Controversial Czech President Milos Zeman is poised for a momentous 2017.
On March 10 the 72-year-old is widely expected to announce that he will stand for a second and final five-year term next January, an election where he looks unlikely to face any serious challenger.
The following month Zeman’s campaign will receive a huge boost when he is expected to visit Donald Trump in the White House, his first official visit there. The onetime Social Democrat claims to be the only European head of state to have backed Trump before he won the US presidential election.
When the refugee exodus resumes across the Mediterranean this summer, Zeman will once again be at the forefront of those warning of the Islamic threat to Europe.
Come October another populist, Finance Minister Andrej Babis, the “Czech Berlusconi”, looks certain to win the general election, providing Zeman with a partner to refashion the Czech political landscape – and potentially give him a wider opening to strut on the diplomatic stage.
Hospoda vs kavarna
Zeman takes pride in being called the “Czech Trump”, though he is hardly a political outsider: he was prime minister from 1998-2002 as leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), and has been the leading leftwing politician in the country since the restoration of democracy in 1989, even if his socialism has always been more a matter of branding than conviction.
But like Trump, he has a reputation for outrageous public comments and behaviour, which opponents argue have degraded Czech political culture. He insults other politicians and particularly journalists, drinks and swears in interviews, and makes “alt-fact” claims that he refuses to disavow.
Like other populists, he has deliberately divided the country, backing the “real people” against the out-of-touch elite. In the Czech context, he has labelled this divide as one between the Czech hospoda (pub) and the Prague kavarna (café).
He won the country’s first direct presidential election as an independent in 2013 based on his support in small towns, among the older, less well-off and educated voters, many of whom feel hardly better off since the collapse of communism a quarter of a century ago. But to Prague’s liberal elite, he is a despised embarrassment. With his potato-shaped head, rumpled suits, shambling walk, chain smoking and regular drunken episodes, he has become the butt of cartoonists and internet memes.
Like Trump, he has also become notorious for his comments against Islam and in support of Russia – views that he feels have now been vindicated by Europe’s populist wave. Moreover, he too has murky personal and financial ties with the Kremlin that have led to accusations that he is Vladimir Putin’s puppet.
Seeking an enemy
Zeman has form on the Middle East. He was always pro-Israeli, once comparing PLO leader Yasser Arafat to Hitler. But over the last decade – well ahead of the rest of the pack – he has broadened his assault to target Islam itself. “Zeman started this topic even when it wasn’t current,” says Professor Vladimira Dvorakova of Prague’s University of Economics, who was struck when he asked her after a debate there in 2012, “Why is no one asking about Muslims?”.
Among all the anti-Islamic firebrands in Europe, Zeman’s language has been amongst the most lurid and uncompromising. He blames Islamic culture directly for terrorism and crime, and says that the refugee wave is an “organised invasion” and a Muslim Brotherhood plot. He claims integrating Muslim migrants is “practically impossible”.
He appears to have understood very early on that the wave of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa could be used to whip up fears and attract voters. In a country with very few Muslims, almost no refugees and no terrorist attacks, Czechs are now amongst the most scared people in Europe because of his scare-mongering. Terrorism and migration rose to become the biggest concerns among voters last year, according to a CVVM opinion poll. “Zeman deeply psychologically needs an enemy,” says Alexandr Mitrofanov, columnist for the leftwing daily Pravo. “He needs to make people confused, frightened, obedient to a strong person who will lead them.”
Despite once being on the moderate left, he has also made common cause with extreme right parties, campaigning on the same ground. Zeman even shared a platform with a neo-fascist party leader at a 2015 demonstration against Islam, though he later claimed not to have known whom he was standing next to. “Mr Zeman is very dangerous for democracy in this country,” says Jiri Dienstbier, the former Social Democrat minister for human rights. “He plays with very dangerous topics such as hatred between different groups of voters. I am not sure if there is an easy way back with his divisive policies.”
Zeman’s views on Russia have also become more extreme over the past two decades. He always took a more pragmatic line towards Moscow than most politicians in former communist Central Europe, and his 1998-2002 government tried to rebuild Soviet-era trade links. But this stance coarsened once he became president, and he is now one of the Kremlin’s biggest apologists in the EU.
He has called for sanctions on Russia to be dropped and described the fighting in Eastern Ukraine a “civil war”, ignoring clear evidence of Russian direction. He almost became the only EU head of state to attend the 2015 Victory Day parade in Moscow, but was persuaded at the last minute to sit it out.
One explanation is that, like his rightwing predecessor Vaclav Klaus and populists such as Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Zeman is fascinated by the way Putin has built up his power base to become the master of all he surveys. The Kremlin has flattered both Czech presidents by treating them as serious international players. Klaus and Zeman are regular guests at the annual Rhodes Forum organised by Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways who is blacklisted by the US.
But more worryingly, another reason for Zeman’s support for Putin may be his alleged reliance on Russian funding to run his presidential election campaigns.
Two close advisers who acted as fundraisers had very close links with Russian oil group Lukoil. Former adviser Miroslav Slouf brokered deals for the company, while current adviser Martin Nejedly was actually Lukoil’s partner in a Czech joint venture, and the private Russian group picked up the large bill when it failed. Prague Castle has always denied that Russian money sponsored Zeman’s presidential campaign or his tiny Party of Civic Rights, but it has so far failed to provide a convincing explanation of their funding.
Marriage of convenience
Zeman will be an even stronger position to push his views on Islam and Russia following the likely victory of Ano, Finance Minister Babis’ personal political party vehicle, over its Social Democrat coalition partner in this autumn’s parliamentary election.
In what is really just a marriage of convenience, Zeman has been more and more blatantly siding with the country’s second richest man during the escalating infighting in the coalition between Ano and the Social Democrats. He first vetoed the conflict of interest legislation that targets Babis, and then referred the bill to the Constitutional Court. In return, it is rumoured that Babis has pledged not to field a candidate to stand against Zeman in the presidential election.
For Zeman, Babis’ impending election victory would give him sweet revenge on the moderate Social Democrat leaders who refused to back him in the 2003 presidential election. “Zeman wants to see blood,” says Libor Roucek, Zeman’s spokesman in government. “He wants to see [Prime Minister Bohuslav] Sobotka’s head on a plate.”
Afterwards, a weakened and divided Social Democratic Party – the country’s last strong mainstream political movement – is likely to be taken over by a candidate close to the president, giving him the vital lever in parliament he has sought for so long. “We face destruction of the whole party system,” says Dienstbier, who argues that Sobotka made a strategic error by choosing to focus his attacks on Babis. “Zeman is a bigger danger for the Social Democrats and democracy.”
Zeman may also be able to reach a post-election deal with Babis that strengthens the president’s role in foreign policy, perhaps by allowing him to choose the foreign minister and thus amplify his anti-Islamic and pro-Russian views. This could also help turn the Visegrad Group of four Central European states into a more united populist bloc, posing an even bigger challenge to Brussels. It should be remembered, however, that Zeman is still in favour of adopting the euro, a stance persisting like a coccyx – the last vestige of his once progressive politics.
As his legacy – his final blow against Czech democracy – there is speculation that Zeman, a diabetic alcoholic, could promise Babis to resign before the end of his four-year term, giving the billionaire plenty of notice so that he could prepare his own presidential bid. Then Babis would control not only his huge agro-chemical business and media empire, but also the government and the presidency – something that not even former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi at the height of his power managed to achieve.