Czech Republic's President Petr Pavel signs an oath during his inauguration ceremony at Prague Castle, in Prague, Czech Republic, 09 March 2023.
© EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK   |   Czech Republic's President Petr Pavel signs an oath during his inauguration ceremony at Prague Castle, in Prague, Czech Republic, 09 March 2023.

How Petr Pavel changed the Czech presidency

It only took one month for Prague Castle, the traditional seat of Czech presidents, to be completely transformed. Not only will tourists be able to see the change at first glance, as the criticised police security checkpoints have disappeared from the entrances to the largest castle complex in Europe after seven years, but the main change has occurred in the manner and content of the presidential office. Since Petr Pavel took office, the Czech presidency is more transparent and promotes issues such as the protection of the environment and minorities. Externally, Miloš Zeman's openness to Russia and China has been replaced by support for Euro-Atlantic policies and Ukraine. On the other hand, the pro-European government is in an image crisis, and anti-poverty and anti-Ukraine demonstrations continue.

New people, another model of communication, supporting pro-environmental and pro-minority policies

Petr Pavel succeeded Miloš Zeman, who had been president for ten years, and from the very beginning he made it clear that he wanted to differentiate himself as much as possible from his predecessor. 

The change has been manifested by the replacement of all important officials in the Office of the President of the Republic, by cutting off the communication channels associated with the previous team, and above all by the way Pavel conceives his function.

The way the President communicates has changed - Petr Pavel is much more open, holds a press conference once a week, and gives a number of interviews to the media. Pavel's style of speaking is also different – unlike Zeman, he avoids insults, verbal attacks and ridiculing his opponents.

Pavel differs fundamentally from Zeman both in domestic politics and in international relations. And it is also about symbolic gestures. While Zeman openly mocked some minorities, disdained climate protection, and referred to environmentalists as "eco-terrorists", Pavel, in his month and a half in office, managed to receive and support Romani students and representatives of environmental organizations at Prague Castle. "I consider prejudice to be one of the greatest dangers of our time, and it is far from being limited to Romani people. These often stem from a lack of information, from long-standing stereotypes and a lack of willingness to listen to each other and understand each other's arguments. [...] You are an example that it is possible to break out of this circle of prejudice, that it is possible to look at things completely differently and that there is much to work on," the President told the Romani students

So let‘s compare that to Zeman: "I respect all Romani people who are working. Unfortunately, there are only 10 percent of them. Eleven thousand are those who declared their Romani nationality in the census. So ask yourself another question: what kind of nationality is it that cannot even declare its own nationality and instead claims to be Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, I don't know who else," he said, for example, during one of his speeches.

A similar contrast can be found in the topic of nature protection and climate protection. Let Zeman speak again: “I am an outspoken opponent of the EU's efforts to maximize the share of renewable sources in our energy balance” said at one time the former president, who supported nuclear energy in particular. He referred to environmental activists as "eco-terrorists" and "green fanatics".

In contrast, Petr Pavel, in his first weeks in office, accepted the representatives of environmental organizations at Prague Castle. He identified the environment as a priority issue that he wants to address during his travels to the regions, and he intends to promote discussion on the basis of "clear and understandable scientific evidence".

In addition, it is worth noting some of the new president's personnel moves: so far he has proposed three candidates for the Constitutional Court, all of whom will most likely be approved by the Senate, which has not always been the case. The announced promotion of BIS counterintelligence director Michal Koudelka to the rank of general, which Zeman has refused to do despite repeated proposals from the government, will also be of symbolic significance. He had an insurmountable conflict with the domestic secret service because of its warnings against Russian and Chinese influence, but also because the BIS allegedly eavesdropped on his closest associates.

From a president with sympathies for Russia and China to a EU and NATO enthusiast that supports Ukraine

As far as foreign policy is concerned, for most of his time in office, Zeman has more or less openly spoken out in favor of the totalitarian powers of Russia and China, and in some cases against Czech interests (recall that he supported the Russian narrative about the production of novichok poison in the Czech Republic or questioned the position of his own state after the revelations of the Russian attacks on the ammunition depots in Vrbětice).  

