The Czech Republic completed the first round of voting for a new president on Saturday, beginning the eradication of an eccentric, hard-drinking incumbent who frequently reached out to Russia and China, putting him at odds with the Czech government and European allies.
The departure of Mr. Zeman, the Czech president for the past decade, should put the country’s foreign relations back on an unambiguously pro-Western path, regardless of which of the top two candidates — a former NATO general named Petr Pavel, who received slightly more than 35% of the vote, and a billionaire former prime minister named Andrej Babis, who received slightly more than 35% of the vote — ultimately wins the election.
Mr. Zeman called China’s leader, Xi Jinping,
On a video conference call just days before first-round voting started on Friday. During the call, Xi Jinping asked Prague to “actively promote” China’s relations with East and Central Europe, which is unlikely to happen when Mr. Zeman officially steps down in March.
The Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavsky, whose appointment in 2021 Mr. Zeman tried unsuccessfully to block, said he was looking forward to the era after Zeman in an interview this week in Prague. Lipavsky has frequently criticized China. Naturally, Zeman views certain issues differently and used to strongly advocate for more permissive positions on Russia and China,” he stated, adding that his departure should give Czech foreign policy “a major new impulse.”
Mr. Lipavsky stated, “There will be a new figure sitting in Prague Castle after ten years, and I take this as a big opportunity.” The impressive colonial headquarters of his ministry are just a few hundred yards away from Prague Castle on a route that is riddled with personal and political minefields.
According to Otto Eibl, the head of the political science department at Masaryk University in Brno,
Vaclav Havel, a writer who became the first post-communist president of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1989, gave the presidency special moral weight in the Czech Republic despite its limited constitutional powers.
Mr. Eibl stated, “It is a ceremonial job but a symbol of something important for Czechs,” and added, ” The Zeman era is over, and the situation will change regardless of who wins. He was bad for the Czech foreign policy. He was more receptive to China, Russia, and the East.
A first-round voter turnout of more than 68% reflected the importance of the presidency for Czechs.
Petr Fiala, a center-right former academic, is in charge of the Czech government, which has provided Ukraine with T-72 tanks and other military equipment from the Soviet era. However, the government has had to constantly keep an eye on Mr. Zeman, who has supported his nation’s policy toward Ukraine but diverted attention from other goals of its foreign policy.
Mr. Zeman has toned down his earlier enthusiasm for close ties with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in recent months.
However, he has maintained warm ties with Mr. Putin’s closest European friends, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, both of whom are authoritarian strongman leaders. Mr. Zeman was appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Despite the detention in China of his former special economic adviser, a mysterious Chinese energy tycoon named Ye Jianming, he has also lobbied hard against the Czech Republic, following the Baltic States, in taking a strong stand against China.
Despite starting their careers in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia and being Party members, the two presidential candidates who will compete in a second round of voting at the end of January both have a more westerly outlook than Mr. Zeman does.
Mr. Babis, a billionaire tycoon who figured as an informant on the books of the Communist-era secret service in Slovakia, flew to Paris to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron, a day after Mr. Zeman spoke with Mr. Xi.
Mr. Babis has shown no sympathy for Russia, unlike Mr. Orban in Hungary,
A fellow populist with whom he has good relations. During his time as prime minister from 2017 to 2021, he presided over a significant deterioration of relations with Moscow, accusing Russian military intelligence of blowing up a Czech arms depot in 2014.
Mr. Pavel, also known as “the General,” Mr. Babis’s opponent in the runoff vote, also had close ties to the Communist system in the past. However, he overcame rigorous post-Communist vetting of his loyalties and rose to become chief of the general staff of the Czech Army before taking over as head of the NATO Military Committee. Mr. Pavel is also known as “the General.
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