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Is Milos Zeman’s remorse genuine over his pro-Russian stance?

Miloš Zeman, the Czech president, has a habit of going against mainstream thinking. Despite most Czechs holding unfavourable views of Moscow and Beijing, Zeman has arguably done more than any politician to foster friendships with both countries’ regimes.

He greeted the visiting Chinese president Xi Jinping to a rare 21-gun salute in 2016 and vowed to make the Czech Republic China’s “gateway” to Europe. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Zeman advised against blaming Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. He called it “a civil war between two groups of Ukrainian citizens”, and then attended Russian Victory Day celebrations in Moscow the following year.

Most controversially, he appeared to defend Russia against his own country’s intelligence agencies. Last year, the Czech government said there was “unequivocal evidence” that Russian military agents were behind the explosion of a huge ammunition depot in the eastern Czech Republic town of Vrbětice in 2014 that left two people dead. Zeman sparked outrage — including from cabinet ministers — when he spoke of the “hysteria” and “speculation” about Russia’s involvement.

But Zeman made a resounding volte-face after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. On the day of the invasion, he called for Russia to be banned from SWIFT, the international payments scheme, and dubbed the assault “a crime against peace”.

He’s also described Putin as a “madman”. As he put it: “Lunatics need to be isolated, and we must protect against them not only by words but by concrete measures.”

And he has been contrite. Hours after Russia attacked he admitted he had been wrong to previously downplay the possibility of an invasion. 

“A few days ago, I said that the Russians were not crazy and that they would not attack Ukraine. I admit I was wrong,” he told local media. More recently he said he felt “co-responsibility” for his past misreading of Putin’s intentions.

“He feels he made a big mistake in supporting Putin in the past; his credibility has been shaken. So he has become one of the most fervent critics of Moscow,” explains Jiří Pehe, director of New York University in Prague.

‘Only an idiot doesn’t change his views’

Not everyone is buying his sincerity, though. Some pundits have cast it off as mere opportunism: the 77-year-old who leaves office next year doesn’t want to be unpopular. Even after he admitted his mistakes, there were calls for him to resign in early March. An open letter was proclaimed to that effect, signed by a former prime minister, Petr Pithart, and signatories of Charter 77, a document that kickstarted anti-communist activity in 1977.

But Zeman has “always been a pragmatist who has radically changed his view on various topics in the past,” says Lubomír Kopeček, a political science professor at Masaryk University.

He was a self-described Eurofederalist when first elected president in 2013, for instance, but quickly changed to a Eurosceptic by 2015, even talking about the need for a referendum on leaving the EU. He has often repeated a mantra: “only an idiot doesn’t change his views”. In 2005, after a brief spell as prime minister, he published a book titled “How I Made Mistakes in Politics”.

It’s difficult to judge what Zeman’s personal and political motivations are, or to separate genuineness from self-interested calculation, says Sean Hanley, an associate professor in Central and Eastern European politics at University College London.

He points to three possible reasons for the president’s U-turn. First, Zeman probably does feel some sympathy for the people of Ukraine. Aged 26, he was expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia over his opposition to the Warsaw Pact’s invasion to put down the reforming Prague Spring, an event that bears obvious parallels to Ukraine today.

A second reason, Hanley says, is that Zeman is nearing the end of his presidential term. He will step down after next January’s elections, a final exit after more than three decades of frontline politics. As such, he could be thinking of his legacy and “wishes to draw a veil over his pro-Russian policies with a sharp and, as far as it goes, credible mea culpa”.

Perhaps the best explanation is that Zeman sensed the sea change in Czech politics. The presidency is supposed to be ceremonial, but Zeman has played an oversized role in the foreign policy arena.

Czech Republic’s new government is more pro-Western

For the most part, things haven’t gone to plan. Partnerships with China have failed to materialise the way Zeman promised. He even threatened to boycott a China-led summit in early 2021 over the lack of inward investment. In 2015, he made one of China’s wealthiest businessmen, Ye Jianming, an advisor. Three years later Ye was jailed for corruption in China.

And today his thoughts on Russia are wildly unpopular with most Czechs. Even before the invasion, a survey in late 2019 by the Pew Research Center found Czechs held one of the most unfavourable views of Russia in Central and Eastern Europe.

Only the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), which failed to win any seats in parliament last year for the first time, expressly supports leaving NATO.

The new coalition government that took office in December rode to power by championing a pro-Western, pro-NATO foreign policy. Three of the five parties that formed the coalition government were adamantly anti-China and anti-Russia. Petr Fiala, the Czech prime minister, has been resolute in his support for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president. In mid-March, he was one of the first world leaders to visit Kyiv.

The following month it was reported that the Czech Republic became the first NATO country to send tanks to Ukrainian forces. Jana Černochová, the defence minister, was in Washington late last month to discuss signing a new defence cooperation agreement.

If Andrej Babiš, the former prime minister, had won last October’s tightly-fought general election then Zeman would have probably opted for a more blurred stance on Russia, reckons the analyst Pehe. Babiš, now the main opposition leader and front-runner to succeed Zeman as president next year, was mostly agnostic on foreign policy issues during his four years as prime minister. Neither is Tomio Okamura, the leader of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), overly pro-Putin.

But both are more hesitant about supporting Ukraine than the government. Kopeček, of Masaryk University, also reckons that public pressure will soon grow on the government to limit its military aid to Ukraine and assistance to Ukrainian refugees as the cost of living spirals in the Czech Republic.

A survey released this week by Focus, a local pollster, found that most Czechs support helping Ukraine but around 60% reckon their own government’s support to the refugees is too generous. Babiš and Okamura, the opposition leaders, are beginning to play on this sentiment quite openly, Kopeček said. Whether Zeman changes his opinion again waits to be seen.

‘Illiberal’ EU leaders amending message

Yet, it’s also the case that Zeman has gone much further in his criticism of Putin than most of Central Europe’s other pro-Russian politicians. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister who was re-elected last month, has tried to maintain strict neutrality.

Others, such as former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, have mostly stayed as quiet as possible. Perhaps the closest analogy to Zeman is Slovenia’s outgoing prime minister, Janez Janša, another populist who previously flirted with a pro-Russian agenda but who came out strongly in support of Ukraine, even visiting Kyiv alongside Fiala in March.

In previous years a trend was forming across Central and Eastern Europe of populist politicians commingling an illiberal domestic agenda with support for authoritarian Russia and China, a tactic that Zeman also played, sources said. As Zeman’s volte-face has shown, that will now likely change.

“Overt pro-Russian and Putin-accommodating sentiments will disappear in many places but the basic illiberal populist package can easily be reconfigured without reference to Russia,” reckons Hanley.

In fact, he added, it might even embolden illiberal politicians in Central Europe to embrace Beijing or America’s hard-right. An anti-Putin narrative could also be weaved into this message. Jarosław Kaczyński, the Polish political kingpin, and Slovenia’s Janša also “show it’s possible to be ‘pro-Western’ on security and Putin, and illiberal otherwise,” said Hanley.

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