Blog | Erik Tabery

Klaus‘s high noon

Analysis of the President’s half Václav Klaus has reached a half of his presidential mandate – let us dwell on this base. Exploit it for an analysis of this undoubtedly most able Czech politician who, from the Castle, has significantly influenced the course of government, most important institutions and our foreign policy. And who has managed to bring into sedate themes of local political debate the feelings of danger, risk and fear of the enemy.

End of the rainy August of 2005. President Václav Klaus with
75% of citizens‘ support is by far the most popular politician, pampered by
journalists. A short time ago, he granted his thirtieth pardon and placed a
veto on the thirteenth bill. He got his own way in changing Czech National Bank
and the Constitutional Court and became a pivotal player during the
governmental crisis. He has moved from an army villa reconstructed for thirty
million to a Castle villa repaired for 52 million crowns. In interviews with
journalists, he complains of Prime Minister Paroubek, criticises the ODS for
inactivity and recalls year 68 and his timid temptation to defect. He travels
to another foreign destination, this time to Island. Being there, he praises
the landscape, challenges his host to join the European Union (which Island has
never wished) and offers a list of his newest enemies: intellectuals, human
right protectors, feminists, conservationists, supporters of multiculturalism,
advocates of civil society, politically indifferent technocrats,
internationalists, Europeanists and people from non-government organisations.
On his arrival home, he gives a good talking on Prime Minister’s fresh apology
to Sudeten anti-Nazis: it is an "insincere and faked issue",
"one-sided little gift" to the Germans. The halfway mark of
presidential mandate is approaching and Czech citizens have the second half to
look forward to: "I do not think that an other Klaus comes", they can
hear their President saying on the radio.


Towards new shores

The current Klaus-politician cannot be analysed without at least a short
reference to the times and actions that have shaped him. All the threads lead
to the end of 1997, to an event which Klaus himself branded as the
"Sarajevo assassination attempt". The heart of the matter was the revelation
that the ODS “treasury” has not been swallowing only legal contributions or
gifts but also bribes for privatisation paid under the cover of false donors.
The news knocked Václav Klaus off his previously unshakable Prime Minister’s
post, struck down his government and split the ODS. Klaus was badly shaken: the
so-far worshipped politician and admired creator of economic reforms all of a
sudden touched the bottom. Who was to blame? "Treacherous" political
colleagues, mass media and activists of the wrathful civil society
"elected by nobody". This is where we must look for the roots of
Klaus’s fundamental metamorphosis where the hitherto pro-Western leader in the
vein for reforms and critical approach set off towards new – let us say
"national" – shores. His experience of the "assassination
attempt" (i.e. an unexpected challenge to withdraw from power) got quite
distinctly off the mark new Klaus’s political style with the following
predominant features: distrust in openness and aversion to complicated, lengthy
and risky democratic procedures. That aversion re-shaped the ODS, which – after
the traitors’ exodus – its chairman Klaus built exclusively on his most
faithful followers, raised to power from day to day based on a unified key –
degree of loyalty to their boss. After the elections of 1998, the same aversion
resulted in the "opposition agreement" with previous strongest
adversary Miloš Zeman despite of the fact that the winner right wing was able
to establish a majority government. Nevertheless, it would have required
compromise and readiness for difficult negotiations.

