2016 saw Czech President's convergence with China and with Trump
The last year of Czech President Miloš Zeman's foreign policy agenda was characterized by further rapprochement with China, supporting US president-elect Donald Trump and fewer trips abroad than in past years. He did not avoid controversies, such as when he openly supported particular candidates running for president in both Austria and the USA.
Zeman continued his rigorous enforcement of close cooperation with China last year, which culminated in the March visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Prague. According to the Czech President, Chinese firms in the Czech Republic will be investing tens of billions of crowns in many industries.
Some economists and politicians consider those expectations to have been excessive and say the benefits and Chinese investments themselves have been lower than expected. The president's spokesperson, Jiří Ovčáček, has highlighted developments in relations with China, in cooperation with the Czech Government, as one of the successes of the past year.
During the visit of the Chinese President the issue of human rights was addressed. Anti-China and pro-China protesters got into several conflicts in Prague.
Czech Police officers then faced criticism over their unbalanced approach to maintaining public order because their operations were stronger against the pro-Tibetan protesters than they were against those protesting in favor of China. Both their superior officers and Zeman stood up for the police, with the Czech President saying officers had correctly prevented "mentally disturbed" people from engaging in speech.
Relations with China again became a society-wide issue at the end of October when the Czech Republic was visited by the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. After Czech Culture Minister Daniel Herman (Christian Democrats - KDU-ČSL) met with the Dalai Lama at the ministry, the Czech President and other state officials publicly issued a joint declaration.
The statement assured China that the Czech Republic acknowledges the country's "unity". Strong criticisms were made of the statement, which was described by many as servile.
Herman then accused Zeman of having pressured him to cancel the meeting with the Dalai Lama by threatening to withhold honors from Herman's relative, Jiří Brady, who survived the Holocaust. Zeman denied it.
The Culture Minister met with the Dalai Lama anyway and Brady did not receive the state honors. The Office of the President claimed Brady had never been on the list of honorees, but according to Brady, Director of Protocol Jindřich Forejt had previously informed him that he would be awarded the Order of T.G. Masaryk.
Forejt denied having delivered such a message. Some Czech political representatives then refused to attend the ceremony conferring the state honors on 28 October at Prague Castle.
According to some Czech media, Czech Justice Minister Robert Pelikán (ANO) was also punished for his disagreement with the pro-Chinese statement issued by the other Czech authorities. Zeman, without justification, refused to accept the Government's proposal for promotion of two men from the management of the Prison Service to the rank of General.
The Office of the President had to explain other controversial events last year as well. For example, Zeman's delegation arrived late for the funeral of former Slovak President Michal Kováč.
Several explanations for the delay were gradually given by the Office of the President, including accusing air traffic controllers of having delayed the President's departure, but they objected to that characterization. Ovčáček subsequently apologized.
American Ambassador Andrew Schapiro also lived to see a partial apology after the Czech President said, incorrectly, that Schapiro had also not attended the 28 October celebrations. Zeman put the blame for that erroneous information on his Director of Protocol.
The Czech President's official state visits last year were to Armenia, Macedonia and Portugal. He also attended the NATO summit in Poland, in the summit of the V4 countries, in the summit of European and Asian countries (ASEM) in Mongolia, in the UN General Assembly meeting in the USA, and the Olympic Games in Brazil.
A number of statesmen were received by the Czech President, either at the presidential residence in Lány or at Prague Castle, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. During the election campaign in the USA, Zeman endorsed Donald Trump, and he also endorsed Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, with both of whom he shares similar views.
While in the case of Trump his bet on one of the candidates paid off and he has received an invitation to the White House this coming spring, the Czech President's bet on Hofer in Austria failed. The winner of that contest, Alexander Van der Bellen, will probably find it difficult to seek common ground with Zeman.
Zeman unequivocally welcomed Trump's victory. Ovčáček told the Czech News Agency that Trump's election will "restart" relations with the USA.
The Czech President's spokesperson said that while existing relations have not been bad, there have been areas of friction, as Zeman has made no secret of the fact that he disagrees with the current administration of President Barack Obama and has also had conflicts with Ambassador Schapiro. Ovčáček said Prague Castle sees the incoming American president as a chance to develop the Czech-US relationship.
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