VISEGRAD BLOG: Zeman tries to show he is still in charge of Czech foreign policy

VISEGRAD BLOG: Zeman tries to show he is still in charge of Czech foreign policy
Zeman, a friend of Beijing and Moscow and opponent of Russian sanctions, has expanded the presidency’s role in foreign policy during his nine years in office.
By Robert Anderson in Prague November 30, 2021

In global politics countries often have an exaggerated sense of their own importance; the Czech Republic, by contrast, has the opposite problem: It is a mid-sized country in the 27-member European Union – ranking ninth by population and 14th by gross domestic product (GDP) – but it sees itself as a small landlocked country in Central Europe.

During his 13 years as president, the world-famous liberal dissident Vaclav Havel fought against what he called his country’s “provincialism”, which he saw as stemming from its long centuries under the domination of first the Austrian Habsburgs and then the Soviet Union.

His moral authority raised the Czech Republic’s profile enormously but since his term ended in 2003, and particularly since his death in 2011, the country has shrunk in international importance.

The slide into irrelevance has been accentuated by partisan disagreements over the direction of foreign policy and confusion over who is really in charge: the prime minister, the foreign minister, or the current long-serving president, Milos Zeman.

The incoming Czech government is now promising a decisive shift in the country’s foreign policy, and a return to Havel’s focus on human rights. This will include a tougher attitude towards Russia and China, as well as a more engaged approach regarding the European Union.

However, Zeman, a friend of Beijing and Moscow and opponent of Russian sanctions, has expanded the presidency’s role in foreign policy during his nine years in office and will try his utmost to obstruct this shift.

Moreover, differences on Europe between the five parties in the coalition could cause wider rifts, leading to continuing confusion among allies, demoralisation at the foreign ministry and the country continuing to punch below its weight.

How these battles play out over the next 12 months will not only affect domestic politics but will also have wider ramifications because of Czechia’s role within the Central European Visegrad Group (V4) – which Hungarian premier Victor Orban has turned into a megaphone for his own foreign policy of confrontation with Brussels – and because Prague will hold the rotating European Council presidency in the second half of 2022. The presidency will offer Prague a rare opportunity to take the limelight and show off its new direction. Or it could call flat on its face, as it did when the government collapsed during its first presidency in 2009.

Gutted of influence

Over the past eight years the Czech foreign ministry has been led by the Social Democrats (CSSD), Zeman’s former party, which allowed the populist president to pursue his own policy of building closer ties with Russia, China and Israel.

Following the 2017 general election when Zeman’s ally, billionaire populist Andrej Babis, supplanted the CSSD as the dominant force in the coalition, the president further increased his influence over foreign policy.

Zeman vetoed one CSSD candidate for foreign minister and helped undermine another, Tomas Petricek, who was sacked this April after mounting an unsuccessful bid for the party leadership.

These shifts demoralised the foreign ministry: After Petricek was forced out, Lubomir Zaoralek, the CSSD foreign minister in the previous government, refused a public offer to return, saying the ministry had been “gutted” of influence under his successor. 

Both the CSSD and Zeman had wanted to move away from what they regarded as the country’s unrealistic and inevitably selective approach to human rights, which they argued ended up just following US foreign policy priorities, with little concrete benefit for Prague. Instead, they promoted a more pragmatic policy focussed on the country’s economic interests, particularly in terms of building closer relations with China.

Yet this policy led to a downgrading of US links with Prague – despite his proclaimed admiration for former US President Donald Trump, Zeman was never actually granted his desperately sought after audience at the White House – because of what was perceived as Prague’s toadying to the Kremlin and Beijing.

The economic benefits of building bridges with both dictatorships have also proved meagre. “A narrow clique of people around Zeman benefited from economic ties with China,” Pavel Havlicek of the AMO think-tank in Prague told a seminar last week on Czech foreign policy.

Moreover, relationships with China and Russia have collapsed in spectacular fashion over the past couple of years.

First, 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. According to a recent AMO survey, 90% of Czech foreign policy experts regard Beijing’s activities as a threat, the highest percentage in the region. Several opposition figures, including the incoming foreign minister Jan Lipavsky, are now keen to improve relations with Taiwan, which is still a bigger foreign investor in Czechia than China.

Even more explosively, the revelation this April of alleged Russian involvement in the sabotage of an ammunition depot in 2014 led to a flurry of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and the barring of Russia’s Rosatom from the planned tender to expand the Dukovany nuclear power station (NPP). The Kremlin has now named Czechia as one of its two most hostile states (along with the US).

Turning the wheel

The new centre-right government will therefore be turning the wheel when the ship of state is already starting to move in the direction they want to go.

The international winds are also favourable, with growing concern, not just in the US but also across Europe, over Russian aggression in Ukraine, as well as Chinese misbehaviour in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.