Starring in his own movie

In the gruelling four-year period of the opposition agreement, the implacable
features of Klaus‘s political line were by no means perceived as extraordinary
but they did not bring luck to their bearer: In 2002, Václav Klaus is beaten at
elections by a mocked weirdo, Vladimír Špidla. Klaus seems to be an embittered
man of the past who has nothing to offer to the ODS, his domicile party and has
to leave. In the lead, he is exchanged by a hitherto second-rate provincial
politician whom Klaus despises. And while his long-standing rival and namesake
Havel is heading for presidential retirement as a world celebrity, the
uncrowned father of Czech economic reforms has only the life-long hallmark of
an unsuccessful Prime Minister and the prospect of a deadly quiet university
teacher’s career. The country is preparing for the EU membership and enjoying
rather a narrow but more or less reliable majority government and economic growth.
It also searches for a new president, but there is really no need for Mr.VK to
get thrilled about that. He has never longed for a “wreath layer‘s” career, and
although the ODS nominates him, it does not mean a thing. It has a minority
both in the Senate and in the House of Deputies and everyone is familiar with
its desperate efforts to occupy the chair of the head of Czech Supreme Audit
Office. Nothing seems so clear as the prospect that, in no time, Václav Klaus
is going to lie down by the side of his “contractually oppositional” mate Miloš
in the political morgue.
Life, however, does not run along lines drawn on a board. The promoted
candidate number one has a problem, newspapers discover his old traffic
accident in which he knocked down a pedestrian. It also emerges that the social
democrats (ČSSD) are far from unified and their chairman avails only of
minority support. Václav Klaus goes into rather an insecure fight with a full
swing and triumphs. The main background of the electoral mathematics can be
explained (once and for all) using a quotation from the communist “Haló”
newspaper: "It is also a result of the thoughtful political tactics of the
Communist Party (KSČM)… the biggest strategic and political success of
KSČM… Efforts to isolate KSČM at the political scene and query its democratic
nature have come to an end."
While anti-Klaus intellectuals are shocked, communists and the ODS rejoice. The
latter also because their founder and former chairman has gained a post, the
job description of which says that he must not interfere with the operation of
political parties.
The following day the new President comes to his office for the first time. He
just drops in to choose his office and dwelling. He is apparently moved and
outgoing, as the then office staff remember. From Havel’s chancellor, he gladly
accepts a list suggesting his first steps including a proposal for the first
foreign visit – to Slovakia. He chooses a room in the corner of the Castle wing
for his office with a beautiful view of Prague where Gustav Husák used to rest.
Unfortunately, after several days Klaus is his old self again unmasking a plot
hatched by Havel’s staff, who have offered him a derelict office for work and a
villa looking "as if it used to house an agricultural cooperative".
He also brings in new people: the office is to be run by his long-standing
advisor, the press department by a close journalist, the post of the political
advisor is given to a mediocre ministerial officer. None of those who were
helping for years the ODS chairman to introduce capitalism, no political
personality, nobody from his home party. When – after four months – Klaus’s
spokesman, a former independent and respected journalist with long experience
of American mass media, is leaving the "post which nobody ever
refuses", rough features of the story about new presidency are apparent.
Václav Klaus taking up presidential tasks is strong, full of energy but lonely,
without opponents, prepared to make all decisions by himself, to criticize,
provoke, gorge on popularity and be the exclusive star in a movie of his own.

Winners and two dogs

The opinion of „Haló“ newspaper on the importance of presidential elections is
soon confirmed: all criticism of communism from the Castle has ceased. After
years of Havel’s blockade, the new President involves communists in political
activities, invites them to Lány for a debate on the European Union. "I
regarded the empty, forced anticommunism as an appallingly easy, empty and
cheap philosophy even before 1989", he tells the radio listeners. And
shortly afterwards he introduces his new political conciliatory approach also
in a national debate which has just started to grope its way through terrain
called "settling up with the past". Václav Klaus contributes a
newspaper article: "I disagree with those who reproach plain people that
they used to collaborate with the totalitarian regime, that they did not
clamour or demonstrate, that they were not involved in opposition groups,"
he writes claiming that exactly those "not revolting" handymen from
gardens and weekend cottages were the heroes, who – sideways and with their
heads hung – actually were running the regime ragged – "through their
resistance, inefficiency, alternative activities". This historic concept
is not aimed only at communists, rewarding them for support during elections,
much more is at stake – support of the society as a whole. Václav Klaus becomes
a populist invincible in his art of stroking “plain Czechs” the right way.
During all his stay at the Castle, the President has never expressed a critical
and nonconformist opinion or judgement, which might damage his growing
preferences. The final metamorphosis of the "pre-Sarajevo" Václav
Klaus has been completed. If you read for example Jana Klusáková’s old interview
with Klaus (Nadoraz – At full stretch), you would not recognise the current
head of the country in the previous strict idealist. "In this respect, I
have an uneasy feeling of our country," says a passage on minorities.
"When speaking to people whom we regard normal and decent citizens we
often hear discriminatory and a priori distrustful words of the Romas. I can
hear people I quite like saying such things. It is everywhere around us, I do
not know what to do about that, (…) and regret that these phenomena are so
deep in our country." How to reconcile it with the President’s recent
allegation that Czechs, during the protectorate, used to imprison their Romany
fellow citizens in the concentration camp at Lety only because "they did
not want to work" and that those who were quick enough to die there before
being transported to Auschwitz do not rank among real victims of persecution
because they died "only of typhus".
"You cannot really expect that Václav Klaus will comment our current
situation saying something sharp but truthful. He will rather offer us to joint
him in relishing our own facade," described Klaus’s position Pavel Kosatík, a historian
and publicist, in his recent reflections. Even though this approach has
numerous intellectual flaws, it does work at the level of Czech everyday
political life: currently, almost three quarters of Czechs trust the campaigner
against reproaches for Lety. And Václav Klaus is doing what he can to avoid
public indignation. When expected to express his opinion on serious issues
(e.g. the Iraq war and Czech participation in it), he waits until the
prevailing opinion is known. When two dogs attack a pedestrian, newspapers get
his reaction demanding an immediate punishment of the owners on their desks
already the following day. The President has his photos taken with well-known
artists and sportsmen for whom he regularly opens various competitions and
races. He assists at beauty contests on TV Nova and TV Prima, recollects
Christmas in a show … In short, he would do anything to scrape up some
preferential votes.

