Castle on October 28, for his lifelong campaign for Holocaust remembrance. However, Culture Minister Daniel Herman claims Zeman decided not to hand the award to his uncle because the official met the Dalai Lama in mid October.

The president denies that claim, although he was clearly furious about the meeting. Zeman has spent his time in office seeking to cement economic ties with Beijing. Over fears they may anger China, high-ranking officials in Prague refrained from meeting the Tibetan leader.

“My uncle informed me he had been contacted by the president's office with information that his award was being prepared. Now there is news that this has been postponed for this year,” Herman told Reuters. “The president directly told me that if I meet the Dalai Lama, my uncle will be taken out of the list (for awards), and that is what happened,” the minister told Czech public television.

Zeman, who has led a drive to attract Chinese investments in the Central European country, confirmed that he had asked Herman not to meet with the Dalai Lama but denies having linked the request to Brady’s award, claims Finance Minister Andrej Babis. The leader of CSSD's awkward coalition partner Ano spoke on October 22 after what he said was a private meeting the president.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has urged Zeman to “act like a statesman” and honour Brady. On his Twitter account, the PM warned that otherwise the October 28 celebrations would turn into a festival of pettiness and disagreements, Radio Prague reports. A growing number of politicians, academics and cultural figures have announced they will not attend the event in solidarity with George Brady, while an alternative "Independence" ceremony is now being planned.

Brady expressed regret over the developments surrounding his award, but said he would visit his homeland as planned, even though he is no longer up for a state award, CTK reports. Brady moved to Canada after the war.

It's not the first time that Zeman's approach to China has stirred up protest from political and civic society. In a rare joint statement, Zeman, the country’s premier and the two parliamentary speakers stressed that the Czech Republic regards Tibet as an integral part of China. The statement provoked a storm of protests and accusations of “shameful servility”.

The issue has lit up the Czech political scene a year ahead of elections. The opposition Civic Democrats said that if the allegations are true then the president had committed blackmail and society must respond.

However, it is Sobotka and the senior ranks of the CSSD that will likely seek to make the most of the scandal. A Machiavellian operator, Zeman is a bitter enemy of the PM and appears to plotting with Babis. The Ano leader is the country's most popular politician and clearly hopes to win the top job himself next year.

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