Special A decade with President Václav Klaus
Czech President Václav Klaus leaves offices on Thursday, as his second term at the helm of the country expires. Mr Klaus has been one of the country’s most distinct public figures of the post-communist era. Credited with creating a democratic political system and carrying out economic reforms in the 1990s, his presidency has been marked with controversies over his strong views on a number of issues, from global climate change to the EU.
Václav Klaus was first elected president in a parliamentary vote in February 2003. The previous year, he had lost a general election as the leader of the centre-right Civic Democrats and his successful presidential bid surprised many who thought his political career was over.
But Václav Klaus’s rise to the post of president cemented his place in modern Czech history. The top post provided him with a platform for pursuing his policies, and his voice has certainly been heard in the Czech Republic and abroad.
On the international scene, Václav Klaus has devoted much of his time and efforts to two issues he considers to be of crucial importance – European integration and its perils, and the topic of global warming which, according to Mr Klaus, has been abused by politicians and environmentalists to curb human freedom. In his 2007 address to the United Nations in New York, the Czech president made a bold point in front of the international community.
“Contrary to many self-assured and self-serving proclamations, there is no scientific consensus about the causes of recent climate changes. […] An impartial observer must accept the fact that both sides of the dispute – the believers in man’s dominant role in recent climate changes, as well as the supporters of the hypothesis of their mostly natural origin – offer arguments strong enough to be listened to carefully by the non-scientific community. To prematurely proclaim the victory of one group over the other would be a tragic mistake, and I’m afraid we making it.”
Václav Klaus’s stance on climate change has earned him scorn both at home and abroad, with many experts challenging his arguments. But his book on the issue, entitled Blue Planet in Green Shackles, with the subheading What is Endangered: Climate or Freedom? has been translated into several dozen languages including Russian and Chinese. And his stance has earning him many supporters around the world, including some conservatives in the United States. In 2008, just a few days after his re-election, the Czech president appeared on a Fox News programme hosted by Glenn Beck.
“I know that it is politically incorrect to have the views I have, nevertheless I succeeded in getting elected president of my country two weeks ago and everyone in the country knows about my views on global warming and climate change and I was re-elected in spite of that. So that means it is not only possible but necessary to do this.”
You are an economist and you know what America’s economy is going through. I am so concerned that you take a project like global warming and you spend trillions of dollars and give it to an organization like the UN –what you are doing is you are selling your sovereignty, you are collapsing the economy as we know it. True or false?
“This is what I see as well. Sending the sovereignty somewhere from the relevant countries is a problem for me. Global governance is a problem for me, who lived in the communist era. All kinds of governance represent a problem, and global governance means a global problem. So I am very much against it and the problem is that there is a danger that it will dramatically stop or block economic growth, the rise of living standards and especially it will be a problem for developing countries.”
On the international scene, the transfer of power from national states to supra-national bodies has been another major topic for Václav Klaus. Since the early 1990s, Mr Klaus has warned against the process of ever-tighter European integration. The 2008 financial meltdown with the ensuing crisis of the euro zone seems to have proved him right. In Václav Klaus’ opinion, the introduction of the common European currency was a “tragic mistake” that deprived the individual countries of important tools to manage their own economies.
When the Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004, a year after he was first elected president, Václav Klaus warned that the country was losing its sovereignty, and refused to say whether he had voted for or against accession in a nation wide referendum. Last year, the president discussed his views on the EU on CNN’s Quest Means Business.
“I am a long-term critic of what is going on in the Euro zone and what is going on in the European Union and I have a problem with it. I do not see any solution. There are solutions, but the European politicians and the people in Europe do not want to accept the tough solutions that I would suggest.”
But when you say there needs to be a fundamental shift in paradigm –does that mean closer integration? Because, if it does not mean that, then the experiment cannot succeed…
“I am definitely not suggesting closer integration. On the contrary, I am suggesting looser integration. I think Europe made a tragic mistake by jumping into the European monetary union without having all the necessary pre-conditions in place.”