A luminary on The Mountain

As mentioned above, there is no really prominent personality in Klaus’s
surroundings that could offer him reflection and critical views, as for example
the ODS vice-chairmen Stráský and Zieleniec in the past. Critical minds are
quite absent in his vicinity. He has either discarded them or is not mad about
rushing to them. Unfortunately, even journalists do not act as critical
opponents which is of course the result of a most successful gambit within
Klaus’s post-Sarajevo anabasis. We must admit that for this success two parties
are essential – the President and his overly compliant counter-players.
Not even a year after his arrival at the Castle, Klaus asks for a reporter of
the Czech Press Agency (ČTK) to be removed because he dislikes the way he
writes. When going for a foreign visit, he has the reservation of a reporter of
Lidové noviny on his plane cancelled because he was cheeky enough to write
about the President’s quarrel with the American ambassador. And when the
reporter of MF Dnes asks unpleasant questions during the visit to China, the
President speaks of her as of "the lady, who must keep out of his
The same holds true for the President’s interviews. Klaus chooses carefully who
to accept or refuse – and newspapers consent to it. When he dislikes the
questions he does not hesitate to switch off the dictaphone and suggest his
own, more suitable ones. He is the creator of this mass media
"strategy" but on the other hand he is also a hard, tough debater.
Nobody in Czech politics (perhaps except Vladimír Železný) can so meticulously
take advantage of each mistake made by a journalist, of vague questions,
insecurity. He also knows how to dodge a question, bring the interview round to
what he wants, rise his voice, reprimand or grant his favour for reward.
At the same time, mass media are aware that Klaus attracts readers and viewers
and want to show him as often as possible even at the price of excluding
critical or unpleasant questions and of a complete information vacuum linked to
the promotion of the President’s extreme views. This results in interviews used
in the textbooks of independent journalism as deterrents to pandering
superficiality. Do you feel that Paroubek has found a prominent target on the
political scene and has tried to show his muscles – Look, not even Klaus can
scare me? Or: Do you regret that you have appointed Jiří Paroubek who has
immediately selected you as the main target for his attacks? Or: Did you expect
that nominations for the Constitutional Court would be so difficult? Or: Why,
in your view, have small parties misused the issue of European Constitution for
populist purposes?
In short: Klaus has attained is goal – his favourite journalists are full of
empathy for his way of thinking and only chime in a monologue. On the other
hand, Klaus is not afraid of being interviewed by critical foreign mass media
(BBC or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) or entering a university assembly hall,
although crowded and up in arms, because in both cases he knows that the
audience will in no way imperil his path to popularity. In Czech mass media, he
is pampered goods increasing sale.
You may still remember that Václav
Havel also disliked press conferences and was sparing with
interviews for mass media. But there used to be a wide group of people and
media which, admittedly, respected and supported him but never hesitated to
criticise him for faulty statements (Respekt had the privilege of belonging
among them). This group of constructive but uncompromising critics is very
difficult to find around Václav Klaus. Who knows whether it actually exists.
For example, when Hospodářské noviny published a commentary on its pages
criticising Klaus for "plundering the Constitution" during the
Government crisis caused by thwarting Gross, the publisher Miroslav Pavel himself
intervened and wrote in his newspaper: "Our paper should not use
vocabulary calling forth the feeling of one-sidedness and bias. And I disagree
even with the contents of this commentary. The political nature of the
President’s requirement is quite legitimate… Klaus is a politician
experienced enough not to hit impracticable roads." Considering such
demonstration of publishers’ empathy, it is hardly surprising that journalists,
if speaking of plain citizens, say that they hike to Sněžka but Václav Klaus,
in their description of the same walk, "conquers the highest mountain of
the Czech Republic”.

