Czech President Vaclav Klaus turns 70

As the only person in the history of the Czech Republic he also held the office of Prime Minister and Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Republic.


President Klaus is still pretty popular in Czech Republic – though his popularity hits new low, it is still 47 percent according to last poll – but what about his image abroad? How would you describe it? Do you see there is a contradiction between the fact he is popular at home, but many foreign politicians think he is a troublemaker?


Sean Hanley, Senior Lecturer in East European Politics, University College London

After Havel, Klaus has easily been the best known Czech (and Central European) politician in the UK and Western Europe over the last two decades. That said, however, he is not a widely known figure in the UK and is probably known to a limited number of people interested in European/EU politics and/or debates about climate changes. As in the CR, among these people opinion is polarised with eurosceptic and climate sceptics seeing him as principled and unafraid to speak out and critics (possibly the majority) viewing him as a provocative maverick. Both views tend to see serious figure with consistent, controversial and clear view on big issues, but the recent pen incident – which attracted wide attention as an amusing incident – has, in my view, undermined Klaus’s image as serious politician. Personally, I think this is a pity as, while I rarely agree them, Klaus’s trenchant views do add to European political debate in ways that blander comments of other politicians from Central and Eastern Europe rarely do.

Abby InnesLecturer in the Political Sociology of Central/Eastern Europe, London School of Economics and Political Science

I don’t think there’s really a contradiction: the reasons for his appeal to his own constituency are I think, closely related to what makes him so distrusted in Europe.

Firstly – why is he distrusted in Europe?

Because he is seen as an irresponsible populist who rejects rational debate and, consequently, gives his country a bad name.

1. In the first place the bank collapses of 1996-7 and accruing corruption scandals of the 1990s forced Klaus to stop depending so absolutely on his neo-liberal/pseudo-technocratic economic rhetoric which had rather lost credibility, pushing him towards a more all-out Euroskeptic nationalism + populism, which he has used ever since. (The CR was the only Central European economy to experience a second recession in the latter half of the 1990s.) How was his politics viewed abroad? At first West Europeans rather bought into the image of the tough neo-liberal fighting the dark forces of communism, and they believed the (brilliantly tactical) Klausite rhetoric that his government, by peacefully partitioning Czechoslovakia, had saved Europe from some potentially Yugoslav-like Slovak nationalism. This version of the break-up of Czechoslovakia was, of cousre, a caricature of the unmandated reality of the separation but Klaus’s explanation for his illegitimate partition of the country was rather supported, after the fact, by Meciar’s resorting to an increasingly authoritarian nationalism. But then Western European political elites began to have more experience of Vaclav Klaus in person and to gain more knowledge of the realities of the Czech political economy. Klaus’s neo-liberalism increasingly made even strongly economically liberal Europeans nervous because he took arguments about deregulation further than any mainstream (as opposed to extreme) view in standard economics would accept as valid or prudent. (The mainstream economic literature on liberal market economies emphasises, among other things, the centrality of regulatory strength, transparency, contractual integrity and the protection of property rights as key to the sustainability of markets, as based on UK and US experience). The result of Klaus’s anti-regulatory stance on the Czech economy, over time, was highly predictable – rising levels of corruption, the concentration of economic power in the aftermath of an unregulated privatisation, institutional capture and a failure to professionalise the state administration. These failures in institution-building trouble the Czech Republic to this day and strongly weaken its policy making capacity, both in domestic and foreign policy, and its international reputation. A recent World Economic Forum survey ranked Czech abuse of public finances for the purposes of corruption as on a par with Ukraine and equal fifth out of twenty two countries in CEE, after Bulgaria, Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic and Russia. As the country with the strongest economic inheritance (after Slovenia) in 1989, this is a very remarkable statistic and one that does not bode well for medium to long term economic or political development.

