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The first president to be elected directly by citizens is the former Social Democratic Prime Minister. Mixed reactions from abroad

In Europe, Prague turns over a new leaf. And it does so by choosing as President a man who really understands politics. An old fox gives way to another: the former Social-democratic Prime Minister, Miloš Zeman, is now the new president of the Czech Republic, and during the first direct elections to appoint the Head of State, the Czechs could not have chosen a more diverse figure and politician compared to Václav Klaus – the Hradčany tenant, known primarily for his Euro sceptic positions. To succeed him, in fact, is one of the most ardent Europhiles on Czech territory, Zeman himself – who as premier, had started negotiations to join the EU and brought the country into NATO. A personality, who has won at home, especially for his radical positions and nationalism, for his attacks on the current government and for winking to the Russians.

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The leader of the Spoz (the Party of the rights of citizens), returned to the fore after eight years of exile from public life, will be sworn in on March 8. But, all that glitters is not gold, as the saying goes. Zeman, who likes to define himself as a Euro-federalist, does in fact support a stronger Europe and is willing to hoist the European flag on top of the Prague Castle (gesture, albeit symbolic, vehemently opposed by Klaus) and supports Prague’s entry into the single currency, but has very critical positions on other important internal EU matters: for example, he believes that the exclusion of Russia from Europe is quite unfair and is contrary to Turkey’s entry into the EU. He admits being in favour of a more effective common foreign policy, but does not actually tolerate so much the idea of a European super-state, and has already asked Brussels to loosen the purse strings.

Light and shade, therefore, on the personality of the moment, whose election was welcomed at home rather waveringly, unlike Brussels, which hopes to have an “easier” life in its relations with the Castle. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, “warmly” congratulated Zeman, praising him for his contribution towards the Country’s accession to the European Union. “The Czech citizens who have elected you, have seen in you a person, who in the previous role as prime minister, contributed greatly to the transformation of the Country and consequently to its joining the European Union”, Barroso commented. Even positive was the reaction of its sister-Country Slovakia: Boris Gandel, the Slovak Foreign Minister, welcomed Zeman, pointing out that the president himself and Mikuláš Dzurinda, helped to end the long dispute of the two countries, in 2000, on the division of national wealth after the separation.

In the Czech Republic, reactions were a little more “tepid”. According to many newspapers, to win was the representative of the so-called “disgruntled” party, and in a few cases they even talked about a return to the past. Being criticized, in particular, was the closeness to Russia that could work out in favour of Moscow – also in view of the expected Temelin decision, with support being given to the Russian partners for the expansion of the nuclear power station. An issue that could create friction with neighbouring Germany and Austria: Zeman, in fact, has repeatedly attacked environmentalists and in a wider sense, including the plans for abandoning nuclear energy production.

To testify of the good relations with the Kremlin, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who congratulated Zeman by stating: “In Russia we consider Zeman as an advocate of friendship between the Russians and Czechs, who wishes to improve relations even further”. The Russian press also supported the election: Kommersant pointed out that in Zeman’s entourage there are people whose interests are closely related to that of the Russian companies”. In connection with this, Miroslav Šlouf in particular has been referred to as being “an ex communist and political lobbyist, quite close to the Russian oil company Lukoil”, (Hospodářské noviny reported). A point in common with Klaus – and a few observers allege that the costly campaign of the former prime minister was financed secretly by the Russian oil company.

Another issue that was considered, above all during the second part of the campaign for the presidential elections, and which could have repercussions in the international arena, including Europe, is the relationship with Germany and Zeman’s position on an eighty year old issue regarding the Beneš decrees, enacted in order to expell the German and Hungarian minorities in 1945 and confiscate their property. During the ballot challenge, Karel Schwarzenberg stated that today, for the expulsion of the Germans, President Beneš would end before the Hague Court. Of a different opinion is Zeman, who accused Schwarzenberg of being a foreigner and “acting like a Sudeten German”. However, many political analysts fear that such statements may lead the country towards a nationalistic drift, as in Hungary or Poland with the Orbán Kaczyński twins. And the response from neighbouring Germany was not tardy. If from an official point of view – in a note by the Foreign Ministry – the Berlin government stated they hoped “to continue the existing excellent cooperation between the two countries”, a part of the German press, however, emphasized the political scope and propaganda of the Decrees. The most critical, perhaps, was the newspaper Die Welt, according to which, Germany should not accept that “hatred towards Germans should become a normal thing in European politics”, and demanded that Zeman “responsible for anti German rhetoric” should not to be invited to Germany. And Zeman is not foreign to controversial witty remarks towards Germany: in the record-book, there is still the comment made in 2002, that led Gerhard Schroeder to cancel his visit to Prague. On that occasion, the president stated that the Sudetens had been the fifth column of the Nazis in Czechoslovakia.

We already know that diplomacy is not his strong point, just as when Zeman, then prime minister, compared Arafat to Hitler, that led, even on that occasion, to harsh statements. A prelude to an improper political season that, in any case, will not be in the least restrained.

by Daniela Mogavero