Undetected logic

As for the spirit of criticism, there is another serious difference compared to
Havel’s times. Václav Klaus stands above criticism in the times when he is
becoming a new and ambitious political power in the country – a power
threatening the necessary institutions and democratic mechanisms. The
Constitutional Court is a good example. From its very beginning, Klaus ranged
among its serious critics. He could not face the fact that there is a power in
the Czech Republic above political parties. He also took it hard that Havel had
staffed the Constitutional Court with supporters of natural law. The
Constitutional Court also brought the end to one of Klaus’s main political
projects aimed at transforming the previous constitutional system to a majority
system and cancelling small parties. That was actually the reason for
establishing the opposition agreement.
Now the tide has changed. Klaus either does not look for anyone for the vacated
judges’ positions or his candidates are anything but reputable authorities,
both professionally and morally. Considering his long-standing attitudes, we
can hardly believe that it is not just a boycott and revenge. The way of
bargaining and selecting is not up to the standard of the supreme
constitutional authority and has lead to a repeated promotion of a mediocre but
friendly attorney, nomination of three politicians and of an insignificant
judge with a blot from the past. Reluctance of the President or his people to
reach agreement with the Senate on the selection of judges sharply contrasts
with advice which Klaus used to send Havel at the occasion of some of his
constitutional nominations: "These things should be done following certain
agreements and not against the rest of top political representatives."
Due to the President’s moves, the Constitutional Court still lacks some members
and the former prestige of this key institution has turned to dust.
"Strategy behind the selection of constitutional judges has remained
hidden. Should a balance sheet of the President’s achievements be prepared, the
Constitutional Court would rank first among failures," said the other day
in Respect Jiří Přibáň, an expert at justice. "The President said that he
wanted to have the Constitutional Court “motley” – you can imagine anything
under this expression but a constitutional judge should first of all be able to
formulate general opinions and make decisions with a certain outlook, have a
theoretical background concerning the resolution of constitutional problems of
this country. It was exactly these qualities I missed in most of the
It is true that in the Czech National Bank he was sensible enough to confirm in
office its governor Zdeněk Tůma but new staff for other posts were again
selected considering their affection for Klaus and distaste for common European
currency, of which Klaus is strongly critical. "Costs of a quick
introduction of Euro are extremely high and I believe that it would be wasteful
for the Czech Republic to cover them," he declared last year.

Enemies of the society

The President’s domestic policy has developed rather at the level of emotions.
He does not find communists, neo-Nazis or fascists dangerous any more but warns
against educated people and advocates of united Europe as revealed his address
delivered in Island. The President has also recently called for a crusade
against civil society. "Civil society is controversial to free society!
Democrats are obliged to fight against it with all their might until the end of
time!" he said this summer. Klaus is convinced that nobody
"unelected" and outside party control may stand between the
politician and citizen. This aversion has its roots back in 1997 when the
"betrayed" Klaus started opposing everything hard to understand. The
point is that civil clubs, societies and associations are independent of
political parties. At that time he started enforcing the theory that if someone
wants to speak of something he/she had to establish a party first and further
new steps through it. Groups of activists openly proposing and promoting their
ideas about further development of our society or environmental protection are
quite unacceptable and illegitimate for Klaus’s political personality. That
sharply contradicts his approach to powerful lobbying groups, which are trying
to do the same but have their "logical reasons": their own profit.
Klaus’s regularly updated lists of enemies threatening free society never
include corrupt politicians, power manipulators, ruthless looters and similar.