The new German government, under incoming Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, will also try to implement a more value-oriented foreign policy, giving Prague the opportunity to build stronger bilateral relations with its most important diplomatic partner.

“The human rights policy which the CSSD discontinued had made us a relevant player vis-à-vis the Americans,” says Zdenek Beranek, a former deputy ambassador to the US and current head of the Europeum think-tank.

“Going back to the core values is a good thing but it will now be implemented in a very different context, as human rights are not seen as universal any more,” Beranek tells bne IntelliNews. “We all have to be more realistic – we have to work with partners that don’t meet the [human rights] standards. [But] an even more important thing is competing with actors that are trying to undermine the standards.”

In the face of Russian and Chinese claims of relativism in human rights and democratic standards, the incoming coalition is united in its determination to stand with the US and take a tough line on Russian and Chinese human rights abuses and threats to world order.

Both wings of the coalition “agree on the major issues”, says Beranek, but sometimes for different reasons. For example, the right-wing ODS sees China as more of a geopolitical issue, while the left-liberal Pirates regard it as a human rights question, but both can agree on a tougher approach.

To show it means business, the government also plans eventually to ramp up defence spending to 2% of GDP, from 1.4% this year. 

Lipavsky put forward a Czech version of the Magnitsky Act to sanction Russian human rights abusers when he was an MP and he wants the government to make another attempt to push this through.

The incoming foreign minister is in no hurry to rebuild relations with Russia, telling daily Denik N in a recent interview that it is up to Moscow to take the first step. “We can start communicating with Russia when there is a partner who wants to communicate with us. Nothing like that comes from Russia. There is no one to talk to on the Russian side,” he said.

He also said the country had to set “realistic expectations of what can be achieved with China” and should look for partners in Asia with whom it could really achieve something. “I see a strong role for Taiwan in this regard,” he said.

Orban’s sidekick

In terms of EU policy, Czechia’s partners will welcome the new government after Babis’ unpredictable and erratic leadership, and this is a sphere where easy gains can be made. According to an AMO survey, only 35% of Czech foreign policy experts thought the country was currently able to define its interests in the EU well, and only 29 thought it was able to assert them successfully, the lowest figures among the V4.

Babis had once pledged to be much more engaged in Europe but once he realised what a chore it was to build coalitions to push Czech priorities, he seemed to lose interest. His ministers attended less than half of their meetings in Brussels with EU counterparts.

Instead, Babis became Orban’s sidekick, taking lazy swipes at Brussels over migration and climate policy to win votes back home. He also occasionally obstructed EU summits, usually at short notice over abstruse issues and alone, until he was bought off with token concessions. This all alienated potential partners such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On climate change for example, rather than seize the opportunity to build a new green sector of the economy, the Babis government regarded its role as delaying the introduction of EU measures as long as possible.

“The government has operated under the principle that its role is to protect Czech citizens and companies from externally imposed climate policies,” Martin Abel of AMO told the seminar.

Babis’ private business interests also damaged relations with the EU because of the conflict of interest from his continuing control of his agro-chemical conglomerate Agrofert, the largest Czech private recipient of EU funds. Often the Agrofert “tail” wagged the Czech “dog”, with Babis attacking Brussels for targeting his firm and his ministers battling to defend Agrofert’s right to draw EU funds  (while they continued to pay the firm anyway out of taxpayers’ money).

The EU had threatened to hold up the payment of recovery funds until this conflict of interest issue was settled. Once Babis steps down from his executive role, this conflict of interest will now disappear.

The government should also be able to quickly solve the row with neighbouring Poland over the operation of the Turow open-cast coal mine.

It also has a once-in-a-decade chance to raise the Czech profile, push national priorities and combat strong domestic Euroscepticism when the country holds the rotating European Council presidency in the second half of 2022

Babis’ government had very unambitious plans for the presidency, and only grudgingly raised its budget for the role to CZK1.45bn (€57mn) up from an initial miserly CZK1.25bn.

“The outgoing Czech government gave the perception that its intention was just to survive the EU presidency,” Vedulka Kazlauskas of AMO told the seminar. “Now the new Czech government has a chance to change this. This is unique opportunity to improve perceptions of the Czech Republic, not only on the global and EU level but at the domestic level. We should not let this opportunity slip through our fingers.”

On climate change – an area which the new German government is expected to prioritise – there could also be a much more positive approach. “The Green Deal is now seen as an opportunity not a problem,” Pavlina Janebova, AMO research director, told the seminar.

Exasperated partners

But longer term, the coalition may struggle to pursue a united line on the EU and in particular on whether to continue co-ordinating policy with the V4, or whether to focus instead on building alliances with a wider range of countries on an issue-by-issue basis.

“Czech foreign policy over the past five years has been dominated by V4 co-operation, which has a controversial image,” Janebova told the AMO seminar.

