Milos Zeman: The Czech Leader Proud To Be Politically Incorrect

Milos Zeman Milos Zeman

The Czech Republic's colourful and provocative President Milos Zeman was rushed to intensive care just hours after a centre-right alliance narrowly won the country's parliamentary election.

Mr Zeman, 77, is supposed to oversee the formation of a new government - a duty now thrown into doubt. The BBC's Rob Cameron in Prague explains here why Mr Zeman is such a controversial figure.

Milos Zeman can - at times - be a very funny man. Blessed with a sharp intellect, biting wit and perfect comic timing, he has long been a goldmine for journalists seeking a pithy quote.

I recall a trip to Gothenburg in the summer of 2001. Mr Zeman, then prime minister, was visiting Sweden at a crucial time for his country, then angling to join the European Union. Stockholm held the EU rotating presidency, and there was a small but realistic chance the Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson would announce a concrete date for EU enlargement.

We trailed after Mr Zeman, from shipyard to car factory to audience with the King of Sweden. There was never a dull moment.

At one press conference Mr Persson was asked a question by a Swedish journalist, who wanted an answer in Swedish rather than English. The host turned to his Czech counterpart and asked if he'd like a translation.

Not necessary," said Mr Zeman, legs crossed, his head lolling characteristically to one side, a plume of cigarette smoke streaming from his lips. "Actually, I know many words in Swedish," he went on.

"Really?" gasped the Swedish PM, surprised at his Czech counterpart's hidden linguistic talents.

"Oh yes," said Mr Zeman. "I know öl ... and skål!" - giving his rendition of the Swedish words for "beer" and "cheers!". The hall erupted in laughter.

"Well," replied Mr Persson, when the mirth had subsided. "Unfortunately, I won't be using those words."

This was still in the days when Mr Zeman was unequivocally pro-EU, pro-Nato, pro-Western. But today he is known as the best friend of Russia and China in Europe. He has consistently sought to undermine his own intelligence services - who have long warned of Russian and Chinese interference - dismissing them as "dilettantes".

Alcohol has featured heavily in Milos Zeman's repertoire of quips and putdowns. On an official visit to neighbouring Slovakia he urged his hosts not to waste their time drinking Slovak beer but to import the superior Czech product instead. "Poprad beer would dissolve your dentures if you left them in it overnight," he warned.

The audience of Czech and Slovak businessmen laughed heartily. Except, that is, a representative of the Association of Slovak Brewers and Malt-makers, who rose to his feet in anger. A Slovak colleague standing next to him stormed out.

But at times Mr Zeman has himself struggled to contain his emotions.

He plucked the Social Democrats from obscurity in the early 1990s, transforming the leftist party - the country's oldest - into a major political force. He was their unchallenged leader, serving first as chairman of the lower house, then as prime minister from 1998 to 2002.

But in 2003 he was humiliated when the party failed to give him a ringing endorsement to succeed Vaclav Havel as president. The Social Democrat MPs' failure to back him resulted in him being ejected in the second-round vote.

Shortly after Mr Zeman had stormed out of Prague Castle I was standing with Jaroslava Moserova, a tiny, chain-smoking liberal candidate who had played a role in eliminating him. "Oh dear," she whispered, "I think Milos is a bit upset."

He spent the next decade sequestered at his country cottage in Vysocina, where Mr Zeman would go - in his words - to hug trees.

A friend, who worked in television for many years, told me a story about a colleague who went to interview him.

Again, the story involves alcohol. At the time Mr Zeman was consuming copious quantities of Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur. He has since switched to white wine, on doctor's orders. He was known for plying news crews with Becherovka before interviews.

The recording was disturbed at one point by a heavy thud behind the reporter. Afraid to turn around, he carried on with the interview.

"My dear colleague," said Mr Zeman. "I believe your cameraman has fallen over."

But when he finally won the presidency - succeeding conservative Vaclav Klaus in 2013 - he was a different man. He was said to have kept a list of his enemies - especially those Social Democrat MPs who had betrayed him. He would get his revenge on several of them, publicly humiliating Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka at an excruciating televised briefing in 2017.

The jokes were still there, but there was a nasty, dangerous edge to them.

He once quipped - standing next to Russia's President Vladimir Putin - that there were too many journalists, and they should be "liquidated". Mr Putin smiled nervously.

He has made inflammatory comments about Islam, migrants and LGBT rights, both before and during his presidency. Some were meant to be humorous: "I'm against the burka - although I can think of some women for whom they'd be an improvement." Some were not: "I'm not saying that all Muslims are terrorists. I'm saying all terrorists are Muslims." Earlier this year he said transgender people were "disgusting".

Now, it seems, a lifetime of heavy smoking and hard drinking - a lifestyle he has publicly advocated, and not always in jest - has caught up with him.

Source: CNN