Czech Republic: Four things you didn’t know about Miloš Zeman

Photo: Miloslav Hamřík via Wikimedia Commons

 Ever since Miloš Zeman won the Czech presidential elections on 26 January, analysts have been scrambling to say just what his political views actually are – especially his views on foreign policy and the EU.

 Never quite as prolific a speechifier or writer as Václav Klaus, on stepping down as Prime Minister in 2002, Zeman was semi-retired for the best part of a decade, resurfacing for occasional public appearances.

 His campaign programme and campaign performances offered little in the way of clear and concrete views. Indeed, they tended to highlight that he was inconsistent and liked to make policy on the hoof – saying, for example, he wanted to abolish the Czech Senate one moment, then that he wanted transform it into a Bundesrat-style chamber of the regions.

 Most analysts, including me, therefore settled for the default conclusion that Zeman was basically a kind of a social democrat with a pragmatic pro-European outlook, who was cautious but not hostile towards the EU. Big change – or no change – depending on your point of view.

 But delve a little more deeply and we can find plenty of Zeman views on record: two books of memoirs and various collections of interviews, including most recently Miloš Zeman – Zpověď informovaného optimisty which came out last year as a lead-in to the Zeman presidential campaign.

 In conversation with right-wing journalist Petr Žantovský, who clumsily (and unsuccessfully) tries to lure Zeman into agreeing with various Václav Klaus-like opinions, Zeman sets out his actual views.

 And very interesting views they are too – revealing a number of things that you probably didn’t know about the President elect.

  1.      He is a eurosceptic and a euroenthusiast

 zemanZeman’s views on the EU have exercised many over the past couple of weeks. Most have confined themselves to noting his quoted media comments that he is a eurofederalist, but opposes a European superstate and characterised him as cautious and pragmatic but pro-European.  This is true as far as it goes, but there are some specifics.

 Firstly, unusually among Czech politicians, who tend to given to broad ideological statements about the EU, Zeman has sharp and specific sense of where the Czech Republic’s interests lie on concrete policy issues, criticising CAP, for example, as irrelevant and disadvantageous for the Czech Republic’s generally large-scale agriculture and noting that Lisbon Treaty had harmed Czech interests downgraded the voting power of small states.

 Secondly, Zeman’s euroenthusiam is real, but is strongly focused on defence and security issues, where he favours further integration including the proverbial (but politically unlikely) ‘European Army’.  This reflects his sense of the weaknesses of small Central European states and concerns over the geopolitical decline of Europe and West and fears of international (Islamic) terrorism. This is a clear contrast with Václav Klaus who wanted no real defence and security integration and, logically, viewed the threat of al-Qaida to the West as over-hyped.

 Thirdly Zeman favours the single currency and the introduction of the euro in the CR and sees it as obvious that shed-loads of EU fiscal governance will be needed to make it work. The long-term advantages of currency stability and an integrated single market still outweigh all the disadvantages as far as he is concerned.

 But as he made clear in remarks in the last few days, he does not want the country to join the fiscal pact and fork out any money before it enters the Eurozone – a position coinciding with that ODS and at odds with that of Karel Schwarzenberg’s TOP09 and the Social Democrats, although in the case of ODS there are probably ideological objections to the euro which Zeman does not share.

 Zeman would like to see Greece out of the Eurozone, partly on the grounds of realism, partly because he thinks the Czech Republic should not bail out levels of Greek public spending it cannot afford itself.

 Fourthly, while obviously not on a Klaus-like crusade to roll back integration, Zeman seems frustrated and sceptical about the social and economic acquis, which he sees as unnecessarily complex and homogenising. Much of it – “…idiocies like energy saving light bulbs…”  – he says could be scrapped and handled at national level, leaving Europe to deal in broad term with a few big questions.

 He has little time for the Lisbon Treaty regarding it as incomprehensible, overcomplicated and over-prescriptive. A short ten page document would be ample, but regrets the dropping of the trappings of statehood included in the original Constitutional Treaty such as a European anthem

 2. He is a fiscal conservative

Euro sign frankfurt hesse germany

Photo: ArcCan via WikiMedia Commons

 In his early political career in 1990s – before joining the Czech Social Democrats- Zeman was best known as a liberal who liked to warn of the grim social cost of coming economic reforms. Some of this economic liberalism has clearly stayed with him in the form of a strong commitment to fiscal discipline.

 While a man of the left who favours relatively high public spending, he backs balanced budgets and sound money, lambasts the profligacy of governments from Hungary to Greece to the US and criticizes the last Social Democrat Prime Minister of the Czech Republic Jiří Paroubek as a populist who made extravagant promises on welfare spending.

 Keynesian remedies –  including some of those currently advocated by the Czech Social Democrats – are roundly rejected by Zeman who, as he himself concedes, has essentially monetarist views on the link between inflation and money supply. Indeed, it is inflation he picks out as the underlying danger both for the Czech Republic and Europe. He is especially concerned that anti-crisis measures intended to stimulate or sustain demand may end up stoking inflation.

