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Czech Republic: Zeman Stirs Controversy With Arafat Remarks

  • Kathleen Moore

Outspoken remarks have become a bit of a trademark for Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman. Over the years, he has drawn fire for teasing Slovaks and Americans about their beer, calling Sudeten Germans traitors, and suggesting Austrians voting in a referendum on a Czech nuclear power plant were idiots. Now Zeman is in hot water again, this time for comparing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler. The remark drew immediate condemnation from the Palestinians and earned Zeman a sharp rebuke from the European Union.

Prague, 19 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Even judged by the standard of his usual outspoken remarks, the latest comments made by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman during an official two-day trip to Israel were particularly strong.

In the 18 February issue of the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz," Zeman advised Israel not to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, illustrating his point by saying no one expected world leaders to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. The daily asked if he was comparing the leader of the Palestinian Authority with Hitler. Zeman is reported to have answered, "Indeed." He also said both men could be considered terrorists.

The Palestinians reacted immediately to Zeman's comments, with Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo calling the remarks "outrageous."

Criticism from European Union foreign ministers was not far behind. In Vienna, spokesman Johannes Peterlik summarized the reaction of Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner by saying, "The foreign minister was also asked about the quotes yesterday and all she said was that she thinks they are more than absurd."

Ferrero-Waldner and her German counterpart Joschka Fischer appealed to Spain, which holds the rotating EU presidency, to intervene. Last night Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique told reporters, "The council [of EU foreign ministers] considers this unacceptable, and rejects such comments."

Today the European Commission added its voice to the growing chorus of criticism. Commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said: "It goes without saying that we strongly disagree with such statements. Such language is not what we can expect from a future member state. May I also recall that the Czech Republic has concluded the negotiation chapter on foreign policy and, by doing so, the Czech Republic committed itself to align itself with the EU foreign policy -- including the EU positions on the Middle East issue. Of course, against this background, such statements are not really helpful for the efforts of the EU in the region."

Zeman today strongly denied he had made the comparison between Arafat and Hitler, saying the paper had distorted the true meaning of his comment. When asked if the two men could be compared, Zeman says, his complete answer was actually, "Indeed, it is not my duty to pass judgment on Arafat."

Michal Musil is a commentator for the Czech daily "Lidove noviny." He says he's used to hearing Zeman's blunt remarks, but that this time he has caused "the biggest international scandal of his time in politics." Zeman steps down as prime minister following this summer's elections. But as Musil notes, he may still stage a comeback in higher politics.

"I think it's a further complication in our relations with the EU. On the other hand, I expect that EU representatives or representatives of EU member states know that Milos Zeman doesn't want to run for prime minister again, that he's not running in the elections. So the only thing they're maybe watching carefully is whether he'll be elected president, and then it would be a problem. But I think if this were to happen, say a couple of months after Zeman came to power, then it would be a much bigger problem than it is now."

Musil continues: "If [Zeman] is elected president then I'm afraid we can look forward to a huge number of salvos of these kinds of remarks. If he's not elected president he's still got another four months to go as prime minister and I'm afraid we can also expect some similar comments. Because when, three or four weeks ago, we had the case of his comments addressed to Austria [regarding the petition drive to block the Czech EU entry drive if it refused to shut down the Temelin nuclear power plant], I said to myself, 'Well, Milos Zeman will be more cautious for a while.' But as yesterday showed, he didn't do that at all. On the contrary, he managed to do something even stronger."

Musil says the Czech Foreign Ministry can kiss goodbye to any hopes it had of playing a minor mediation role in the Middle East peace process.

"I think it's the end of this idea of a Czech 'postman' who would knock at Israeli and Palestinian doors and deliver messages. Though the foreign minister or ministry will no doubt say that this isn't the case, I don't believe that the Czech Republic could play a mediator or 'postman' role in Israeli-Palestinian relations."

Still, Zeman can perhaps take comfort from assurances offered by European Commission spokesman Filori that, scandal or no scandal, the Hitler comment does not jeopardize Czech hopes of EU membership. "We reacted accordingly, but we see no reason why we should question the negotiations with the Czech Republic. The accession negotiations will proceed according to our timetable with the same commitment from our side."