In 2009, Václav Klaus’ position on European integration became the source of a major conflict. The Czech president was the last head of state in the European Union not to have ratified the Lisbon treaty, a document which increased the role of European institutions at the expense of national states. Mr Klaus found himself under immense domestic and international pressure to ratify the document. He challenged the treaty at the Czech Constitutional Court but when the court ruled it was in line with Czech law in early November of that year, the president gave in. Wearing a black tie, Václav Klaus conceded defeat.
“Contrary to the political opinion of the Constitutional Court, the Czech Republic will cease to be a sovereign country. This change legitimizes the efforts of those in the Czech society who do not feel indifferent to our national existence and who do not want to put up with the result. And finally, let me announce that at 3 PM today, I signed the Lisbon treaty.”
Václav Klaus’s strong positions on issues such as European integration have tainted his reputation abroad. Although he travelled more than his predecessor, Václav Klaus was never received as head of state by the American president in the White House. Instead, the Czech president focused on fomenting ties with Russia which many Czechs still see as a threat. In December 2011, then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Prague for an official visit, only a week after controversial general elections in Russia. When asked about the elections and allegations of fraud at a joint news conference with the Russian president, Václav Klaus refused to get involved.
“Mr President rightly said it was their elections and not ours. That’s the basis of my approach to it, and I admit I don’t like hearing comments from abroad about our internal matters, either. I was not involved in any monitoring mission so I don’t really want to take any stance on the elections or the demonstrations that might have happened in several places in Russia.”
As prime minister, Václav Klaus focused on promoting liberalism and the role of the market economy. But as president, and especially towards the end of his tenure, Mr Klaus increasingly took on the defence of traditional values. His views have been described as conservative and even nationalist – but with the changing world around him, Václav Klaus found the national state and its principles to be a guarantee of the Czech national existence, as he emphasized in his address on the Czech Independence Day, October 28, 2012.
“We should find the courage to overcome the denial and ridicule of centuries-olds values and roots of our civilization. If we don’t start to call things by their real names, distinguish between values and pseudo-values, between norms and extremes, our feelings of insecurity will only grow. All this is a major threat to democracy, not just in our country but in the whole of Europe.”
Mr Klaus’ presidency, and his entire political career, has been marked by rivalry with his predecessor Václav Havel. Speaking over his coffin in December 2011, Václav Klaus found words of respect to his major political foe.
“We have gathered here to pay tribute to the life and work of a statesman whose wide international recognition turned him into a symbol of the struggle for democracy and human rights, a man who like no other contributed to the international prestige and authority of the Czech Republic.
“Václav Havel – president, politician, intellectual, artist, and human being– has died. But his work, his thoughts, and his legacy remain with us.”
But earlier this year, Václav Klaus openly spoke his mind. In an interview for a Polish magazine, Mr Klaus labelled Václav Havel an “extreme leftist”, and said the struggle between Havel’s elitism and his own democratic policies had been the major political conflict of the modern-day Czech Republic.
Throughout his presidency, Václav Klaus maintained high levels of public support which stayed at around 70 percent until the last months of his second term. His departure from office has been tainted by a controversial amnesty which he declared in his last New Year’s address. Many people thought the amnesty played into the hands of those who stood accused of having committed serious economic crime in the 1990s, an era overseen by Václav Klaus as prime minister. This has also prompted an unparalleled reaction from the Czech Senate which, only a few days before the end of Mr Klaus’s term, sued the president for high treason at the Constitutional Court.
In his inaugural address in 2003, Václav Klaus famously promised to be an active rather than an activist president. He said he wanted to increase people’s trust in the Czech political scene, in the country’s democratic institutions, and in political parties. Ten years later, trust in these institutions is nearing record lows. In this respect, Václav Klaus as president, failed to deliver on his promises.