The New Europe

The Real Face of Vaclav Klaus

Newly appointed Czech President Vaclav Klaus with Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, April 10. (Photo: AFP) 

Vaclav Klaus, the honorary chairman of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) who patiently put up with three long rounds of presidential elections, lived to see his political importance confirmed. He is to become Vaclav Havel’s successor, and the longstanding duel with his greatest ideological adversary is to con-tinue in a new form for another five years. In those five years, the ambitious Klaus is sure to do his best to show everyone that he will be a better president for the Czech Republic, or at least as good as Havel was.

Looking abroad, the new head of state will not be in an easy situation. Not because Havel’s good reputation abroad is irreplaceable; there is no use talking about that now. The reasons are simpler. Klaus already has a reputation abroad, and not the best one. In the European Union, Klaus is seen as a distinctive critic of European conditions who does not hold dear the ingrained rituals and sticks to his guns even at guest sessions of the European Parliament.

Klaus’ nationalistically tuned stance on the future shape of Europe is equally easy to see. At a time when the entire world, in confronting global issues, is dismissing the old concept of nation-states, Klaus seems to be returning to this concept. “I do not wage old battles,” Klaus said several times before the election, although he knew very well that this promise would be hard to keep, especially as regards the E.U. Klaus has always wanted Europe to remain small and fragile, because this is the only chance for regional politicians with a vision that does not reach beyond home borders to maintain significance. If Klaus really wanted to keep his word, he would have to change completely his starting position and fight more for a politically and economically strong Europe in which the Czech Republic, naturally, would never get lost.

As president, Klaus will have to fight with the tarnished reputation of a politician-economist who pursued a confused vision of a market economy without attributes, which the world ended up interpreting as capitalism without rules and order, or a system of the jungle where everyone wrested as much as his influence and power permitted. Of course, this is an exaggerated simplification and stereotype, but the Financial Times, the influential business paper, long ago stopped writing about Klaus in any other terms. And twice already, it has recommended that the Czech electorate cast its vote for the pro-European Social Democrats rather than for the inconsistent, nationalist, and anti-European Klaus.

In brief, Klaus will have to come to terms with the fact that the Europe with which he will deal lives in a somewhat different world, where talk about socialism, dirigisme, and ideological purity of the struggle for the one and only eco-nomic freedom no longer interests anyone, because everyone has admitted that he lives in an ideologically mixed system in which Keynes has no problem cooperating with Milton Friedman.

Finally, Klaus will lack natural allies abroad. In fact, he’s never had any. Theoretically, Silvio Berlusconi should be the closest to him, but Klaus does not have the American firmness of Italy’s prime minister. Indeed, it is hard to picture Klaus adding his signature to the letter by the seven European prime ministers supporting a resolute U.S. approach on Iraq.

Looking home, Klaus will be in a much easier situation if he really plays the role of a political unifier (and Klaus can, indeed, act), as he said in interviews, nomination speeches, and finally, in his first parliamentary appearance [in the capacity of president] after the successful third election. But can a man who has so long divided society—into the two irreconcilable camps of his fanatic devotees and equally fanatic opponents—unify society?

It is possible; a new role may change any person. But Klaus would have to abandon his old ideological vocabulary and speculations, which he used to declaim as easily as if they were statements of fact. His expression “criminalization of entrepreneurship” is one example.

The first occasion when Vaclav Klaus will be able to manifest his “unifying” abilities will be the war in Iraq, which, it seems, will begin soon. Other than that, there is an event of fundamental importance for the future of Czech demo-cracy—the nomination of 11 constitutional judges, whose 10-year terms of office expire this summer and next year. This test will be the most crucial of all, because it will indicate clearly what the five years under President Klaus will look like.

There is not the slightest doubt that Klaus can find within himself the capabilities to be a good president and that the words of some of Klaus’ enemies about “a disaster for Czech democracy” are unduly strong. It depends on whether the new face that Klaus has been showing to the public in recent weeks is genuine or whether it was nothing but the chameleon-like disguise of a man who wanted his dream—to chase Vaclav Havel’s shadow from the Castle [the presidential residence]—to come true at any price.