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Czech Republic: Speculation Swirls Over Possible Government Reshuffle

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 3 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The meteoric political rise of Michael Zantovsky since his return last autumn from a stint as ambassador in Washington has touched off speculation about his entry into the government as foreign minister.

The latest speculation came in today's left-wing opposition Prague daily "Pravo" which carries a front page article titled "Will Zantovsky Replace Zieleniec?"

A spokesman for Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus today rejected "Pravo's" speculation, saying it amounts to manipulation no way based on the truth.

And senior officials and advisors in high-level Czech political circles, speaking in private recently, also rejected such speculation.

The speculation has, in part, been prompted by the swift rise of Zantovsky. He won a six-year mandate in the Czech Republic's first Senate elections last November with the support of a small, right-wing member of the government coalition, the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA).

Shortly after the Senate elections, ODA's chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Jan Kalvoda, suddenly resigned from all functions, announcing to a shocked cabinet that he had wrongfully used the title "doctor of law." A lengthy campaign began to find a successor. Zantovsky joined ODA in January and two weeks ago was elected ODA's chairman.

Klaus who heads the senior member of the ruling coalition, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), has reportedly said he would welcome Zantovsky joining the government.

This would mean that the heads of all three coalition parties would be in the cabinet.

As usual in Czech politics, personal animosities are also involved. ODSU eminence grise, Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec, is one of very few members of the ODS leadership to have publicly criticized Klaus.

Pravo suggests that if Zantovsky were to replace Zieleniec, one ODA minister would have to resign so as not to upset the balance set out in the coalition agreement that provides for ODS to have eight cabinet sets and the two junior partners to have four seats each. Pravo speculates that Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Dlouhy would be forced out. Dlouhy has been a cabinet member since December 1989, the same month he quit the Communist Party. ODS, so the theory goes, would then gain control of Dlouhy's troubled ministry and Zantovsky would replace Zieleniec as Foreign Minister.

Rumors have circulated for two years that Zieleniec is frustrated at the Foreign Ministry and would prefer to devote all his energy to strengthening ODS and perhaps even preparing to succeed Klaus as ODS chairman and Prime Minister.

It is questionable whether Zieleniec is any more of a guarantor than Zantovsky of the Czech leadership's interest in gaining membership in an expanded NATO. The stiff, Polish-born, Zieleniec in this sense can hardly match the articulate, suave Zantovsky, his contacts in Washington and his close friendship with Havel.

Any of a number of issues could bring down the Klaus cabinet. Among these is growing public outrage at the government's recent decision to allow rents of municipally owned housing to rise by up to 100 percent.

There is also public anger over government laxity in financial controls that have allowed numerous banks to collapse and most recently the holdings of investment funds to be liquidated and stolen.

If and when Klaus goes, he is unlikely to head the opposition. Rather, in all probability he would go abroad to teach. His low popularity virtually rules out his ever being able to succeed Havel as president. Havel's five-year term is up early next year and he would likely stand again.

If the coalition retains power, Zieleniec could well succeed Klaus. If that happens, Zantovsky might be a logical choice for Foreign Minister.

But the speculation is flawed on several counts.

Even before becoming head of ODA, Zantovsky said he intends to use his seat in the Senate as a platform to speak his mind on issues of concern. Having invested considerable money and time in getting a six-year mandate in the Senate, he is unlikely to sacrifice that seat for the uncertainty of becoming a cabinet minister in a government whose time could be drawing to a close.

Zantovsky has taken over an organization that has the reputation of being little more than an exclusive club of Prague intellectuals rather than a political party. He can be expected to devote much of his time and energy in the foreseeable future to reforming ODA and reversing its declining fortunes.