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Czech Republic: New President Expected To Speak Loudly On Foreign Policy

  • Jolyon Naegele

Vaclav Klaus, who was inaugurated today as Czech president to succeed Vaclav Havel, can be expected to speak out loudly and frequently on foreign-policy issues.

Prague, 7 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Vaclav Klaus's foreign policy views have been in the media spotlight ever since a combined session of the Czech parliament elected him president on 28 February.

Foreign policy is the responsibility of the government, currently a coalition between the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats/People's Party, and the Freedom Union. Klaus's Civic Democratic Party is in the opposition.

Nevertheless, the Czech president traditionally plays more than a symbolic role in foreign policy and Klaus's views in foreign policy -- as in domestic policy -- are quite different from those of his predecessor, Vaclav Havel.

On a possible war in Iraq, Klaus told the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" this week that war should be absolutely the last option and that justifying war to force regime change is "highly disputable." Klaus says he has not seen any convincing proof that the Iraqi regime is threatening the rest of the world. And he says other countries may have been supporting Al-Qaeda far more than Iraq has.

Czech political scientist Jiri Pehe, a former adviser to Havel, says that when it comes to classifying the new Czech president, Klaus falls into the category of what the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush calls "Old Europe" -- opposing U.S. intentions to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, if necessary by force.

"I think that Klaus definitely belongs to 'Old Europe' in the sense that he is a politician who doesn't see things on a global scale but rather a person who is wrapped up in the small provincial world of Czech society, of the Czech Republic. He doesn't believe in any further integration processes. But it is an 'Old Europe' of a somewhat different type than the one represented by [French President Jacques] Chirac and [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder who, after all, perceive their goal as integrating Europe."

Klaus's views diverge from Chirac and Schoeder when it comes to the European Union. Klaus in recent years has been an outspoken critic of the EU, frequently questioning whether it is in the country's best interest to align with Brussels.

Pehe says Klaus can be expected to moderate his views in order to be remembered as the man who took the Czech Republic into union -- not as the man who prevented it from getting there: "I think Klaus will try very hard to go down in history as a politician who led the Czech Republic into the European Union. That means that his Euro-skeptical opinions will be seen rather in that he will try to discuss the future form of the EU but will not actively interfere in the Czech Republic joining the EU. I don't think he wants to go down in history as the one who prevented the Czech Republic from entering the EU, on the contrary."

Klaus this week said he sees no dispute over whether the Czech Republic should join the EU next year. He told private TV Nova that he sees no point in a massive campaign to rouse public support for membership in advance of a referendum in June.

"I'm not sure it is necessary to unleash some super-expensive campaign for the referendum. I think that the people in our country have their own views about these issues and that they will respond in a clear manner."

In fact, Klaus says that if it were up to him, he would change the referendum question from a 'yes' or 'no' to what sort of Europe the Czech Republic wants to be in.

"We are now in a phase in which we should be thinking carefully about what sort of Europe we want for the future, not just whether we want to get in. The referendum will be about whether we want to join. But I consider it a matter that has been already decided and is a 'fait accompli.' The basic issue is what sort of Europe we want and here I think we should engage in a serious domestic discussion."

Asked by TV Nova whether he identifies with the term "Euro-skeptic" that some have applied to him, Klaus is dismissive.

"I totally reject the label 'Euro-skeptic' and have said a thousand times that I don't accept polarizing (into terms like) 'Euro-skeptic,' 'Euro-optimist,' or 'Euro-pessimist' and, if anything, I have defended myself as a 'Euro-realist (versus) Euro-fanatic or Euro-advocate. I am a Euro-realist, so I reject 'Euro-skepticism.'"

One thorny regional issue that will certainly crop up again are calls by some in Germany and Austria for restitution for Sudeten German expelled after World War II.

Klaus says that as a signatory to the Czech-German declaration (January 1997), he sees no point in going beyond what he signed as prime minister six years ago. In that declaration, the Czech side "regretted" the forcible expulsion and forced resettlement of Sudeten Germans from the former Czechoslovakia. It also regretted that guilt was attributed collectively. But both sides at the time agreed the injustices belong to the past.

Concerning the situation in the Balkans, Pehe says Klaus's traditionally pro-Serb stand ought not to be a problem, since the situation there has been somewhat stabilized through international intervention. Klaus strongly opposed NATO military action in Kosovo.

Klaus, who presided over the 'Velvet Divorce' in 1992 (effective 1 January 1993) that peacefully broke up Czechoslovakia, says he will be heading to Bratislava shortly after his inauguration. "My first visit, right after taking office, will be to Slovakia," he said.

Klaus says he is ready and willing to explain why he opted for splitting up the country at the time, rather than subject the dissolution of the federation to a nationwide referendum. No referendum was ever held, even though polls at the time said a majority of citizens favored holding the country together.

Klaus has promised Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski that he will visit Poland second. Klaus has tentatively agreed to go skiing in the near future with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

Klaus told "Mlada fronta Dnes" he intends to maintain a sense of continuity with Havel's 13 years as president. He says it would be senseless and childish to want to demonstrate discontinuity.

And Klaus says he will take a far less interventionist role than Havel. Whether that will apply to foreign policy remains to be seen. As Klaus sees it, the president "should work on the basis of consensus, should know how to negotiate, should know how, if necessary, to smooth out differences, and create a certain sense of well-being in the whole country."