 Happy to endorse the centre-right government’s demands for  a reduction in EU spending at the recent summit, as president, Zeman seems unlikely to impede the adoption of a constitutional amendment to restrict deficit (the so-called ‘Financial Constitution’) or to worry about the fiscal consequences of eventual Czech membership of the Fiscal Pact.

 3. He is a cultural conservative

Border sign of the Czech Republic in Nové Údolí

Photo: High Contrast via Wikimedia Commons

 Given the tenor of the presidential election campaign – in which Zeman forcefully defended the Beneš Decrees and accused the Austro-Czech Schwarzenberg of talking like Sudeten German – this may come as less of a surprise. But Zeman has a range of culturally conservative views, which go beyond the usual Czech nationalism we are familiar with and (perhaps ironically) put him in some respects close to German Christian Democracy – and, as critics have alleged, far from mainstream European Social Democracy.

 Firstly there are his views on Islam and the Muslim world. His much publicised denunciation of Islam as ‘an anti-civilization stretching from North Africa to Indonesia. … inhabited by two billion people and financed partly from the sale of oil, partly from the sale of drugs’ was not, his conversation with Žantovský suggests, an isolated outburst. ‘Islamic terrorism’, Zeman says in Bush-like fashion is “the greatest threat of the 21st century and strong, armed forces are the only protection against this threat”.

 Like Václav Havel (and unlike Klaus) Zeman stresses the importance of European identity. In Zeman’s case, however, this is less to do with a concern for unifying civic values than wanting to emphasise that Europe is a distinct ‘civilisation’. Accordingly, Zeman is willing (rather fantastically) to contemplate Russian membership of the EU within 20 years as he sees Russia as culturally/civilizationally deeply European. But Kazakhstan and Turkey do not belong in the Union “because we are talking about a community integrated culturally not just economically”.

 Following on from this, he also thinks EU funding to the Palestinian Authority should be cut off – unlike many on the Czech left he has strongly pro-Israel views – and he appears sceptical about the value of development aid generally, partly as he thinks it props up dictatorships, partly, it seems for, ‘civilizational’ reasons. Zeman is happy to concede he has a Huntingtonian view of the world, but nevertheless goes further than Samuel Huntington on at least one point: in his view “an African civilization (africký civilizační okruh), insofar as we are talking about sub-Saharan Africa, does not yet exist at all.”

 In a European context, almost exactly like Václav Klaus, Zeman is wary of migration seeing the West European experience of multiculturalism as a negative one that that the Czech Republic would do well to avoid, telling his interviewer that:

 “If someone wants to come to this country for economic reasons as a Gastarbeiter then if, and only, if, there’s a domestic labour shortage, let them come. Let them assimilate. And if they can’t, then let them go. A classic example are the Muslim ghettos in Western Europe, where the capacity to assimilate is practically nil.”

 Sexual and gender politics do not crop up much in the conservation, although Zeman’s  views and attitudes here are well known: he is hostile to feminism; he also dismissed EU proposals for gender quotas in the boardroom out of hand during the campaign (as did Karel Schwarzenberg) and had no inhibitions about describing his one time opponent in the Social Democratic Party, the former Education Minister, Petra Buzková in his memoirs as a ‘bitch’ (coura).

 Zeman does, however, have some mildly liberal views on some social issues batting aside an invitation from his interviewer to criticise the Czech LGBT community’s Prague Pride parade – and local polticians’ support for the event – with an obvious lack of concern or interest. 

 Although well educated and widely read, Zeman is also happy to own up to  conservative cultural tastes – he likes Abba and mainstream classical music.

 4. He favours production over consumption

Zeman’s remarks are shot through with an almost obsessive concern that public spending – which he sees an important and necessary for economic development – should be channelled into infrastructure spending: “My basic recipe” he tells Žantovský “is to lower spending on consumption and raise expenditure on investment”. This seems to be seen mainly in terms of physical infrastructure: roads, railways, public buildings etc, rather than, say education, research and development or the knowledge economy. He is also excoriating about environmentalists (‘Green fanatics’) whose concerns over development projects and industrial development he has no time for.

 These are very much the views of a sizeable, traditionalist wing of the Czech Social Democratic Party (especially at local level) whose points of reference for economic development are in rooted 1960s and 70s and whose professional careers are often linked with bigger (former) state enterprises depend on state contracts, which are still big players in the Czech economy. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that some of the bigger donations to Zeman’s campaign came from construction firms.

 Coupled with this, however, the incoming President clearly has a strong cultural aversion, to consumption and consumerism and a preference for austere, basic lifestyle of less well off provincial Czechia, where he chose to live during his ten years of political retirement. Sounding almost like Václav Havel, he speaks of “… a monumental value system… [of] hedonism, consumerism…” and laments the fact that people are increasingly spending their time buying things in hypermarkets and shopping malls as their main leisure activity.

 As this 2007 documentary (at times slightly embarrassingly) shows, with his small house, cheap shorts,  t-shirt and trips to the local supermarket – Zeman himself seems absolutely the real deal as far as a life of small town ordinariness and lack of interest in material possessions are concerned. A hairshirt attitude that, ironically, seems to have more in common with the despised Greens  than the big money liefstyle of those running powerful economic groups he favours politically.



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