Drunk with power in the Czech Republic

By bne IntelliNews May 28, 2013

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Czech President Milos Zeman scored an internet hit in May when footage showed him swaying and stumbling his way through an official ceremony at Prague Castle. Zeman's aides claimed he was the victim of a virus, his critics sneered he was drunk. More worrying, perhaps, is that other recent actions by the new president suggest he might actually be drunk with power.

The post-Velvet Revolution residents of Hradcany have a habit of going viral on YouTube. Vaclav Klaus, who occupied the president's seat for eight years before Zeman won the country's first-ever direct election in January, was reportedly enraged in 2011 when the world chortled at a video showing him surreptitiously pocketing a pen during a state visit to Chile. Klaus - the old right-wing "enemy" of leftist populist Zeman - remains closely involved as his successor comes out of the gate aggressively pushing to expand the power of the presidency.

Zeman's second-round victory over Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg was largely driven by public discontent with the centre-right coalition government's harsh austerity policies. It came as no surprise, therefore, when Zeman announced during the campaign that he intended to be heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the country. After securing the vote, practically the first words out of his mouth were a call for the wobbling coalition to pack its bags.

That call was easily dismissed, but it was also a warning shot. In his first three months in office, the new president has launched a highly effective campaign to hack at the base of the government, with Prime Minister Petr Necas apparently helpless to respond. Speaking at a panel discussion on the new presidency hosted by Zaostreno and the Vaclav Havel Library, Jan Machacak, editor at Czech weekly Respekt, suggested: "Some people think Zeman is shifting us to a semi-presidential system."

Ambassadors and academics

At the core of the panel discussion was a long-drawn-out standoff between Zeman and Schwarzenberg over the appointment of an ambassador to neighbouring Slovakia. The president blocked the foreign minister's candidate, and then turned the tables to insist Livia Klausova - wife of his predecessor - be handed the job. The foreign minister dug in his heels.

If that sounds like petty point scoring in the wake of an election, then that's because it is to some extent. However, while there's little evidence the spat is damaging the country's reputation abroad, Lobos Dubrovsky, a former ambassador to Moscow and defence minister, warns there will be "more important ambassadorial appointments in the future" that could fall prey to this kind of squabble.

On May 17, Zeman's push moved outside the staid world of international diplomacy and into the stuffy offices of academia, when he blocked the appointment of a new professor at Charles University. While gay rights campaigners complain that it is prejudice blocking the promotion of the homosexual historian Martin Putna, it's more likely the result of Putna's staunch criticism of Zeman.

Zeman has proved throughout his leading role in Czech politics since the fall of communism that he's always ready to use his power to stifle critics. His use of what is little more than a ceremonial custom to have the president sign off on professorships suggests he will look to even outdo Klaus, who littered his two terms in Prague Castle with the liberal use of the presidential veto to block government policy, most notably on EU business.

While Zeman is an enthusiastic Europhile, he has in many respects much in common with his old sparring partner. Indeed, his push of the presidency into the micro-management of the country's government - and even into academia - is only an expansion of Klaus' antics.

The pair of them have been dancing like this for over 20 years, with the ideological split between the hard-drinking leftist and free-market neoliberal seemingly irrelevant when it comes down to the brass tacks of running the country. With Zeman in the PM's chair as head of the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) in the late 1990s - heading what was called the "Jan Becher cabinet", named after the producer of favourite Czech tipple Becherovka - the pair formed the much-maligned "opposition agreement," which saw Klaus' conservative Civic Democrats (ODS) given input on government policy in return for support of Zeman's minority administration.

As Klaus faced being shunted to the sidelines with the end of his presidency, he had his old mucker's back again during the 2012 election, in spite of the fact that the free-market ideology of Zeman's challenger, Schwarzenberg, is far closer to his own. Klaus' wife also took several digs at the foreign minister - in particular the fact that Schwarzenberg's wife is Austrian and hardly speaks Czech at all. Klausova's reward for doing this is apparently a recognition that Czech interests in Bratislava simply can't do without her supervision.

Double act

Zeman's bid to boost the power of the presidency looks like nothing more than an attempt to extend the pair's tight control over the levers of power in the Czech Republic. Their success in this stems not so much from his "mandate" as the first directly elected president, but the inherent instability of Czech politics. Successive governments have continually teetered on the brink of collapse since Klaus and Zeman "retired" from the frontline of parliamentary politics in 2002.

Both these seemingly ever-lasting grandmasters of the political scene refuse to move aside, simply graduating from the PM's to the presidential chair. From there they insist on implementing their own vision, come what may. The fact that Zeman has been able to so swiftly produce a nationwide scandal is testament to the extreme weakness of the current coalition led by the ODS. "The [ambassadorial] dispute is a masterclass from Zeman," claims Jiri Caslavka from think-tank Glopolis. "It's designed to sow conflict in the ODS, where Klausova has many supporters. It puts the PM in a tricky position, and will likely only result in conflict between Necas and Schwarzenberg."

With the foreign minister one of the founders of TOP09 - the junior and last remaining partner in the ODS-led coalition - that suggests the aim is to finally topple a government that's been on its last legs for the past two years.

That leaves observers with a picture of Zeman and Klaus, leaning over the balcony like a Czech version of Muppets Statler and Waldorf, as they direct a campaign which keeps them in the best seats in the house. "This would not be happening if we didn't have a government in disintegration," insists former foreign minister Cyril Svoboda.

Klaus is widely believed to have been behind a long - and ultimately unsuccessful - campaign by backbenchers last year to unseat Necas as head of the ODS and thus the premiership. Now in Prague Castle, Zeman is likely to try the same with the leadership of the opposition CSSD, with whom he fell out several years ago. That will be easier if the party is in government - as it's virtually guaranteed to be after the next election.

It's a familiar and depressing picture of the petty squabbling and grubby dealing that has haunted Czech politics since the fall of communism. On the one hand, history warns that the country's political culture is clearly yet to develop to the point at which it will be able to set aside such self-interest and plug the holes in a system cobbled together in the wake of revolution. On the other, there's relatively little motivation to make the effort. No one takes much notice of the machinations, save the local press, certainly not investors. The numerous close scrapes with government collapse last year saw bond yields calmly continue setting record lows.

Meanwhile, younger guns are yet to fight their way through the duopoly to put down a serious marker. Then again, given the "bonuses" available to the political class under their hegemony, why change?

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