Czech President Milos Zeman: a populist tragedy of our times

Czech President Milos Zeman: a populist tragedy of our times
President Zeman in hospital signing official documents held out to him by his Chancellor Vratislav Mynar. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague March 9, 2023

Czech President Milos Zeman’s departure from office this week has been greeted with a chorus of boos, raspberries and a general outpouring of derision from all sides. The former Social Democrat premier is widely seen as, without question, the worst president since the restoration of democracy in 1989, with just one third of Czechs declaring they have any trust in him, the lowest figure on record.

Uncharacteristically, the one-time political bruiser is ending his second and final term not with a bang but a whimper. Wheelchair-bound and chronically ill after a lifetime of heavy drinking and chain smoking, Zeman, 78,  is quietly disappearing to live in a modest new house close to the Lany presidential estate near Prague where he spent much of his final term.

Commentators have queued up to opine that the country’s first directly elected president leaves behind no lasting legacy or achievements.

His successor, retired General Petr Pavel – who against protocol has been virtually acting as the country’s new head of state since his election at the end of January – has made it clear that he wants to start with a clean slate. He has even ordered an audit of the Presidential Office before he takes over.

Pavel says he looks to dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, the country’s first post-communist president, as his model, and in interviews he has struggled to name anything positive his immediate predecessor has done.

Zeman’s wretched 10 years as president have overshadowed the very real political achievements before he became head of state. If he had really retired after his 1998-2002 government – as he told me in 2001 that he planned to do – history would be kinder to him.

Persistent critic

Zeman joined the Communist Party during the Prague Spring experiment of “socialism with a human face” but was expelled soon after the Russian invasion that ended it. Never a dissident, as an economist he was nevertheless a persistent critic of the regime’s inadequacies, notably in a brave paper issued in August 1989 – three months before the Velvet Revolution. This earned him a place on the stage at one of the huge demonstrations during the revolution, where he made a much-admired speech.

During the 1990s he built up the moribund Social Democrats into the country’s main opposition party by intensive campaigning in poorer regions in which he savagely attacked the corruption of the right-wing government of Vaclav Klaus.

He was a natural campaigner with a real popular touch. He always looked like he slept in his suits and he genuinely shared working class tastes for beer and plain food. One of his former ministers once told me Zeman caused consternation in a fancy Rome restaurant during an official visit by refusing to eat a lavish seafood dish. A pork schnitzel had to be prepared for him instead.

Zeman was a witty if eccentric orator, able to speak without notes and quote facts off the top of his head, not all of which were accurate. “I am like a computer,” he told me.

One of Havel’s advisers once told me that the president had been panicked by Zeman’s drunkenness before they were both due to speak at a press conference at Lany to announce his ministerial team in 1998. However, once he took the rostrum Zeman instantly sobered up and gave a bravura performance.

As premier of a minority Social Democrat government tolerated by Klaus’s Civic Democrats, he took the Czech Republic into Nato in 1999 and did the hard work of preparing the country for EU membership (finally achieved under the subsequent Social Democrat government in 2004).

His government also carried out a massive reconstruction job after the country’s 1997-8 financial crisis exposed not only the insolvency and corruption of the banking sector but also demolished what Zeman called the whole “Potemkin village” built by Klaus, who had boasted that the country had already completed its economic transformation. Zeman sold the rotten banks to foreign investors and attracted a record wave of industrial investment that laid the basis for the country’s now largely completed convergence with Western European living standards.

“I am like a fireman. I inherited the Czech economy in a deep crisis. I have fulfilled my duty and I am completely satisfied. Now I am extremely tired,” he told me in 2001, adding: “I have fulfilled my dream and I have the right to retire.”

He also told me then: “politics is a drug. I am probably the only person for whom it is not. For me it was a profession”.

Unfortunately, he was already a political addict and the side-effects of his addiction were becoming glaringly obvious.  

An only child who hardly knew his father, Zeman always had the arrogance of the lone rebel. He reacted badly to media criticism or opposition from party colleagues, never admitting that he could be wrong.

“Czech journalists are like prostitutes. They change their mind with new owners,” he told me in 2002. Later he publicly “joked” about eliminating journalists at a meeting with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in 2017.

As party leader he was a very dominant figure but he had few real friends, surrounding himself with a tight group of henchmen, some of unsavoury provenance, with whom he plotted against enemies.

