Czech president Miloš Zeman is in Russia on a five-day official state visit, taking in Sochi, Moscow and Yekaterinburg. He is accompanied by a 130-strong delegation of representing Czech businesses hoping to sign energy and transportation-related contracts worth 20 billion crowns. The visit has fuelled further criticism that the president is charting a separate “pro-Russian” foreign policy at odds with the official position of the Czech government. Dr. Mark Galeotti is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague. I began by asking him what President Zeman hopes to achieve with this trip:
“I think he enjoys the sense that he is a player on the global stage. And it is interesting that on the one hand Zeman wants to be a reassuringly local figure to Czechs – someone who understands their fears and so forth. But he also wants to show that unlike the other candidates (in the upcoming Czech presidential elections) he is a player.”
Zeman is being accompanied by 130 delegates from Czech companies. This is in spite of the fact that the EU has levied sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea. So what is the appeal for Zeman of attempting to foster closer business ties with Russia?
“We should realise that the sanctions regime against Russia is very specific. It is certainly not a blanket ban on trade. And, let’s be perfectly honest, part of the president’s job is to beat the drum for his county in foreign markets. So that is perfectly normal. But of course the trouble is that this comes at the same time as Zeman has actually made it clear that he is opposed to the sanctions regime (at all). So even though he is in some ways doing his job, he is also undermining the government’s stated position in support of the sanctions.”
And in terms of trying to understand Miloš Zeman’s own thinking on this – if he is going against the policies of the Czech government, and is viewed by some as being either pro-Russian or pro-Putin – is there a way to understand Zeman’s thinking in this regard? Does he prefer the Russian democratic model or what…?
“In part, I think that Zeman delights in being the troll president, who creates a fuss through his controversial statements. But we shouldn’t think of him as some kind of Russian Trojan horse, though. It’s not that we can say that he is not a Czech patriot. It is rather that he is sceptical of the European Union; he is sceptical about the way that the Unites States has influence over Europe, and he certainly feels a certain sympathy for Russia’s position. But the point is ultimately that he enjoys the opportunity to push his own agenda, push his own personality, precisely by challenging the government.”