The Curious Case of Miloš Zeman

As many Czechs and Slovaks remembered the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution yesterday, a different sort of public outcry transpired here in the capital, this time directed not at the government as a whole, but particularly on one single man, Czech President Miloš Zeman.

Speaking in the heart of Prague along with the presidents of Slovakia, Germany, Poland, and Hungary, Zeman received one of the most unpleasant welcomes any politician could have:

The very mention of Zeman’s name brought the crowd of thousands to hiss, boo and throw eggs at the head of state. To Zeman’s right at 0:29, German President Joachim Gauck and Polish President Bronisław Komorowski looked at each other as the crowd turned hostile and began an egg barrage of their Czech counterpart, with looks that could have said, God, I’m glad I’m not this guy.

Gauck and Komorowski are both quite popular in their homelands. They’re relatively uncontroversial, act mostly as figureheads, are widely respected, and most importantly, aren’t magnets to controversy. Both president’s speeches, particularly Komorowski’s, were warmly received by the Prague crowd. So why wasn’t Zeman’s?

JZL4ab427_59_M8_10_2If you’re an expatriate in the Czech Republic and aren’t living under a rock, you’re bound to hear the cacophony of public opinion about the Czech head of state at some point during your stay. Virtually every Czech has some opinion of him, and almost no one is neutral. If you live outside of the country, you may have stumbled upon Zeman’s name on YouTube or even in a newspaper, usually for not the most flattering of things.

For starters unfamiliar with the president, Zeman’s political career goes back to the end of the communist regime. A member of the Communist Party, Zeman was kicked out of the party in the early 1970s for disagreeing with the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, exiling Zeman out of the apparatus and into a sports organization. In the 1980s, Zeman’s continued struggle with the party (especially over economic criticism) earned him a place with leading dissidents just in time for the Velvet Revolution. After the regime’s  collapse in 1989, Zeman was elected to parliament, where he joined the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), and rapidly became one of its leading members. By the Velvet Divorce, Zeman was at the helm of the ČSSD, making the party one of the most powerful in the new Czech Republic. Serving as prime minister between 1998 to 2002, Zeman stayed a member of the ČSSD until 2007, when personality rifts within his own party forced his own exit. Shortly afterwards,  Zeman retired from politics to his home in the countryside. However, by 2012, laws on the country’s selection of the presidency had been changed, removing parliament’s prerogative over solely electing the president and letting it be decided by popular vote. Zeman staged a political comeback, and after defeating a slew of other candidates, won the presidency in 2013.

Zeman’s election between 2012-2013 was particularly nasty. His main rival, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, suggested during the campaign that the forced removal of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II would constitute as a war crime today. In return, Zeman played the nationalist card, calling Schwarzenberg a sudeťák, a derisive Czech name for Sudeten Germans, during a live television debate. Zeman taunted the foreign minister for his clearly recognizable Austrian heritage, as well as berating Schwarzenberg’s wife for speaking German instead of Czech.

Such is the gift of Zeman’s silver tongue, developed after years of confronting communists, parliamentarians, cabinet members, the opposition, and fellow socialists alike. Zeman’s straight gruff talk and his legendary intake of cigarettes and hard alcohol also enabled him to reach a sense of endearment with many working class Czechs outside of the cities.

The 2013 Presidential Election

The 2013 Presidential Election

The nationalist card played well. Zeman’s sea of red dominated much of the rural landscape, while Schwarzenberg appealed to the more educated and cosmopolitan centers of the country, like Prague and its suburbs, Plzeň, Brno, České Budějovice, and Liberec.

Once becoming president, however, Zeman immediately began to face a massive image problem.

During the opening of the Bohemian crown jewels in 2013, an uncontroversial event typically occurring every five years, Zeman stood with the stiff-lipped prime minister, Petr Nečas, wobbling his head, grasping for walls, and leaning dangerously over the medieval jewels as if he was ready to puke. While the president’s office later claimed that Zeman had “a virus,” the universal consensus from all my Czech colleagues, students, and people I met on the street, from Prague to Náchod, was singular: that man was shit-faced drunk.

Thanks to YouTube, Zeman became a source of amusement nearly overnight.

And it didn’t stop.

Later that year, Zeman’s relatively attractive young daughter, Kateřina, appeared in a club orgy porn movie. Although she wasn’t in any of the action (and Kateřina vigorously denied she was present), the young woman dancing suggestively and bursting with cleavage is undoubtedly her. Either that or she has doppelganger on the loose in Prague.

The downfall of Petr Nečas and his government from a massive corruption and spy scandal unrelated to Zeman in 2013 would also come to hurt his reputation. Replacing Nečas as premier, the president chose Jiří Rusnok, a close confidant of Zeman to become prime minister. The only problem was that Rusnok lacked basic support in parliament to even carry on a government, with many parliamentarians believing Rusnok to be only a Zeman puppet, and that the president was overstepping his constitutional authority. Humiliatingly, parliament forced Rusnok out within a few months during a vote of confidence, marking fresh elections. In return, Czech voters ushered in Zeman’s old party, the ČSSD, back into the government, while Zeman’s own upstart party, SPOZ, managed only a meager 1.5% of the vote. In the weeks to follow, Zeman consistently dragged his feet in appointing a new prime minister and cabinet, citing bad security clearances, a lack of education, or government experience. Instead of letting the prime minister and cabinet begin their work, the president created a constitutional crisis of his own making before finally backing down.

2014 hasn’t been particularly kind to Zeman either. A speech to the European Parliament was met with laughs due to Zeman’s lack of proper English pronunciation, making “bubble gum” sound like “bubble bum.” Nothing controversial or career ending, but embarrassing nonetheless.

By the end of 2014, Zeman’s goofs were beginning to pile up. During a visit to China in October, the president suggested that Taiwan be returned to the People’s Republic, a statement that no other European leader had dared to make. His return from China aboard a Czech corporate jet rather than a state airplane further ruffled feathers. Then came Zeman’s highly unusual expletive-filled tirade on live Czech radio against his detractors and Russian punk band Pussy Riot a few weeks ago, where the head of state went into excruciating vivid detail on what the word pussy meant in English. More bizarrely, Zeman launched into a series of fucks and cunts over the live broadcast, something unthinkable for any elected leader in the industrialized world to say so publicly. Effectively siding with the Russian government’s stance of prosecuting the “pornographic” Pussy Riot, Zeman ruffled the Czech dissident community and government alike, a particularly sensitive topic considering the crushing of bohemian artistic dissent in 1970s communist Czechoslovakia, as well as the present state of frosty relations with Russia. When asked to explain his highly abusive words, Zeman responded that this was how his foes, the intellectual types, or the “Prague cafes,” as he labels  many of his critics, speak about issues.

Public intoxication, family decadence, a disregard to Asian foreign policy, overstepping constitutional authority, swear words, and a closeness to Putin during awkward times in Ukraine, have made much of Prague’s citizenry decidedly cold to the head of state. Thus, the hurling of eggs and flashing red cards at Zeman on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, as crude as it may have been, is not really shocking. 224-03f-Zeman_destnik_CTK3He was never particularly loved in the capital, and has isolated himself even more from the country’s other urban centers by his antics and policy positions. It comes to no surprise that many in Prague are counting the days to the next election. Of course, Prague isn’t the Czech Republic, so it still remains to be seen if those in the countryside, the salt and earth of Zeman’s base, will follow the urban rejection of Zeman’s rocky, topsy turvy presidency.