Over time, moreover, Klaus’s Euroskeptic politics, because it is so extreme and so paranoid, has been increasingly understood abroad as highly populist. Populism as a strategy is widely understood as against European democratic values of rational debate and substantive representation. Populists compete by claiming to be the ‘friend of the people’ against conspirators, enemies and scapegoats rather than by offering a positive, viable vision of the public good and a substantive policy strategy, and European experience of the populism and then fascism of the 1930s and 1940s makes anyone using this strategy liable to be thought of as an amoral political entrepreneur: it is seen as a profoundly irresponsible politics in terms of social peace. Moreover, because of the difficult economic circumstances confronting Europe populism is on the rise across the whole of the Union and mainstream politicians are increasingly sensitive to its threats. As a result Klaus is seen in many circles abroad,including those on the mainstream political right, as damaging to his own countries interests: he has repeatedly damaged Czech credibility in foreign relations, attempting to punch above the Republic’s objective economic and political weight and sometimes in aid of barely rational views or, as in the case of his resistance to the Lisbon Treaty, against the law of his own country.

In the latest incarnation of Klaus’s extremism, Klaus’s stance on climate-change and his total rejection of scientific evidence (despite being leader of a country with a rich scientific tradition) has entrenched the view abroad that he is an irresponsible if not dangerous politician: again, a man of extremist and irrational views. There is by now overwhelming evidence that Klaus has little respect either for evidence-based political discourse or the rule of law, as witnessed by his repeated public disrespect of the Czech constitution and his tendency to step over the limits of his own constitutional powers. It is, again, viewed as dangerously populist to argue that constitutional arrangements are somehow conspiracies against a party or class, not least because this is what fascists did in the 1930s and the communists in the 1940s. Constitutions in liberal democracies are supposed to be there to create the higher protection of the rule of law against any particular interest: they are not meant to be a political weapon in the hand of any one party. As Tocqueville wrote: ‘When a man subordinates himself to coercion, he grovels and debases himself, but when he subordinates himself to the rule of law which he himself has accorded to his neighbour, he in a sense stands above those who govern him’. Not surprisingly, many Europeans (including Czechs!) feel that this is hardly a principle to be despised, something Klaus has repeatedly done over twenty years.

Were the Czech Republic not situated at the centre of the German circle of FDI in Central Europe and the political economy and currency strongly stabilised as a result, Klaus’s extremist views and politics would probably have proved more directly damaging to the Republic’s political economy over time: small open economies are in principle vulnerable to currency speculation, hence the benefits, in principle, of joining the Euro in the long term, despite the considerable short term hardship of doing so, but the fact that the Czech economy is profoundly wedded to the strong German economy arguably protects it and the currency, and gives not just Klaus but all Czech politicians freedom to run sometimes perverse domestic economic and foreign policies without the risk-rating of the economy being as damaged as it might be if the real economy were not so strongly underpinned.

Why do some of these same characteristics make him popular at home?

1. In the first place Klaus built exceptionally strong political capital as the only charismatic party leader in Czech politics through the first half of the 1990s. This encouraged many, particularly economically aspirant voters to put their faith in his leadership, creating a remarkably stable ‘core vote’ which Klaus has never really lost, despite the fact that the deregulatory aspects of many of his economic policies have been exposed as actually damaging to the long term sustainability of the Czech economy, as mainstream liberal economics would have predicted. But the evidence from political science shows in all systems that voters tend to make strong attachments to the first parties they vote for unless those parties absolutely betray their values quickly, and it took several years for the flaws and inconsistencies in ODS ideology to really make themselves manifest, moreover, until the advent of TOP09, there has been no strong neo-liberal contender to which neo-liberal ODS voters could switch.