He stepped down as party leader before the 2002 general election “to retire” but quickly returned to stand for the 2003 election in Parliament to succeed Havel as president. However, his erstwhile colleagues already feared what he might do as president and refused to support him, leading to his humiliating exit in the first round.

This defeat festered in his mind during his sojourn at his isolated country cottage over the next 10 years, during which he plotted with his henchmen how to revenge himself on his former party colleagues and return to power. 

In 2013, with murky funding and some of his old campaigning flair, he won the country’s first direct presidential election. Unfortunately the presidency would only bring out his very worst qualities.

Expanding his powers

The Czech president, whose office is the old imperial seat of Prague Castle, has almost a monarchical aura but few powers. All the country’s three presidents have struggled to meet their own and the public’s expectations of the role.

Havel (president from 1989-2003) failed to impose himself in domestic politics despite his huge moral authority and international standing, because he had no party behind him.

Zeman, as well as his immediate predecessor Klaus (2003-13), were more influential on the domestic scene because they were able to meddle in their old parties, but they were still often frustrated with the limits of their powers and often clashed with the government, notably on foreign policy, much to the confusion of the country’s international partners.

Zeman, as the first directly elected president, made the most concerted attempt to expand the presidency’s powers and he became the most powerful president in terms of domestic politics. This will be his biggest legacy. Apart from that, he has few real achievements in foreign or domestic policy, and did much that was damaging, including lowering the standard of political culture and paving the way for the populism of former premier Andrej Babis.  

In foreign policy, where the president traditionally has the greatest reach, Zeman aimed to switch away from Havel’s values-based approach in order to focus on supporting exports.  Infamously on one of his five visits to Beijing to build economic links he announced: "We don't teach you market economy or human rights, on the contrary, we want to learn from you."

However, this policy often served only to benefit the business interests of particular domestic companies – notably Petr Kellner’s powerful financial group PPF, with its Chinese consumer finance business – and had few positive spin-offs for the economy as a whole. The much- trumpeted wave of Chinese investment never materialised.

Moreover, this value-neutral focus on exports meant Zeman pursued a foreign policy at cross- purposes to the government. He looked east to forge close relationships with the Russian and Chinese dictatorships, thereby damaging the country’s image with its Western allies. Consequently, Zeman rarely met Western European leaders and was never invited to the White House, despite his desperate courting of then US President Donald Trump.

Zeman, who met Putin many times, often appeared to be just a mouthpiece of Kremlin propaganda. He criticised Western sanctions, said Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a “done deal”, and suggested Ukraine should accept “Finlandisation”, or a tailoring of its foreign policy to meet Moscow’s security interests. He also openly backed Russia’s Rosatom to build a new Czech nuclear power plant (NPP).

Even worse than this, on several occasions the Presidential Office directly intervened in security policy to do what looked very much like the Kremlin’s bidding. This looked even more sinister because the office was run by two aides without security clearance, one of whom – Martin Nejedly – had close Russian links.

Zeman pushed for Russian hacker Yevgeny Nikulin to be extradited to Russia rather than the US, but was blocked by the justice minister, who afterwards resigned.

When Moscow tried to assassinate its former agent Sergei Skripal in the UK with novichok, Zeman muddied the waters by making a false claim that the nerve agent could have come from Czech stocks instead. He also questioned the secret service’s investigation that found that the same Russian agents that had tried to poison Skripal were behind the explosion at a Czech arms depot in Vrbetice in 2014.

In 2020 Zeman brazenly asked to see secret information on Russian agents in Czechia, but the State Security Service (BIS) refused.

These interventions led to an extraordinary open war between the presidential office and the country’s security services, which Zeman even accused of spying on him.

Zeman tried repeatedly to remove the head of the BIS and he succeeded in pushing out the head of the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NUKIB) in 2019 after it released a report warning against using equipment from China’s Huawei.

Zeman’s independent foreign policies towards both Beijing and Moscow ended in complete failure. Chinese high-handedness – including attempts in 2019 and 2020 to bully the leaders of the Senate to prevent them from visiting Taiwan – led to a fierce backlash. One of president-elect Pavel’s first steps after his election was to hold a telephone call with the Taiwanese president, much to the fury of Beijing.

Zeman’s policy towards Moscow ended in even worse humiliation. The Vrbetice case led to a freezing of diplomatic relations, and then Putin’s invasion of Ukraine forced Zeman to go into full reverse.

"With this act, Russia is committing a crime against peace. ... The madmen need to be isolated," he said on February 24.

