Czech president sparks row as he bars US ambassador

By bne IntelliNews April 7, 2015

bne IntelliNews -

The mild-mannered Czech government is struggling to take ownership of the country's foreign policy from the loose cannon that is President Milos Zeman. 
The Czech government has belatedly reacted to President Milos Zeman's latest enthusiastic dive into the country's foreign policy stance towards Russia. However, while the meek suggestions that the head of state has gone a bit far in barring the US ambassador from Prague Castle presumably seek to reintroduce some dignity to proceedings, they also leave Zeman's pro-Russian voice to dominate in the international arena.
Zeman, who from his largely ceremonial post has been pushing ever more vocally for a "pragmatic" foreign policy, waded into yet another unsavoury spat over the Easter weekend. The head of state reacted with fury to what he saw as interference from the US diplomat, and told Parlamentni listy on April 5 that his door is now closed to Ambassador Andrew Schapiro.
The statement followed the diplomat’s comments on the head of state's plan to travel to the World War II commemoration ceremony in Moscow next month. Schapiro suggested it would be “awkward” should Zeman attend the event as the only statesman from an EU country. 
“I cannot image a Czech ambassador in Washington giving advice to the US president on where he should travel,” Zeman told the monthly magazine. “I will not let any ambassador influence my plans for foreign trips … I am afraid that after the statement, Schapiro's door to the Prague Castle is closed.” 
While Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka made clear his opposition to the president's comments, his response, as has been common through the Ukraine crisis, pulled punches. "I would naturally welcome it if the attitude of Mr President to foreign policy in general was a bit more professional," he told Ceska Televize on April 6.
Another Zeman foe, Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, who has taken a tough line towards Russia over Ukraine – also issued a rather guarded statement on Twitter on April 7. The "president´s words are unfortunate and not very diplomatic", he wrote. "We keep saying we want everyone to communicate. We shouldn´t be closing doors."
The ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) is still recovering its composure after a surprisingly weak showing in the election in 2013, and has often seemed hesitant about endorsing US and EU policy on Russia. Much of the Czech political and business elite has also trodden a fine line, leaving foreign policy ambivalent at best, and open to Zeman's hijacking.
A former CSSD premier, Zeman exhibits no such hesitance. He has long been noted for his Russian links, and has raised fury with several controversial statements over recent months, including calling the conflict in Ukraine a "civil war". Zeman has also regularly criticized EU sanctions against Russia.
The Czech president, however, claims his absence would be disrespectful to the Russian soldiers who helped oust the Nazi regime. He insists he will travel to Moscow despite a boycott by President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, alongside several others. The Czech head of state will join peers from China, India, South Africa, Vietnam and North Korea. 
Even Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, also seen as close to Russia, is wary of going directly against the grain Zeman style. While he's due in Moscow this week, a senior official told the Wall Street Journal he won't return to Russia in May. 
“If the meeting took place on May 9, it would … send the wrong message,” the official said. “We are trying to upgrade Greek-Russian relations, but we always respect Greece’s place in the European Union,” the official said.
That leaves the Czech president looking somewhat isolated. However, the Russian press has widely praised Zeman for standing up to what it calls Washington's attempts to turn the whole of the EU into vassal states. 
Indeed, Moscow will be delighted with the impact of Zeman's stance. While the May 9 ceremony is a regular commemoration of the millions of Soviet troops that fell in defeating the Nazi's 70 years ago, this year's event is also seen spreading discord in the EU, especially in the eastern reaches of the bloc. 
In all fairness, Zeman may have a point when noting a Czech diplomat would be unlikely to comment on President Obama's travel plans, but should one do so, it's unlikely the US head of state would loudly ban them from the White House. 
More seriously, the Czech Republic is a member of Nato and the EU, both of which are facing a pressing security challenge from the east. Ousting the country's top US representative is clearly not constructive, and flies in the face of the policy professed by the government, albeit somewhat weakly.
That weakness is the crucial point however. Zeman's mischief is as much to do with his lust to increase his sway, and to engineer domestic politics. as anything. Top of Zeman's list is to drive divisions within the Czech political scene and its surprisingly resilient coalition government between the CSSD and the Ano party of powerful finance minister Andrej Babis.
Reflecting that jockeying, Ano's Chairman Jaroslav Faltynek said Zeman “overreacted” to the US ambassador. However, he also said he agreed that it was not suitable for an ambassador to criticize a head of state, reports CTK. “I presume that the whole affair will be explained rationally,” he summed up, apparently fully uncommitted.
Following its well practiced strategy to pick off individual states, Moscow was far more clear in expressing its stance. "The loyalty to the legacy of Soviet troops who died in their fight against fascism does credit to Zeman," said Konstantin Dolgov, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's human rights commission.
Keen to exploit any weakness it can find in the EU ranks to derail sanctions and other opposition to its exploits in Ukraine, Moscow will welcome Zeman's continued efforts to divert the Czechs from Western policy, and to inspire suspicious glances towards Prague from Washington and Brussels. Just as it has pressed economic buttons in Germany and France, Moscow is busy wielding gas, finance and longstanding political links in Central Europe.
Hungary's PM Orban is well noted for his lean towards Moscow, which has been greased with a discount gas deal and €10bn in financing for the expansion of the country's only nuclear power plant at Paks.
Like the Czech Republic, Slovakia sends out contradictory signals:  while President Andrej Kiska has ruled out traveling to the May ceremony, Moscow has said it expects Prime Minister Robert Fico. 
The concern in the West is that Moscow is gaining in efforts to try to weaken Brussels' leverage. No member state has successfully put up serious resistance to sanctions yet, but the end of the current regime is approaching this year and will need unanimity to be renewed.

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