2. Compared to either Hungary or Poland communist Czechoslovakia had a very small dissident group and, after the purges of 1968, a Communist Party relatively shorn of less ideological and more pragmatic cadres – and after that dissident group opposed lustration in 1991, on rule of law principles, they were effectively crushed by Klaus’s ODS, who saw that the lustration bill would be far more popular if it offered an opportunity for the expression of social revenge against communism, even if it meant using the collective guilt principles beloved of Nazis and Communists. After the success of lustration, which really turned the tide for Klaus against the Civic Movement, who he managed to depict, remarkably, as ‘soft on communism’, he simply dominated right wing Czech politics to an extraordinary degree, cementing his power through the partition of Czechoslovakia, which gave his party and its partners a freer hand to coopt and manage the institutions of the independent Czech Republic than it had had in 1990, when liberal dissidents put a greater emphasis on institution building. Klaus’s has been strong, in other words, because he has lacked opposition, and the ‘opposition agreement’ of 1998 pretty much crippled the Czech Social Democrats from their first experience of power, damaging their credibility and encouraging the most entrepreneurial elements of that party to rise, a trend that has damaged their capacity to develop a substantive, clean, social liberal/social democratic alternative over time. (This picture of weak competition is in contrast to Poland, for example where Solidarity was so strong that the former Communist Party was forced to thoroughly reinvent itself as a truly dynamic liberal social democratic party as soon as possible, creating a relatively robust party competition from the beginning – a competition which helped institution building and prevented the high degree of institutional capture that can be seen in the Czech Republic, although the Polish picture has proved extremely difficult to sustain in the long term, most obviously because of the economic difficulties of sustaining a social democratic alternative in an emerging market.)

Klaus’s genius as a leader has been in translating communist political culture into a nominally ‘democratic’ market version, allowing that section of society that sought reassurance or that even preferred the certainties of absolutist political philosophies to find a political home in the new system. Klaus built his power on an ideology that claimed to carry a faultless, scientifically ‘proven’ agenda. As such he was an effective ‘Lenin for the bourgeoisie’ – a man who offered political cultural continuities in a period of great uncertainty. In fact he has been very honest about this strategy, at least abroad. Addressing the Heritage Institute in Washington in October 1993 Klaus argued that ‘To be successful, political leaders must formulate and ‘sell’ to the citizens of the country a positive vision of a future society. The first task is formulation of the vision; it must be positive (not just negative); it must be straightforward (not fuzzy); it must motivate; it must speak to the hearts of men and women who have spent most of their lives under a spiritually empty Communist regime; it requires clear words, biblical yeses and nos; it must be stated in an idea form (which needs ‘extreme’ terms, because compromises belong to reality, not to images or visions); it must explicitly reject all ‘third ways’. I find the last phrase, in this astonishingly patronising list, the most telling: ‘the incompatible combinations of different worlds’ – as if any given society can only cope with one ideology at a time…. But for those sections of the population that either a) sincerely believed that neo-liberalism was the strongest rejection of communism, b) sought certainty or c) admired power, in a very uncertain world, the appeal of the single (implicitly anti-pluralistic, anti-complexity) ‘biblical’ path that Klaus chose could be seen as respectively correct, reassuring or impressive. In a country undergoing massive social upheaval over decades such politics has an understandable appeal: but Klaus’s politics strikes many both inside and outside the Czech Republic as a throwback to the Communist era – as dogmatic, pseudo-scientific, anti-pluralist and paranoid: in short, as a betrayal of the democratic hopes of 1989. It is perhaps worth pointing out that many saw this betrayal made explicit by Klaus’s dependence on Communist votes for his last election as President: an election, irony of ironies, which defeated Jan Svejnar – an internationally respected economist.

My own personal view that for a country as educated, skilled, culturally rich and socially liberal as the Czech Republic Klaus has been an unmitigated disaster: easily as damaging to the political system as Meciar was for Slovakia, indeed more damaging, because Meciar’s politics was more crude and he was more easily exposed as a crypto-authoritarian. Klaus’s instincts are authoritarian and his foreign policy stances in relation to Russia vis a vis Europe are understood by many as reflecting that. When the Czechs were framing the Czech constitution in September 1992 the draft was first rejected by committee and even Civic Democratic Party members complained that it had vested excessive powers in the hands of the premier – Klaus – which would be justifiable only ‘in a state of emergency’. His strength in Czech politics may be seen as representing the resilience of the Republic’s most dangerous inheritances over its best traditions.