Leave Slobodan alone

Foreign policy is an area where Klaus’s great abilities and ambitions have
reflected most strongly. Despite the above-mentioned populism and targeting
"inwards, at our dear little country", it is only a seeming paradox.
A noble-minded concept of halting the EU unification, reverse the trend or at
least exempt from it the country where he enjoys influence and power has become
the largest goal of Václav Klaus, formulated with increasing precision. Klaus
takes current Union for a false move which, in his view, limits or even
threatens the liberty of people and the powers of nations for the benefit of a
small group of elitist politicians and bureaucrats greedy for money. Instead of
this faulty "unification", the Czech President suggests an
“Organisation of European Sates”, a kind of economic joint liability, including
whole countries, not directly citizens, and unfolding from Island and Morocco
to Kazakhstan.
As a matter-of-fact, Klaus’s European Organisation is just one of numerous
proposals concerning the future of Europe. A proposal, the potential strengths
– or weaknesses and absurdities – of which could be discussed, while presenting
and rebutting arguments – and a conclusion could then be reached based on a
clear discussion. Unfortunately, this objective approach is impossible because
Klaus’s distaste for European Constitution or any form of unification is not a
problem. The problem is that he refuses discussions on his opinions and
schemes; he only wants to present them. This was for example apparent when
Lubomír Zaorálek challenged him to join public debate on European Constitution.
The President refused – why risk clashes which might reveal weaknesses when he
has all the space exclusively for himself?
If we use a somewhat general and dramatic language to describe this attitude,
the point is not that the head of the CR opposes the EU or European
Constitution but that he formulates it in a way ignoring basic principles of
"European civilisation" – an open-minded debate, listening to the
arguments of the other party, ability to give precedence to public benefit over
egoistic aims and willingness to compromise. In promoting his objective, Klaus
has disregarded all these qualities and staked on another card: search of
enemies, traitors, clashes and negative approach. Also here, we wonder what the
turning point was because in 1993 he campaigned: "Really meaningful
European cooperation can only be based on openness and reciprocity." Key
moments of this U-turn included 2000 when the European Union criticised the
involvement of Jörg Haider’s nationalistic party in Austrian government. The EU
countries even imposed a diplomatic embargo on our southern neighbour, at that
time already a regular member of the Brussels Club. "Europe has witnessed
cases compromising fundamentally national states and their sovereignty,"
Václav Klaus stated and continued: "This year’s treatment of Austria by
the European Union and last year’s treatment of Yugoslavia by the international
community are of the same nature." Those are strong words. You can deduct
that “national sovereignty” should not be interfered by neighbours and the
international community even if it provides cover for the worst bestiality and
genocide as in Yugoslavia under Milosevic.

Apologise, Europe!

Although quite a few people can find Klaus’s "European goal"
megalomaniac and unattainable for a president of a small and insignificant
country, its promoter should not be underestimated. First, Klaus and
politicians of a similar "anti-European" bias can at any time, quite
unexpectedly, be moved forward by a crisis leading to changes in general preferences.
And second, the patience and rather distinctive skills the president uses to
follow his interests should not be disregarded. To illustrate his meticulous
efforts, let us recall the infamous story of this summer when two European
Members of Parliament accused Klaus of "fabricated and absurd
argumentation" when discussing European Constitution. Although Klaus at
first reacted to their sharp criticism as anyone normal – calmly asserting his
right to speak his mind – the following day he used that workaday affair as a
perfect populist. He declared that the whole Czech Republic had thus been
attacked, challenged the Chairman of the European Parliament to apologise and
requested all Czech representatives to back him. He succeeded with some of
them, e.g. Miroslav Kalousek, the head of Christian Democrats, and he almost
accused of high treason those who refused, e.g. Lubomír Zaorálek, chairman of
the House of Deputies. Domestic analyses of this spectacle in mass media seldom
went beyond disparagement with authors advising the "conceited Klaus"
that "this is not the best way of discussing in Europe". It is
probable that the Czech President wanted to give foreign countries a strong
signal on peculiar anti-Europanism and strange discussion habits in a small unknown
trans-German country where people dote on this peevish nationalist with his
white moustache. "I thought hard why he was doing it", commented
Klaus’s abhorrence of the European Constitution Jan Ruml, his former follower,
fellow party member and a later “traitor”, in an interview for Respekt. "I
do not think he is afraid of impairing his position of a supreme head of state.
He rather stakes on the exclusivity of an extreme opinion which meets with a
lively response among citizens. He is on the edge of populism. He used to
create the public opinion and now consumes it. He has thus systematically been
strengthening his position for next presidential elections."
Foreign observers share a sharper view. "German-Czech relations have
witnessed such a deep drop that none would deem possible five years ago,"
wrote Christian Schmidt-Häuer, a commentator of Die Zeit weekly before the
elections of 2002. He branded Václav Klaus the main culprit, calling him and
Jörg Haider "dangerous nationalists and populists". The Economist, a
weekly indicated by Klaus – in times of old – as the best journal in the world,
wrote about him after the inauguration: "A politician who calls himself a
Thatcherist but whom the label of a nationalistic populist would suit the best."
Coming back to the present, the core of Klaus’s “European policy” was well
expressed by the German daily Handelsblatt which wrote about his criticism of
the Government’s apology to Sudeten antifascists that there would be no
unification of Europe without discussing the past. Exactly that is what Václav
Klaus knows – and wants. His menacing with Europe, foreigners, the past and
actually any difference which might, in his view, threaten the nation entail
serious dangers. The past of this continent shows that strong, hostile and
egoistic words were sooner or later followed by hostile and egoistic deeds.
Considering their consequences, nobody has ever profited from them, not even
those who triggered them.


Tabery, Marek Švehla