Czech Republic elects “Putin’s best friend” president again

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January 30, 2018 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold – 

Vladimir Putin and Milos Zeman

This past Saturday, the Czech Republic held its second round of presidential elections. Before turning to the results of these elections and their implications, let us briefly highlight the place of the Czech Republic on the European map. 

The Czech Republic is an average country in European terms with a population of 10 million, a fairly strong economy, a general absence of the serious problems typical of its neighbors, and might even be called the most prosperous of the Visegrad Group countries. In the northern mining regions, Czechs face high unemployment, and a large portion of the financial and industrial sectors is owned by foreigners (mostly German capital). Czech wages are not comparable to German ones, and according to Czech businessmen with whom I was in contact last autumn, ordinary Czech Volkswagen-Group workers are paid two times less than their German counterparts – still, only recently this gap was much wider. According to the deputy chairman of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, Dr. Josef Skala, the difference was fourfold in early 2016. 

In the recent presidential elections, the current president, Milos Zeman, claimed victory – although we cannot say it was an impressive one, totaling at little more than 51%. Zeman’s opponent, the non-politician and scholar of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Jiri Dragos, won around 48% of the vote. In other words, nothing unexpected happened. Zeman’s victory seemed secure from the very beginning due to the popularity of this politician in Czech society, his political and masculine charisma, and unmatched cunning and cleverness. 

As Czech politicians from opposition circles who know President Zeman personally expressed to me, the president is immeasurably superior to the vast majority of his competitors in terms of intellect and political experience. He is a Czech politician of a “truly European level.” Perhaps only ex-Czech President Vaclav Klaus compares to Zeman. 

It is against this background that the presidential election results look rather modest. But there is an explanation for this. Milos Zeman is enemy #1 (after Vladimir Putin) of mainstream Czech media. According to my Czech colleagues, a paradoxical situation has emerged in which the president is practically not allowed on TV and faces a de facto (unspoken) boycott. He might be disliked for many reasons by this or that lobby, but the main reason one encounters is that he is, put simply, a non-conformist. Or is he?

I would actually call Zeman a conformist. When the European Union was on the rise, Zeman did everything to speedily push the Czech Republic through European integration. Today the situation is different, and the cunning Zeman realizes this. While the pro-European herd in the Czech Republic are striving to demonstrate their loyalty to Brussels and “European values”, Zeman is trying to sail away from the sinking European ship.

Zeman has dared to call the Ukrainian regime what it is – kleptocratic, and has “cynically” suggested that Crimea should be left with Russia. Moreover, the Czech President has not hesitated to criticize the EU in such a skillful and sincere manner that many in Russia consider him a “Eurosceptic.” 

In dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zeman called himself (in Russian) “Vladimir’s best friend.” Does this alienate him from Czech voters? Probably – but only those who don’t vote for him anyway. But this increases his popularity among the more pragmatic Czechs and those sectors of Czech society who consider Russia a friendly country. Taken together, these groups evidently make up around half of the Czech population.

Meanwhile, tellingly enough, Ukrainian media have expressed great regret over Zeman’s victory. This is understandable, since the other, “artificial” candidate, Dragos, did not become the Czech Macron – and this means that Ukraine has lost another advocate in the EU who would have insisted that Russia is an aggressor and conjured up tribute for the Kiev regime. What’s more, according to unofficial figures, around 500,000 Ukrainian migrant workers in the Czech Republic make the issue a sensitive one.

So if Ukraine has not gained anything from the Czech elections, then has Russia? 

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Russia has kept a very smart, experienced, and pragmatic partner who can be negotiated with, while keeping its eyes peeled in case of any “pragmatic” moves in another direction. After all, behind Zeman’s October 2017 claim that he is “Vladimir’s friend” was an urge to sell Russia more Czech products. In the end, a contract worth one billion euros was signed. 

As the overall geopolitical and economic situation continues to evolve, the Czech patriot and pragmatist Zeman is rushing to keep the wind in the sails of the Czech ship. Russia just might be able to help – if Zeman plays his cards right. 

Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation. 

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