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Politics

Schevardo: 'Vaclav Klaus is no reconciler'

After 10 years as Czech president, Vaclav Klaus leaves office under a cloud of controversy. Jennifer Schevardo of the German Council on Foreign Relations describes the euroskeptic.

Longtime Czech President Vaclav Klaus polarized opinions by repeatedly warning about the European Union having too much influence in Czech affairs and publicly doubting climate change. He leaves the president's office in the Prague Castle on Friday (08.03.2013), but that won't put an end to the controversy surrounding his two five-year terms.

The Czech Senate voted to try the 71-year-old for high treason for ordering the pardon of a number of high-profile fraud cases. Klaus has called the move "an attempt to taint my political term." He is also accused of damaging the country by failing to sign the EU's Lisbon Treaty quickly. The Constitutional Court is not expected to issue a judgment before the end of March.

Jennifer Schevardo, an expert on the Czech Republic at the German Council on Foreign Relations, summarizes Klaus' time in office and Czechs' views of his presidency.

DW: After two five-year terms Klaus can no longer be re-elected. How would you evaluate his time in office?

Jennifer Schevardo: Vaclav Klaus has managed to give the office of the president its necessary dignity and made maximum use of it. As in Germany, the Czech presidency is largely representative. But he has shown how much space it can provide to a person with a strong personality. I believe there is a stark difference in how Vaclav Klaus is seen at home and abroad, especially in Germany in connection with his critical view of the EU.

Czechs didn't always agree with President Klaus. For many of them, his public appearances were a bit embarrassing. Especially toward the end of his second term, his faux pas have exceeded the boundaries of good taste. Debate is currently focused on his amnesty decree for prisoners, which has caused quite a stir.

Vaclav Klaus (l.) and German President Joachim Gauck
(Photo: Axel Schmidt/dapd)

Vaclav Klaus (left) meets German President Joachim Gauck

A German newspaper once described Klaus as the man who torpedoes the EU. He rarely misses an opportunity to confront Brussels. His speech to the European Parliament in February 2009 was particularly memorable. In it, he questioned the role of the European representatives, which led to many of them storming out during the speech. Why does he show such a dislike for the European Union?

Vaclav Klaus is not against economic integration but he is against political integration. He is concerned about the country possibly losing its sovereignty. That is something he has always fought. His opposition, of course, has a lot to do with the general development of countries in transition after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, with defining a new nation and with independently exercising national rights.

It also has to do with a personal understanding of how to exercise power. Klaus, who has served in the government for a long time, views it as weakness when the Czech Republic, a member of the EU, relinquishes specific rights to supranational institutions.

Have his positions driven the country into European isolation?

I believe the role Vaclav Klaus has played has been very detrimental to the Czech Republic, especially internationally. He has never made a secret of his skepticism toward the EU, which, in fact, has worsened in recent years. He's never avoided using undiplomatic words. To the outside world, he projects an image of a country full of euroskeptics. This has done the country great damage.

Paradoxically, Czechs are ambivalent about this image. While many are embarrassed about the image he creates of Czechs being euroskeptics, certain parts of Czech society have an impish joy in seeing people refuse to tow the line but rather stand out and make noise. There is a certain pride among many Czechs in having a president like Vaclav Klaus who hasn't conformed and doesn't tell people what they want to hear. This plays into the ambivalence that Czechs have about their president.

Klaus' successor will be the third president the Czech Republic has had since the country's independence in 1993. The first head of state was the internationally known and highly regarded anti-communist Vaclav Havel, who held the office from 1993 to 2003. If Havel was considered a reconciler, how should Klaus be viewed? As the political opposite of Havel?

Vaclav Havel
(Photo: Dmytro Kaniewski, DW)

The late Czech Presidient Vaclav Havel was viewed as a reconciler

We need to establish that Havel was perceived differently abroad than at home. He is now highly esteemed in the Czech Republic, in some ways more than his role as president justifies. Yet he was viewed critically in his role as president. Of course, he wasn't a politician and managed to fulfill his duties right up to the end without becoming one. He was a human being with all the strengths and weaknesses that humans have. And for that he also reaped criticism.

Klaus, on the other hand, is no reconciler. He is not someone people like because of the way he has run his office. Opinions of him differ. What he has done is to find very clear words for many things. Even if he wasn't always right, he triggered discussions. I believe that's important. He has given the office its own character, which will benefit his successor if that person understands how to take command of that space. Klaus has shown that the president can have political influence and that it is important what the president says, even if you disagree with him. But, at the same time, there is a danger of going too far as Klaus has done. In recent years, he has intervened in government and this could become a problem if such intervention continues.

The left-leaning Milos Zeman will follow Klaus. What are their positions on the European Union?

Milos Zeman is a [former] member of the Social Democratic Party that champions European integration. He is someone who will be positive towards the EU.

Jennifer Schevardo is responsible for the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as German-Czech relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). She is also in charge of researching the transition processes in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. DGAP is an independent, non-partisan and non-profit membership think tank and publisher that has been promoting public debate on foreign policy in Germany for more than 50 years.

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