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Russian vodka and Czech crown jewels

Despite his vow to uplift Czech political life, new president Milos Zeman made no excuses for his 'tired and emotional' appearance at a highly symbolic state event. His call for closer ties with Russia have raised further concerns in a traditionally anti-Russian society.

Czech president Milos Zeman. Demotix/Tomak Hajek. All rights reserved.Czech president Milos Zeman. Demotix/Tomak Hajek. All rights reserved.

Last Thursday, a ceremony was held at the Prague Castle to open a public display of the Czech crown jewels. Since the Velvet Revolution, the scepter, the crown and the royal orb are displayed every five years, only for a limited number of days. The jewels are locked in a chamber in St. Vitus Cathedral and the door is guarded by seven locks. Each lock is opened with a unique key and thus all seven key-holders must be present to open the chamber.

The highly symbolic act of opening the Crown Jewels Chamber included the prime minister, the president and the Prague archbishop who, among others, are key-holders. However, what was most interesting (or rather disturbing) about the entire ceremony was that president Milos Zeman appeared to be drunk.

The president’s office quickly dismissed such allegations, claiming that the president suffered from a flu, but it is up to the eye of the beholder to judge the situation.

Two facts suggest that Zeman attended the ceremony drunk. First, the president himself makes no secret of his fondness for the occasional glass of alcohol, and this would not be the first time he appeared drunk in public – only that this time he is the newly-elected president of the country. Second, Zeman spent the day at the Russian embassy celebrating the 68th anniversary of the end of World War II. There, the president asked the Russian ambassador to increase Russian investments in the Czech Republic (implicitly favoring the Russian bid in a Czech nuclear tender) and to send more Russian businessmen to Prague. He then recited the text of a children’s song in fluent Russian. As some commentators indicate, Zeman arrived at the Crown Jewels Chamber “strengthened” by vodka from the Russian embassy.

If Zeman really was inebriated during such a symbolic event, his demeanor shows grave disrespect for the presidential institution and his ceremonial duties. Czech presidents such as T.G. Masaryk or Vaclav Havel have held their office in high esteem and most of the nation perceived (and continues to perceive) them as moral figures. Although in the presidential campaign Zeman talked about the need to uplift the political culture of Czech politicians, any of his future preachings about morality in politics will have no authoritative character since he does not seem to follow his own lead.

Eastward?

Leaving the drunkenness aside, what is perhaps more disturbing for some in the Czech Republic is Zeman’s overt inclination toward Russia. The Soviet occupation from August 1968 onward has left deep animosities toward the Kremlin in Czech society, and many do not wish to see Prague strengthen ties with Moscow (despite potential economic opportunities). The picture of Milos Zeman drinking at the Russian embassy and then next day appearing drunk in public also reminded many Czechs of the infamous state visits of drunken Soviet communist leaders. Moreover, due to the recent standoff between the Czech foreign minister and Zeman, the president may attempt to assert his own foreign policy track, oriented more to the “east” than the “west”.

Zeman labels himself a euro-federalist, but at the same time he is strongly pro-Russian (claiming that Moscow should join the EU in the long term) – can these two perspectives go together or are they mutually exclusive?

There is no reason for the EU not to cooperate with the Russian Federation – both in terms of trade and energy. But the question is whether Moscow also wants to cooperate with the EU or whether it rather wishes to subtly exploit the market. As Vladimir Putin aims to establish a counterweight to the EU (the so-called Eurasian Union) and as his country becomes increasingly authoritarian, the number of shared values and interests between the EU and Russia is diminishing. In addition, EU members such as the Baltic states or Poland feel that their national security is threatened by Russia – the Polish government has recently vowed to fund its unique missile shield programme, which it is argued is a defensive provision against a perceived Russian threat.

For the Czech Republic, it is important to find a balance between cooperating with Russia while not succumbing to its influence. President Zeman may be right that Russian investments would be beneficial for the Czech economy. Nevertheless, Russian business often brings mafia-like practices with it and increases the shadow economy. Also, a strong presence of Kremlin-backed state companies may be detrimental to Czech national security.

In the meantime, one can only hope that Zeman really had the flu during Thursday’s ceremony - and that his conduct was not affected by Russian vodka.

About the author

Jan Hornát is a lecturer at Charles University in Prague and Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Prague.


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