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Czech government shakeup raises questions on foreign policy

In a surprise move, the Czech prime minister collapsed the government on Tuesday in a bid to revive his party's flagging fortunes. It's a gambit that may have ramifications across Europe. Tim Gosling reports from Prague.

Political drama continued to grip Prague Thursday as President Milos Zeman "accepted" Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's resignation. The only hitch? Sobotka had not actually tendered one.

On Tuesday - less than six months ahead of October's scheduled elections - Sobotka had surprised many by announcing he and his government would quit, but not offically resign until May. His rival, billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis, labelled the shakeup the desperate act of a desperate man.

So when the prime minister arrived at Prague Castle - the seat of the Czech government - for consultations Thursday afternoon, only to have the president tell him publicly that he accepted the latter's unoffered resignation, Sobotka was visibly shaken. He responded that the scene was unnecessary, before the two left for private talks. 

Strategic backfire?

With his surprise announcement earlier this week, Sobotka clearly hoped that bringing down the coalition government would give his Social Democrat Party (CSSD) a chance of bridging a longstanding 10-point gap in opinion polls with the anti-establishment "Ano" (Yes) party of Babis, with which it has governed in a coalition since early 2014. However, the move gives President Zeman - a bitter enemy of the PM - the whip hand, and the chance to strike a deal with Babis that has clearly been in the making for months.

Milos Zeman tschechischer Präsident (picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. D. Josek)

President Zeman is has turned the tables on Czech politics

"Zeman and Babis now have added incentive to sort out a deal," said Milan Nic of the German Council on Foreign Relations following Tuesday's announcement.

The wily Zeman surprised many with his quick response. As head of state he dictates the timing of new elections and appointment of a new premier, and the country's most popular political figure is calculating how best to maneuver Babis - the second most popular - into the PM's chair. He will also be compiling a list of demands in return for the favor as the Czech Republic joins the list of EU member states facing crucial elections this year.

"Zeman will likely want to have his say on who becomes foreign minister," suggests Vit Dostal at Czech think tank AMO. "He sees that as a key post for his ambitions."

Tschechien | Ministerpräsident Sobotka kündigt seinen Rücktritt an (REUTERS/H. Hanschke)

Czech PM Sobotka, seen here at a news conference in Berlin in April, wasn't the only one with a surprise up his sleeve this week

Clowns

The rise of this pair of populists places questions over Czech foreign policy. Under the coalition, a pro-EU and Western policy has made the country an exception in a Visegrad region featuring virulently Eurosceptic nationalists in Hungary and Poland.

"This will be two clowns in the top offices in the country," one commentator told DW, "but they won't change Czechia's overall course."

Although Prague has fought against the EU's migrant quotas, it has also offered Brussels support in facing crises such as Brexit or Russian sanctions. Meanwhile, the Czechs have been busy seeking to cement even closer relations with Germany, which drives a huge chunk of the economy via export demand.

"There is a danger that the Czech Republic could now slide towards the kind of populism seen in Hungary and Poland," says Jiri Pehe, a prominent political commentator and advisor to former president Vaclav Havel. "They could do a lot of damage in the EU."

Babis is a populist, but a different sort to those challenging for power across much of Europe. Slovak-born, he has no interest in stirring Czech nationalism. Instead he has presented Ano as the anti-establishment party out to end corruption.

He has shrugged off questions over financial deals surrounding his company Agrofert - a giant food and chemicals conglomerate that is the country's largest private employer - finding support for his promise to run the country like his business. His authoritarian streak, which sees him frustrated with the drawn-out processes of democratic governance, matches the current European mood.

Yet he has little interest in foreign policy. "The greatest danger is if Babis becomes prime minister and then leaves the foreign ministry to a coalition partner from the nationalist right or the communists," states Pehe. "Babis is not interested in foreign policy, and he doesn't understand it."

Zeman, on the other hand, has been pushing to extend his sway in that arena since taking on the largely ceremonial presidency in 2013.

The outspoken head of state has strong ties to Russia, and has blasted EU sanctions against Moscow. He also maintains a bitter campaign against migrants, and has shared stages with far-right parties.

Russia has been accused of meddling in elections in the US, Netherlands and France this year, with worries also rising that it will hit Germany ahead of the September vote. In Visegrad, the action is reported to be semi-permanent, as Moscow seeks to exploit the EU's Achilles heel by overturning unanimity on bloc policy.

V4 Visegrad Treffen Warschau Polen (picture alliance/dpa/Zumapress)

Visegrad leaders meeting in early March in Warsaw

The Kremlin will likely be happy to see Zeman's hand strengthened. "Russia would definitely be interested in securing another friendly government in Visegrad to go alongside Hungary and Slovakia," says Andrius Tursa, a political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence.

"Zeman's strengthened hand could help extend Russian influence," says Nic. "However, it will be at the level of appointments in the diplomatic and civil service, rather than via overall policy."

Pragmatic

However, no one expects Czech foreign policy to head to the sort of extremes followed in Hungary. That's because there's little domestic political gain to be had from a significant shift to the east for either Zeman or Babis. Czech voters may be skeptical of Brussels and Berlin, but they are very wary of Moscow.

The rhetoric may be a little more critical of the EU, but policy will remain pro-Western and NATO, predicts Tursa. "A Czexit is not on the cards."

Rather, the pair will likely persist with the "pragmatic" route that has been followed in recent years.

Since entering Prague Castle, the president has been busy pursuing his own shadow foreign policy, regardless of the official stance of the government. He has spent much of his past four years in office brokering deals between China and Czech and Slovak oligarchs, whilst muffling any mention in Prague of human rights or Taiwan.

Such considerations would also likely see Babis block any significant shift in foreign policy. His business empire is dependent on the EU's huge role in the Czech economy, while it also benefits from EU funds and extends into neighboring member states.

That also suggests the effort to build relations with Berlin will continue unabated, despite some negative comments from both Babis and Zeman in recent times.

Still, there are likely to be bumps in the road. Babis has been compared to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, as well as Donald Trump, and while it's something of a relief that the Czech billionaire now has some experience in government, the EU will still face a skillful operator that - whilst pragmatic - is also "flamboyant and capricious," Nic points out.

"For those on the outside, it will be fun to watch," he laughs.

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