Wednesday, 6 March 2013

CZECH: ''Vaclav Klaus'': Presidency & Contentious legacy

Vaclav Klaus will leave office on Thursday 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.

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.

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.

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.

In his 25 years in politics, it is hard to find a single geopolitical issue on which Klaus' position has differed from that of Russia, the country that brutally invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and occupied it for 20 years. I attribute this affinity to Klaus' very pragmatic and economic and not ideological or emotional-based approach to politics, which stands in stark contrast to the views of Havel, who was deeply suspicious of Russian influence, particularly once Vladimir Putin rose to power at the turn of the century.

But strangely for a free-market enthusiast constantly likening anything he disagrees with to resurgent communism, Klaus has been very warm with the revanchist government in Moscow. Klaus opposed the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia to prevent genocide in the Balkans and has long been against independence for the former Serbian province of Kosovo, in contradiction to official Czech government policy.

When war erupted between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and as a series of leaders of former Soviet bloc countries vocally sided with Tbilisi, Klaus was outspoken in his support for Moscow, once again putting him at odds with the Czech government position. And at a Russia-EU summit the following year, Klaus said that the regional body should pay greater attention to the concerns of Russia at the expense of "small Estonia or Lithuania." In 2007, Klaus was awarded the Pushkin Medal on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin for his "helping to spread the Russian language and culture."

Throughout his 10 years at the helm, and despite his frequently controversial statements, Klaus remained generally popular and trusted among Czechs. That was until his surprise announcement, however, of a far-reaching amnesty on Jan. 1st. Klaus' decree freed all those prisoners serving sentences of less than a year, people sentenced for non-violent crimes with less than two years remaining in their sentence, and individuals over the age of 70 whose remaining jail terms are less than three years -- some 7,000 prisoners in all.

Most troubling about the amnesty was a provision that cancelled ongoing criminal proceedings of 8 years or longer in which the defendant faced less than 10 years in jail. This measure ended a number of serious embezzlement and fraud cases originating out of the "mafia-style" capitalist days, as Havel termed them, which Klaus presided over as prime minister in the 1990's.

Lawmakers in the Czech Republic's Senate have voted to file high treason charges against Klaus over his amnesty of thousands of inmates serving short prison terms. The Constitutional Court is expected to deal with the case quickly, but a verdict will only be issued after several weeks. If found guilty, Klaus would be immediately removed from office -- even though his presidential term expires on Thursday -- and would be forbidden from ever running again.He would also lose the state pension of about $5,000 a month that former presidents normally receive. 

Ultimately, this move may produce what will likely be the most lasting aspect of Klaus' legacy. A recent survey by the Czech daily newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes found that, nationwide, most schools and town halls have decided to forgo hanging the president's official portrait -- a tradition extending back to the founding of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 -- altogether. For a man who so relished being the center of attention, it is hard to think of a more punishing verdict.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP: Vaclav Klaus