In relation to China, Zeman was quite uncritical and raised expectations of huge investments, which never materialized. By contrast, Pavel caused a stir with his comments to the influential newspaper Politico about China’s role in the war. "I believe that it is in China's interest to prolong the status quo", Pavel said, "because it can push Russia to a number of concessions." 

"China is taking lessons out of the conflict every day. They closely follow what Russia is doing, how the West is reacting," he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacted sharply to these remarks at the United Nations. "This is the kind of statement that has nothing to do with acting as a normal political official", he said. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky retorted in a tweet that "the statements of Lavrov the clown about our president are laughable. Russia is a terrorist state and its leadership belongs before an international tribunal".

Pavel also began a round of meetings with the Czech Republic's partners and allies. Since taking office on 9 March, he has travelled abroad to neighboring countries – to Slovakia, where he has found an ideological partner in President Zuzana Čaputová, to Poland, with which the Czech Republic is now linked by a strong desire to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression, and to Germany. 

He also travelled to Brussels, where he met with the President of the European Council, as well as the Secretary General of NATO, where he himself served as Chairman of the Military Committee between 2015 and 2018.

Before the elections, Pavel had already repeated that he would strive to anchor the Czech Republic firmly in the Euro-Atlantic structures. And he has continued in the same vein since his election.

In addition, in the coming days Pavel should visit Ukraine.

Demonstrations against poverty and Ukraine

Neither Pavel nor the government of Petr Fiala are letting up in their support for Ukraine. The good news is that public support has not significantly waned in recent months. According to Ipsos data, roughly a quarter of people now reject any aid to Ukraine, an increase of about three percentage points in the last six months.

The people who oppose aid to Ukraine are still a minority, but they can be very loud. This has been demonstrated by several large anti-government demonstrations in recent months. These were not called by parliamentary opposition forces, but by relatively unknown pro-Russian activists or politicians. 

This is a case of the last two major protests called by the head of the non-parliamentary PRO party, Jindřich Rajchl, under the slogan "Czech Republic against poverty". The March 11 demonstration in the center of Prague brought together representatives of various pro-Russian currents, including communists and the far right. The event, attended by many thousands of people, featured slogans such as "Stop the war, stop NATO". Several dozen people then clashed with police when they tried to break into the National Museum building and take down the Ukrainian flag. One of those that were detained had a Z symbol on his backpack and the logo of the Russian mercenary Wagner group on his sleeve, Prague police said afterwards.

At the end of the demonstration, Rajchl threatened that if the government did not accept the demands (including an end to arms supplies to Ukraine) or resign, the next demonstration on April 16 would turn into a blockade of government buildings.

Naturally, the government did not meet any of the demands, and so a similar demonstration took place in April. This time there were no clashes with the riot police, but the attempt to blockade the government headquarters ended in failure. The event took place on a Sunday, so no one was in the building. Only a few individuals remained on site until Monday.

It is clear that part of Czech society is in a protest mood, whether for economic reasons, because of general dissatisfaction with government policy or because of its inclination towards Russia. The government should work with this problem, which may gradually worsen. However, fresh data show that the current government’s rate of approval is the worst any cabinet had in the Czech Republic in a decade. 

Not surprisingly, Miloš Zeman supports the protests: "I do not want to judge primarily the leaders of these demonstrations; I am much more interested in the participants. And they are clearly not satisfied with their fate and the deteriorating standard of living. Here I would quote Ronald Reagan, who once said: If a government has worsened your standard of living, kick that government out!" commented on the current situation in an interview for the daily MF DNES.

Petr Pavel’s stance is, once more, fundamentally different from Zeman’s:

"We have some people here who are sympathetic to Russia, some of whom you could see on Wenceslas Square right now. It is paradoxical that these people come there with Czech flags, call themselves patriots, and put the Russian tricolor on their caps and shout slogans about the need for Vladimir Putin to come to us to put things in order. I guess you can't take people like that completely seriously."

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