Bad King Klaus: The Failings of a Czech President

By James Kirchick

Photo Gallery: A Divisive European Politician Photos
REUTERS

Vaclav Klaus will leave office next week after a decade as president of the Czech Republic. Although he played an important role in his country's history, his legacy is likely to be marred by his controversial positions on the European Union, climate change and often blatant populism.

An interview earlier this month with outgoing Czech President Vaclav Klaus was routine: spiteful, hysterical, and disparaging of his predecessor, the late poet, playwright and dissident, Vaclav Havel.

In a discussion with the Polish weekly Rzeczy, Klaus ridiculed the widely admired first president of the Czech Republic as promoting "Havelism" while in office. Havel's governing philosophy, Klaus explained, was similar to Jacobinism, the murderous ideology of the 18th century French revolutionaries which ended at the guillotine. Klaus' outburst earned him a rebuke from the Czech chapter of PEN International, which asked him to stop "dirtying" his predecessor's memory, as well as from former dissident and Defense Minister Sascha Vondra, who correctly pointed out that had Havel really been a Jacobin, Klaus -- Havel's long-time political nemesis -- would have been decapitated.

"Havelism" is but the latest creed coined by the controversial Czech president, who has generously appended the suffix "ism" to a variety of phenomena he detests: "humanrightsism," "NGO-ism" and "homosexualism," in addition to railing against more recognized movements like environmentalism and "globalism."

As he departs office on March 7, Klaus leaves behind a contentious legacy as the most influential Czech political figure of the post-communist period next only to Havel, who died in December of 2011. Known internationally for his denial of anthropogenic climate change and fiercely critical stance against the European Union, Klaus is credited, even by his detractors, as playing a constructive role in the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the privatization of the Czech economy in the early 1990's when he served as prime minister. In light of the "other post-communist federations that fell apart in a more violent way," Jiri Pehe, a former Havel advisor, says, his leadership during the "Velvet Divorce" that led to the independent Czech and Slovak Republics is "no small thing." Robert Kron, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, credits Klaus' early 90's voucherization policy that privatized public industries as "yield(ing) a society that began to learn capitalism."

A Man Given to Contrarianism

But Klaus' decade in the presidency, marked by his frequent testing of the job's constitutional limits and outbursts on matters ranging from gays to global warming, more accurately capture his influence and character. Forced to step down as prime minister over a party financing scandal in 1997, Klaus remained in parliament and succeeded Havel as president in 2003. Not content with merely carrying out the duties of the largely ceremonial post, he used his newfound visibility to revamp himself as a public intellectual on the world stage. He published a book on the subject of global warming, "Blue Planet in Green Shackles," and challenged former US Vice President Al Gore to a debate. In 2009, despite approval from the Czech parliament and a constitutional provision mandating his signature, he delayed his approval of the EU Lisbon Treaty until a provision was added prohibiting the descendants of Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II from reclaiming their property (Klaus has compared the EU to the Soviet Union, and recently instructed Czech military officers that they must defend the country "against unification tendencies in Europe").

So given to contrarianism is Klaus that even his eulogy of Havel (an awkward speech given the men's mutual enmity) caused some listeners' eyes to roll. "(Havel) also played an important role through the concrete steps he took so consciously and decisively to support those of us who did not see in 1989 simply another 1968 or another attempt to create socialism with a human face," Klaus said before the audience of assembled international dignitaries. Paul Wilson, the Canadian translator of Havel's works, later remarked that, "It was as though Klaus, aware of the momentousness of the occasion, were reserving a top spot for himself in an eventual rewriting of history. In that sense, he was true to form."

While Klaus has gained notoriety for the things he's said, it is often the things he doesn't say, or that his closest of aides say, which generate the most controversy. Deputy Chancellor Petr Hajek, Klaus' right-hand man, for example, has claimed that the 9/11 attacks were the work of the American government. Following Osama bin Laden's assassination two years ago, Hajek declared that the al-Qaida leader was a "media fiction." In a book published last year on the 23rd anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, "Death in Velvet," Hajek wrote that Havel "served as a tool of Satan" spreading "hatred and lies" (Klaus endorsed the book). When Hajek denounced homosexuals as "deviant fellow citizens" before Prague's first gay pride parade in 2011, Klaus defended the term "deviant" as "value-neutral."

Perhaps no episode was more infamous than that of Klaus' stealing a pen during a signing ceremony with his Chilean counterpart in 2011. Video of the event went viral around the world. But while the pen-snatching incident earned laughs, it also seemed to embody a man whose blunt speaking and often bewildering behavior has made him one of the most divisive figures in European politics.

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1. he is just one of many
Inglenda2 02/28/2013
Although Vaclav Klaus will leave office next week, after more than a decade as president, there are still far too many nationalists and old communists in the Czech Republic for that country to become a truly valid member of the EU. Many of the crimes against humanity, for which the former Czechoslovakia was responsible, are even today denied, or where admitted, there is no sign of any form of compensation being offered to the victims. A nation which lies about its past can hardly be trusted in the future, but all too few Czechs, especially in the world of politics, show a readiness to be honest about what happened following WW2. Vaclav Klaus may go, but his way of thinking is unfortunately, for the Czech Republic and Europe, quite common among the population.
2. Divisive Klaus
Jiri_P 03/01/2013
Klaus' worst legacy is his populism and that he always seemed to be standing by the 'bad guys' who's deeds he has never been able to condemn. It's a shame he was our president, both internationally and domestically.
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