The Trouble with President Zeman from the Czech Republic, a Warning for Our Midterms: The Russians Are Still Meddling

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with President Zeman from the Czech Republic, a Warning for Our Midterms: The Russians Are Still Meddling


He isn't the country's most important politician. In the Czech Republic, as in many European countries, the prime minister is far more powerful than the president. Nevertheless, the Czech president represents his country abroad, speaks on its behalf and generally helps set the tone and tenor of public debate, much like the American president does in the United States. And without question, the Jan. 27 re-election of Milos Zeman - who is vulgar and sexist (not to mention aggressively pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, anti-European and anti-NATO) and has been accused of public drunkenness - will set the tone and tenor of public life in the Czech Republic.

In this role, he will certainly reinforce the stereotype of central Europe as "different" from the rest of Europe. Poland and Hungary, both now run by anti-European politicians bent on controlling the judiciary and the media, are already discounted by many in Europe and considered to be on their way out of the democratic camp; now the Czechs will join them.

The election of Mr. Zeman the first time around in 2013 could be explained away as a fluke. His re-election, although very narrow - he defeated a political novice by a mere 175,000 votes - cannot be so easily wished away.

But comforting though it may be for those in other Western capitals to dismiss Mr. Zeman as some kind of post-communist problem, his truly vile election campaign both echoes the politics of many older democracies and may be a harbinger of the future for others. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Czech political and media culture are heavily influenced by popular (and anonymous) websites that pump out a constant stream of pro-Russian, anti-NATO propaganda, promoting fear and hatred of Muslim immigrants and resentment of an alleged "elite" that is far weaker than the corrupt business class and Russian entities who supported the president's campaign. But if that sounds like a problem of an immature democracy, think about this: Precisely that same sentence, with those same words, could have been written about the Trump campaign.

Indeed, the further similarities are eerie. In the second round of the election, Mr. Zeman's social media operation began smearing his opponent, Jiri Drahos, a neophyte who ran a campaign arguing for decency and civilized debate, as a pedophile. Disgusting? Absurd? Only in the primitive East? Think back to the final weeks of the U. …

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