The V4 has tended to play a purely negative role in EU debates, notably on migration and climate change policy, exasperating Western European partners. Poland and Hungary are also locked in conflict with Brussels over their violations of the rule of law – battles that often spill over into other issues – further damaging the V4 brand. These conflicts will become more bitter now that the new German government is likely to end Merkel’s policy of shielding Poland and Hungary.

Under Orban Hungary has also become the closest ally of Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the EU, putting it in direct opposition to the new Czech government’s stance. “There are serious differences between our four countries, for example on Russia,” Lipavsky told a pre-election foreign policy debate organised by AMO.

Czech foreign policy analysts therefore question what the benefits are of continuing to stand alongside Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

“Very often the V4 has been used by Viktor Orban as a platform for his own foreign policy and we did not dispute that,” says Beranek. “We have to ask what is there for our foreign policy.”

According to the AMO survey, only 35% of Czech foreign policy experts now think the V4 should be the first partners for coalition building when pursuing EU policy interests (vs 63% for Hungarian experts), down from 53% in 2017. They regard Germany (top at 47%) and even Austria (at 40%) as one of the three closest Czech allies, far above Hungary at 30%.

"Co-operation in the Visegrad Group will be part of our ties at all levels," says the coalition programme, but both Lipavsky and Mikulas Bek, the STAN party’s proposed Europe minister, are no fans of it.

“The Visegrad Four (V4) is overrated," Bek told daily Aktualne in a recent interview. "My experience with the Senate is that colleagues from Poland and Hungary have always wanted us to help defend their ideological struggle with Brussels. We have had more useful debates with Austrians or Germans. I will not bet on V4," he added.

However, the right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS) of incoming premier Petr Fiala are in the same European parliamentary group as Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and its right wing loudly applauds Orban’s taunting of Brussels and defends Hungary and Poland against EU criticism of their undermining of the rule of law. It also enjoys stoking culture war issues and continues to block Czech parliamentary adoption of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Even mainstream ODS figures such as Fiala oppose the adoption of the euro, and regularly attack EU policies on migration and climate change.

The divisions over Europe between the coalition partners will be accentuated by the way European policy will be split between Prime Minister Petr Fiala of the right-wing ODS, Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky of the left-liberal Pirates, and Europe Minister Mikulas Bek of the centrist STAN.

“The government needs to find a clear way to comment on the situation in Poland and Hungary regarding democracy and the rule of law,” Janebova told the AMO seminar.

Analysts expect the government to try to avoid both declarations of support and explicit criticism of Orban and Kaczynski.

“They will try to avoid such a dilemma and only if it is unavoidable will they have a debate and see if it is worth standing behind Viktor Orban,” says Beranek. “Nobody wants to pick fights with our V4 partners unless it is unavoidable.”

However, some argue that relations with the V4 could become a lightning rod, especially if the Pirate party feels it needs to distinguish itself from its more right-wing coalition partners. “Lipavsky will be pushed to criticise Poland and Hungary,” Petr Bohacek of AMO said in answer to a question from bne IntelliNews. “He will not be able to stay quiet and this will be a potential conflict with the ODS.”

Playing for Russia

These differences will be played up by President Zeman, once a strong supporter of the EU but someone who these days makes more noise on migration and the “islamist” threat to Europe.

Zeman has reportedly already told Fiala that he will veto Lipavsky as foreign minister. He is due to meet the Pirate candidate next week.

Zeman objects particularly to Lipavsky’s tough stance on Russia and China, as well as his opposition to opening a Czech embassy in Jerusalem – a move that would make the country the only EU state to go against the international legal position that the eastern half of the city is part of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Lipavsky is also on record for criticising the president, telling the AMO pre-election debate that “the people around the president also play for Russia”. This is a reference to Zeman’s chancellor Vratislav Mlynar and particularly his adviser, Martin Nejedly, a former head of Lukoil’s Czech unit, neither of whom have security clearance.

Under the Czech constitution the president has no right to veto ministers but Zeman has created a precedent by refusing to appoint Miroslav Poche as foreign minister in 2018.

The question is whether Fiala will stand firm and appeal to the constitutional court, a move that could hold up the appointment of the whole government at a time when, in his words, it faces “the biggest crisis in the country’s modern history”.

But if Fiala backs down, it would not only confirm Zeman’s dominance in foreign policy, it could provoke the Pirates to leave the coalition, and destroy his own authority before he has even started.

Some analysts believe Zeman will withdraw his objections, particularly given his current poor health. Yet even if he does, the president will merely have fired the first shot across the bows of the new government. Assuming his health recovers, he will continue to be the elephant in the room until he steps down in January 2023, slowing down as far as he can the revival of Havel’s style of foreign policy. 

“I hope for a big shift – the will has been clearly declared,” says Beranek. “We will see a shift, but whether it is a major and durable shift is too early to tell.”