Incoming Czech President Petr Pavel marks clean break from Zeman's 10-year rule

Incoming Czech President Petr Pavel marks clean break from Zeman's 10-year rule
Pavel holding his medical report showing he is fit for office, something his predecessor Zeman was not able to prove during his last term at the Castle. / Petr Pavel's office (Facebook)
By Albin Sybera, Robert Anderson March 8, 2023

Retired General Petr Pavel, who will be inaugurated as the fourth president of Czechia on March 9, will mark – and has already begun marking – a clear break with his outgoing predecessor, the pro-Russian political veteran Milos Zeman.

Pavel, 61, is the first non-politician to become the country’s president and the first who was not involved in the 1989 Velvet Revolution against Communism – as well as the first who was actually a Communist Party member in 1989.

“Petr Pavel will be very disturbing in many ways,” columnist Alexandr Mitrofanov told bne IntelliNews. “He will be a completely different president than Zeman.”

Pavel’s record election victory has widely been seen as a blow to the powerful populist trend in Central Europe, epitomised in the Czech Republic by Zeman and his ally, opposition leader Andrej Babis, whom Pavel defeated at the presidential election. Pavel has also been highly critical of Hungarian populist strongman Viktor Orban, and has cast doubts on the future of the Visegrad Group of Central European countries because of the way Orban has dominated it.

Some of the biggest changes will be in foreign policy, one of the president’s key competences and one where Pavel should shine after a distinguished military career, including reaching chair of the Nato Military Committee –  where he became the highest ranking officer in the Nato command from a former Warsaw Pact state.

Pavel’s telephone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen shortly after his sweeping electoral victory in January and his whole-hearted support for Ukraine has immediately drawn a line under the tenure of Zeman, who defended Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for most of his 10-year tenure at Prague Castle and tried to boost economic links with China.

“The bravery with which Ukrainians stood up to the enemy aggressor inspires Europe and the whole democratic community,” Pavel posted on his Facebook profile after the one-year anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. He added that Ukrainians “deserve respect as well as real and practical support through all means”.

Pavel has called for Ukraine to be allowed to enter Nato and the European Union as soon as possible but he has also, as a former soldier, been realistic about the endgame of the war.

During a panel debate at the Munich Security Conference last month, Pavel expressed doubt over whether Ukraine would win the war this year and on whether Russia’s total collapse was in the West’s interest. These comments led fellow panellist, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, to respond that European politicians “should trust Ukraine,” and not force her into concessions.  

Overall, Pavel is expected to re-emphasise the role of values in Czech foreign policy – as set out by the first post-communist president Vaclav Havel – after Zeman’s focus on economic diplomacy to boost trade for the export-oriented country.

Critics accused Zeman of using his state visits to serve the business interests of controversial domestic companies such as financial group PPF. “Milos Zeman’s travels had a meaning for PPF’s lobbying at most and otherwise amounted to nothing,” Kvido Stepanek, owner of electronics supplier Isolit-Bravo, told Seznam Zpravy.

In domestic politics, Pavel is expected to be much less actively partisan than his predecessor. Although Czechia is a parliamentary democracy and the constitution gives the president limited powers apart from in foreign policy and in appointing judges and central bankers, Zeman pushed these to the limit.

Zeman appointed a technical cabinet in 2013 without parliamentary backing and allowed Babis to rule after the 2017 general election without winning a vote of confidence. He also used the formality of signing ministerial appointments to attempt to meddle with the choice of ministers.

Even though Pavel was supported by the current centre-right government in the election, he is an independent and has taken more progressive positions on helping poor Czechs cope with the cost of living crisis and uprating pensions with inflation. He has also backed adopting the euro and supported the EU’s Green Deal, and expressed socially liberal stances on gender issues such as gay marriage and ratifying the Istanbul Convention on violence against women.

He should also restore some dignity to the presidency. Zeman used the presidential power of granting pardons to cancel convictions of his staff or business allies convicted of corruption. Pavel has already demanded an audit of Prague Castle before he takes over, a drive that seems to have already forced Zeman’s team to start looking around for scapegoats.

“He will be a president of duty,” says Mitrofanov, pointing out that Pavel has often said that he sees his role as providing a service for the country, just as he did as a soldier.