Czech Republic: Václav Klaus, from Russia with love

Here, they love a pain in the neck. Czech president Václav Klaus reviews troops on state visit to Moscow, 26 April 2007 (AFP)
Here, they love a pain in the neck. Czech president Václav Klaus reviews troops on state visit to Moscow, 26 April 2007 (AFP)
15 October 2009 – Hospodářské Noviny (Prague)

He describes himself as "a European dissident" and the Russian media has welcomed him with open arms. On a state visit this week, the Czech President showed that he is keen to develop economic and personal ties with Moscow — a policy which Hospodářské Noviny remarks is not without its disadvantages.

Václav Klaus' state visit to Russia comes just a few days after he provoked an outcry in Europe by imposing yet another obstacle to his signing of the Lisbon Treaty. In Moscow he told his hosts that he was "seriously concerned by the plan to reinforce European integration."

Klaus is one Czech politician who is not afraid of adopting a strongly pro-Russian stance, unlike Mirek Topolánek's government, which backed a policy of stronger links with the United States until it collapsed in April.

On the occasion of a visit to the United States in September, Klaus declared that Moscow was much less of a threat to the Czech Republic than an over-regulated European Union. In a recent interview with [the neo-conservative American daily] the Washington Times, he averred that "the political system and freedom in Russia is now the highest and the best in the history of Russia in the last two millennia."

Russian media idol

When he was prime minister from 1992 to 1997, Václav Klaus generally adopted a pro-western line. It was only after he left the government that he began to explicitly criticize European integration and the United States. This change of course was later confirmed when he expressed his reservations about NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999.

It was also during this period that the Russian media first took an interest in him. Today, many Russian journalists actively promote Klaus to the extent that he now occupies much more space in the Russian media than all of the other Eastern European leaders. His statements on "the gratuitous Russophobia" of the Western elites are especially popular with pro-Kremlin journalists, and also with the renowned Russian political analyst Mikhaïl Delyagin, who in a recent article on the Lisbon crisis presented an alleged quote from Klaus, which states that accession to the European Union has resulted in considerable financial losses for the Czech Republic.

"In many respects, Václav Klaus is something of a dinosaur from the period when a bi-polar division prevailed in world politics. Having attempted and failed to carve a pro-western niche for himself — a political role that was occupied by Václav Havel — it was only logical that he should turn towards Russia," remarks political scientist Michael Romancov, a professor at the Metropolitan University of Prague.

Notwithstanding his popularity in the Russian media, the leadership in the Kremlin has no scruples about dispelling any illusions that he may have about his status in international politics. On a previous visit to Russia, Klaus attempted to reassure Vladimir Putin that the American antimissile radar would not be directed towards Russia — an assertion, which amused the Russian Prime Minister, and to which he laughingly replied, "But in any case, you wouldn't have any influence over that." The Czech President was visibly stung by the exchange.

Increasingly rare visits to the West

Medvedev is without a doubt the most important head of state to invite Klaus since he was re-elected. However, he has only rarely been received by his western counterparts on state visits. "In part this is due to the fact that he was so hyperactive after his first election, when he visited a large number of countries, which means that he now has to wait a few years before he is invited again.

However, there is also a more obvious reason: heads of state do not want to invite him now because of his position on European integration," says the Chairman of the Christian democrats and a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Cyril Svoboda. Ireland is one of the few western countries to have welcomed Klaus on an official visit since his re-election. But even there he managed to fall out with the government by publicly voicing his support for Declan Ganley's anti-Lisbon Libertas movement.

Relations between Klaus and his French opposite number, Nicolas Sarkozy, are particularly fraught, with both heads of state launching regular attacks on each other via the media. Lost recently in December of 2008, Klaus indirectly accused Sarkozy of damaging the European Union. Last year, he traveled to France twice but he did not meet with any political leaders in the course of his visits.

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