VELVET BLUES

The Czechs’ Clear Choice: A Future for the Young With Europe, or Nostalgia and Dependence on Putin

Jiri Drahos, the pro-Europe challenger to incumbent president and Putin crony Milos Zeman, looks like he just might win the second-round runoff.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

RomanNOVE VESELI, Czech Republic—On the day of the first round in this country’s presidential election, Linda Jamborova, a 23-year-old coffee shop manager, was busy chatting with her clients in a provincial town in Vysocina region. With a big smile, a contagious sense of humor, and her golden skin glowing after a visit to the tanning salon on this gray and misty day, she generated an air of youth and health. Jamborova was speaking about her dreams, her political views, and the generational clash between young and old in the Czech Republic.

Prague was once a cultural beacon, hip and dynamic, led by the literary icon Vaclav Havel through a smooth transition from communism. Now, the country is known for retrograde politics, and strangely, a leaning toward Russia, even nostalgia for old East Bloc ties. Among the elites, at least, the Velvet Revolution led by the late Havel seems to have been folded up and put away in a drawer.

Like many young women in her country, Jamborova was frustrated that all nine candidates running for president in the first round of voting last Friday were male. She seemed to have a hard time choosing which of these unremarkable, gray figures should be the one to represent her country on the international scene.

But one thing Jamborova felt confident about: she did not want to see 73-year-old President Milos Zeman re-elected to stay in Prague Castle on top of the hill in her country’s capital for another term. At least in this, the election offered Czechs like Jamborova a chance to regain some of their country's old moral high ground. “Every time I see him, he is drunk, and his face looks stupid. I would hate it if he wins,” Jamborova told The Daily Beast.

In the event, President Zeman failed to win re-election in the first round, with only 38.5 percent of vote, and after two weeks Czech citizens will vote again. All the other candidates endorsed the leading opposition candidate in the run-off, Jiri Drahos, the former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He had placed second with 26.6 percent of the vote, and Czech Television subsequently gave him a 48.5 percent to 44 percent lead over Zeman.

If Zeman is defeated, many would see it as a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to win over the leaders of countries that once were part of the Soviet Bloc.

LAST NOVEMBER President Zeman traveled to Russia with 140 or so Czech businessmen. Talking in Sochi, the Black Sea resort, Zeman declared that Russia was “10 times more important” for the Czech Republic than the European Union, and that it was time for both the U.S. and EU to cancel sanctions against Russia.

But even the Kremlin’s powerful support in the form of promises of business profits did not help President Zeman win the vote in the first round.

Zeman had a tough week as a presidential candidate.

On election day, when he walked slowly, leaning on a cane, into a polling station to vote, he was confronted by a black Ukrainian political activist from the group Femen, who shouted: “Zeman is Putin’s slut!” The same words were written on the activist’s bare chest. The activist, Angelina Diash, became the latest Femen activist to use her breasts as weapon in political protests.

A black Ukrainian political activist from the group Femen shouted: 'Zeman is Putin’s slut!'

The young generation blames Zeman for dragging Czech democracy backward into a corrupt, KGB-controlled past, an all but unbelievable outcome for the Velvet Revolution.

Ondrej Kundra, the author of Putin’s Agents, a book on Russian infiltration in Czech politics, says that the president's daily drinking is the least of his country's troubles. According to Kundra, dozens of Russian intelligence operatives work in the Czech Republic with Zeman’s blessing.

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The embrace of the new Russian ideology called “sovereign democracy” that empowers unaccountable business and and political elites poses serious risks. “An NGO of Zeman’s closest friends, including Russia-connected Vratislav Mynar and Martin Nejedly spent millions of Czech crowns on billboards, advertising for his presidency, without explaining where the money was coming from,” Kundra pointed out in an interview with The Daily Beast. The billboards with the slogan “Zeman Again” can be seen throughout the country.

THE CLASH BETWEEN young and old was obvious even in the provincial region of Vysochina, a conservative stronghold often referred to as Zeman Land because his anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric seems to resonate so well here. Yet only 44 percent of Nove Veseli’s 1,238 residents voted for Zeman this week—and Nove Veseli is Zeman's hometown. For over a decade, the president has been coming here to be seen fishing from a rubber boat and drinking with his pals at a local pub.

On Friday morning, two of Zeman’s local friends who are also campaign volunteers, 50-year-old Milan Mokry and 68-year-old Bohumil Travnik, were putting a banner with Milos Zeman’s face on the porch of a restaurant called the President’s Restaurant, on the main square of the village; they said that their candidate could show up to have some wine with his friends any time.

Travnik, deputy head of the local branch of Zeman’s party, explained the main ideas of the presidential campaign: “Zeman is a man of the people," he said. "Just like us, he is fond of fishing, he understands our everyday problems, and we agree when he says that illegal immigrants are dangerous for the Czech republic."

Here, the Czech Republic's dash Westward, once so mesmerizing for international watchers, is unpopular. Both Mokry and Travnik complained about the decline of agriculture and felt nostalgic for Soviet Socialist times. Mokry spoke passable Russian, and sang “Katyusha,” a famous Russian song.  Zeman supporters also echo his conspiracy theories, saying for example that the recent migration crisis in the European Union was a plot of the Muslim Brotherhood, meant to “gradually gain control of Europe.”

But the farmland and “folk” vote in Eastern Europe might not be as strong as once expected. On the cover of this week’s Respekt, a news magazine published in the capital, Zeman is depicted sinking in his rubber boat in Nove Veseli, surrounded with pieces of broken ice.

Critics believe that the time has come for Zeman to move out of Prague Castle, the traditional residence for Czech leaders dating back to the 9th century.

AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION by the Kremlin Watch project at the European Values Think-Tank in the Czech Republic revealed some of the same activists coming to rallies in support of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Milos Zeman.  One of Zeman’s supporters, for instance, is Zarko Jovanovic. He is also pro-Russian and pro-Trump. On his Facebook profile picture. Jovanovic wears a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt from Trump’s campaign; the activist also wears an “Agent of the Kremlin” badge showing up at public meetings.

Last Tuesday, Jovanovic posed for a photograph in Prague Castle, where he attended Zeman’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.

Roman Maca, an investigative reporter for European Values, told The Daily Beast, “It is a shame that Zeman treats Prague Castle, a historic landmark important for every Czech, as a his own residence, where he invited very dubious activists.”

“If Zeman wins the election in two weeks,” said Mac, “his team of accomplices will go deeper, transforming my country into Russian and Chinese vassal state.”