I had another thought on his domestic popularity too, which is that he conveys this image at home that he’s seen abroad as a great statesman and renowned economist and where this is believed this must have an impact on his standing: but this image is simply false – his economics is seen by academic economists as a populist caricature, often to the point of parody, of serious economic argument – and in European political circles Klaus has earned a reputation for tinpot dictator style arrogance in the way that Berlusconi is seen as a byword for buffoonery and womanising: except that nobody envies arrogance…. The tragedy of his victory over Svejnar is that Svejnar actually has an international reputation for academic achievement and dynamism and is liked and respected for his open and modest personality.

Kevin Deegan-KrauseAssociate Professor, Department of Political Science, Wayne State University

Vaclav Klaus’s reputation outside of the Czech Republic has been in decline since the early 1990’s.  He could afford to lose /some/ esteem because he began so well–a smart, incorruptible advocate of free markets–but the decay of the Czech economic miracle and his party’s corruption scandals in the late 1990’s took some of the shine off.  And the events of that era seemed to push him a bit off balance, a bit more toward idiosyncratic extremes.  I think some observers in the West were bemused that he became president with the help of the Communist party, and his quixotic attacks on EU integration and global warming have certainly undermined his stature.  For close observers, I think the decline culminated in the circumstances surrounding the Lisbon Treaty in which Klaus demonstrated on the one hand that he was willing to stall the process for largely ideological reasons, and on the other hand that those reasons were ultimately not sufficient for him to hold his ground.  He neither cooperated nor held out.  Instead he delayed the process without stopping it.

I need to add that all of this is only from the perspective of those who are close observers of Central European politics.  For the average person outside the Czech Republic, the only thing anybody knows about him is that he stole a pen.  And stole it in a rather sheepish yet smug way in front of video cameras.  For the average foreign viewer laughing at Klaus is not some sort of fitting revenge for his reputed arrogance–they hardly know who he is–but I suspect for the Czech elite (and particularly those in the press who decided to cover it) this is a something of a payback for past slights.

As for his popularity at home, 47% is low not only for Klaus but for most non-elected presidents in the region–usually they stay above the fray and avoid too much controversy–and so I think there is less of a conflict than there might seem between domestic popularity and foreign unpopularity.  And I think it is worth noting that those two types of popularity are rarely linked anyway.  Many people like to have a leader who is not afraid to be unpopular abroad, to say what he feels and what he thinks his country feels.  But that does not really work when the source of the unpopularity is self-inflicted pen theft.

Martin Myant, Professor, University of the West of Scotland

Václav Klaus has never been a popular politician outside the Czech Republic.

His popularity inside the country has been built on his ability to feign absolute certainty in his views, giving reassurance at times of dramatic change. He has combined this with an aura of being knowledgeable and educated and with the determination and skill to demolish political opponents.

None of that gives him an appeal outside the country where his dogmatic assertiveness has often caused offence and bemusement. In fact, in western Europe he is more likely to be unknown or ignored. His best known views are occasionally quoted, but they make him appear quaint and eccentric.

Despite knowing nothing about the science involved, he has set himself up as an expert who denies climate change, even writing a book on the theme. That would be an electorally suicidal position in any country with a well-informed and active community of scientists who would quickly step in to demonstrate the numerous flaws and distortions in his pronouncements.

He sees nothing positive in the European Union, portraying it too as a left-wing conspiracy. That would be an acceptable position only for a party that wants to withdraw, or keep out.

His party has advocated the ‘flat tax’, a speciality of post-communist countries that has no significant appeal in western Europe.

The UK Conservative Party has entered an alliance in the European parliament with Klaus’s ODS and a few other right-wing parties from central and eastern Europe. They have preferred to keep quiet about it as it quickly proved a serious potential electoral liability.

Klaus’s views would appeal to a part of the right-wing spectrum in western Europe, notably in the UK. However, the potential supporters are precisely the narrow-minded nationalists who would not notice a foreign politician from a small country in central Europe.


One Response

  1. […] If I had, I would probably have seen Klaus as a potent and fascinating cocktail of negative and postive, leaning  probably towards the negative.  You can read what I and various others said here. […]

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