“He got upset that Putin treated him like that,” explains former spokesman Libor Roucek.

Hostile journalists have suggested that Zeman did not really change his attitude towards Putin and was just trying to stay in tune with public opinion and avoid yet another attempt to impeach him.

A presidential coup

In domestic policy Zeman was, if anything, even more dominant for a while. He was able to dictate not just appointments to key state agencies and companies, but also to appoint his own government and extend the president’s constitutional powers by vetoing ministers.

But his power finally collapsed when his ally, billionaire populist Andrej Babis, lost the 2021 general election and then the presidential election in January this year. As in foreign policy, all those years of influence left nothing lasting of value and much that was negative.

Zeman began his presidency with a coup. Almost immediately Zeman came into office in 2013 Petr Necas’ right-wing government collapsed. Zeman seized the opportunity to appoint a caretaker government of his own choosing, even though the ruling Civic Democrats had proposed another premier. Zeman kept his former minister Jiri Rusnok in power for seven months, despite the fact he never won a vote of confidence.

When the Social Democrats (CSSD) won the subsequent general election in October 2013, Zeman tried to wreak his revenge on the former colleagues who had betrayed him a decade before.

First he masterminded a coup attempt against CSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka. When that failed, he built a strong alliance with Andrej Babis, the agro-chemicals tycoon who had entered the government as leader of his own “technocratic populist” party.

Over the next eight years Zeman was able to use his popularity, his office and his supporters in Parliament to undermine his old party and help transfer its support to Babis, who went on to win the 2017 election and become the dominant coalition partner.

In 2021 the Social Democrats, now under a supine Zeman loyalist, failed to pass the 5% threshold to enter Parliament. Out of petty revenge, through his machinations he had destroyed the party that he had built up to become the country’s leading political force for two decades.

As well as the extension of the presidential powers, perhaps Zeman’s most profound legacy has been on the country’s political culture, where he played a key role in the rise of populism.

Even during his first election campaign as CSSD leader in 1996, Zeman sparked outrage because of his intemperate comments about Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus leaving behind a devastated “wasteland”.

But this was nothing compared to the divisive campaign he fought to win the 2013 presidential election, during which he deliberately stoked antagonism between his poorer, rural voters and the liberal “Prague café” supporters of his rival, former Havel adviser, the aristocratic Karel Schwarzenberg. He repeated the same tactics in his victory over the hapless chemist Jiri Drahos who stood against him five years later.

Zeman perfected the old populist tricks of aggressive rhetoric, insults against journalists and rivals, championing of the common man, and deliberate deepening of society’s divisions. But he was also one of the first to use the relatively new issue of Moslem migrants as a way of whipping up support.

“Zeman started this topic even when it wasn’t current,” Professor Vladimira Dvorakova once told me, remembering a debate at Prague’s University of Economics in 2012 when he asked her: “Why is no one asking about Muslims?”

This political style and selection of topics has helped pave the way for the rise of Babis and far-right leader Tomio Okamura, though they lack his flair.

Zeman also demeaned his office by his own behaviour and that of his close aides. Zeman was always a notorious boozer – he drank all the way through every one of my three interviews with him as premier – but he appeared to be able to handle it, even though he repeated the same “bon mots” each time.

But as president this hard drinking eventually caught up with him. In the most famous episode, he was caught on video in 2013 lurching around drunk at an official state event after getting sozzled at a Russian embassy reception.

Zeman also surrounded himself with a gang of parasites who have been accused of numerous scandals. Often he appeared almost like their prisoner, and even former ministers complained they were unable to get through to him (Zeman does not have his own mobile phone).

This impression was only magnified when Presidential Office Chancellor Vratislav Mynar refused to acknowledge that Zeman was unable to perform his duties after he was rushed to hospital in October 2021. Facing calls to resign, Mynar later staged a photo with Zeman signing an official document from his hospital bed that just raised further questions.

Zeman’s reputation took another dive last year when he pardoned those involved in a corruption scandal at the Lany presidential retreat.

Pavel has said he wants to restore dignity to the office and he will draw a thick line under all this. But Zeman’s legacy of an expanded presidential role and the coarsened political discourse will be more difficult to escape.

Pavel has already indicated that – like Zeman – he has his own ideas and wants to be an active president. His problem will be that – unlike Zeman – he has no party behind him, and the country’s politicians will now be very keen to restrict his role after their unhappy experience with Zeman.