“Do you smoke?” asks the Czech Republic’s president, lighting the first of several cigarettes during an interview with the Guardian at his sumptuous official residence overlooking the city.
“Unfortunately the smokers are a discriminated minority and we are persecuted in all hotels, all restaurants, everywhere,” he continues indignantly, defending a habit he once dismissed as harmless if not started before the age of 27. “It is like in the case of the [American] prohibition. Whiskey as a consequence was more expensive and very low quality. And now smoking is also nearly prohibited.”
The contradiction of modern scientific orthodoxy seems a far cry from the moral authority exuded by one of his predecessors, the late Václav Havel, a former anti-communist dissident who was the Czech Republic’s first president following the 1992 breakup of Czechoslovakia.
Yet it is typical of the unabashed advocacy of traditional mores and popular pastimes that Zeman has made his trademark since becoming his country’s first directly elected head of state in 2013.
Last year, the president – whose drinking exploits, including occasionally appearing to be inebriated in public, have become legendary – stirred controversy by wishing “death to abstainers and vegetarians” during a meeting with winemakers.
His spokesman insisted he was referring to Adolf Hitler, a renowned teetotaller who did not eat meat. Whatever the truth, it was undoubtedly popular with Zeman’s working-class supporters, predominantly based in the provinces far removed from cultured, cosmopolitan Prague.
Such earthy folksiness resonates even further, however – beyond the borders of the Czech Republic and with potentially important consequences for Europe’s future. It strikes a powerful chord in neighbouring Slovakia, Hungary and Poland which, together with the Czech Republic, make up the Visegrád group of countries. This potent eastern European populism is likely to be on full display when the European Union’s members gather in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, on Friday for the first summit since Britain’s Brexit vote.
For Zeman is most in his element when talking about his opposition to accepting Muslim refugees from Syria and elsewhere to ease Europe’s migration crisis.
The Czech president has unleashed a rhetorical fusillade against Muslim incomers of such intensity that it makes the anti-Islamic sentiments of Robert Fico, the Slovakian prime minister, and even Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister – who is holding a referendum next month aimed at establishing public opposition to accepting migrants – seem mild in comparison.
Zeman has warned that the Czech Republic – home to only 3,500 Muslims out of a population of 10.5 million, according to official figures – could be targeted in a jihadi attack and urged Czechs to arm themselves against what he referred to as a possible “super-Holocaust”. The concern is believed to have prompted the unprecedented introduction of metal detectors to screen the crowds of foreign tourists that visit Prague castle each day.
The alarmist message is particularly striking because unlike most anti-immigrant politicians in western Europe, Zeman, 71, is a social democrat (and former communist) rather than a rightwinger, and the Czech Republic has been largely spared the waves of refugees that have swept into neighbouring Austria and Hungary en route to Germany.
The stridency has been lent greater urgency – and popularity – by Zeman’s hostility to proposed quotas that would disperse refugees across EU countries, a position he voiced forcefully to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, when she visited Prague last month.
“My first sentence in the meeting with Madam Chancellor was: ‘If you invite somebody to your homeland, you do not send them for a lunch to your neighbours.’ Very polite sentence, isn’t it?” says Zeman, speaking English in disarmingly avuncular tones belying his uncompromising opinions. The German leader merely smiled in response, he says.
There is little to smile about, however, when Zeman sets out what he sees as the threat being posed by radical Islamists – and even “moderate” Muslims, who he says could be radicalised to commit terror attacks as ordinary Germans were once inspired to fanatically back Hitler.
“In the 30s, the overwhelming majority of Germans were decent people, the nation of Goethe and Schiller and so on,” he says. “In a few years, they became Nazis, even fanatic Nazis. And the radicalisation of the – till these times – moderate Muslim population might be like the case of the German population. It might be easier than the German population, [because] you have a very radical ideology based on a religion.”
Challenged to justify applying this to secular, non-practising Muslims, Zeman invokes a former Czech education minister in calling Islam “a religion of death” and points to what he says are the teachings of the Qur’an.
“You might say that Islamic migration is composed of peaceful people. Let me give you one example. The attitude of Islam – I do not speak about jihadists, I speak about Islam – towards women, half of the population. As you know, in the Qur’an, women is something like the inferior part of mankind.”
Zeman’s intemperate and, to many, downright offensive language has drawn accusations of populism and inevitable comparisons with the US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. He counters by citing Winston Churchill.
“Winston Churchill has been always a populist and he was right. And all who criticised him were wrong,” says Zeman. “What does it mean, a populist? It is a slogan, a label, nothing more.”
Criticism is also levelled at the president’s Euroscepticism, manifested in his denunciation of EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea. Zeman has demanded referendums on the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU and Nato, while insisting he would advocate staying in each.
The country’s need to remain in the EU, which it joined in 2004, is justified by “money, money, money”, he says, before launching into a brief and unmelodic rendition of Abba’s famous hit. “My cynical explanation is that we are not the net payer in the European Union. We get a huge amount of subsidies from European funds,” he says. “This is not the situation of British people, of course.”
Still, he says, the EU is unlikely to survive Brexit without triggering further exits unless there is a change of leadership and radical reform to stem “nonsense directives”.
The union, he says, is like a broken-down train described in an old Soviet joke about the collapse of communism. “The third part of the joke has the train with Brezhnev on board,” he explains. “He says, ‘comrades, if the train stops, we shall close the curtain and imitate that the train is still going on’. The European Union is the third part of this joke. They simply close the curtains and simulate that without any change of strategy, the European Union is going on.”
Then the president seeks to conclude the interview, only to have second thoughts on realising he has not finished his last cigarette, giving him time to contemplate the impact of Brexit on Britain.
“Long live Great Britain. But I wonder whether Scotland will stay in Great Britain,” he muses.
Does Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce” – producing the Czech Republic and Slovakia – hold any lessons for the UK and a possible independent Scotland? “I do not wish you your splendid isolation. Isolation is splendid in the long term but you know what Keynes said – in the long term we are all dead. Bye-bye.”
Author: Robert Tait