PRAGUE: Czech President Milos Zeman, who is seeking a second five-year term in a run-off vote on Friday and Saturday, has sown division with his strong anti-migrant and pro-Russian views, despite vowing to be “the voice of all citizens” when first elected.
The silver-haired 73-year-old cut down on his smoking and drinking after he became the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president in 2013, but he has stuck to his outspoken ways.
A year after taking up the top job, the veteran leftwinger made clear his foreign policy preferences by visiting China and attending a forum on a Greek island that was organised by a Vladimir Putin ally who is a persona non grata in the United States.
When the migrant crisis swept Europe in 2015, Zeman was quick to call the wave of refugees “an organised invasion” and Muslims “impossible to integrate”.
An economist by profession, Zeman won fame in former Czechoslovakia just before the fall of communism in 1989, for decrying the utter failure of the communist command economy.
Zeman is the country’s third president since Czechoslovakia split into two states — the Czech Republic and Slovakia — in 1993, following the late dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and the economist Vaclav Klaus.
Zeman joined the Communist Party during the 1968 Prague Spring reforms. The short-lived period of greater freedom was brutally crushed by a Soviet invasion.
Two years later he was purged from the party and lost his job as an economics professor.
Zeman joined the left-leaning Social Democratic party after communism fell, taking its helm in 1993.
Five years later, he formed a minority government largely responsible for talks in the run-up to the country’s accession to the EU in 2004.
During his term as prime minister in 1998-2002, he caused an uproar on several occasions, including the time he likened then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.
Drinks and smokes
He is also known for a strong aversion to journalists, whom he once dubbed “manure” and “superficial” before telling Putin in China last May that “journalists should be liquidated”.
His failed attempt to replace Havel as president in 2003 – in a vote won by Klaus – led him to reconsider his priorities and retreat to a country house far from Prague “to embrace trees,” as he once said.
But he never managed to stay away from politics and he launched his political career in 2010 when he founded the left-wing Citizens’ Rights Party.
He was skewered for his friendship with former Communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, allegedly close to the Czech mafia and Russian corporations, including energy giant Lukoil.
Born on September 28, 1944, Zeman is married to Ivana who is 20 years his junior as well as a fan of guns and all things military.
“She will protect me from terrorists,” Zeman once quipped, calling on Czechs to “get armed against terrorists” amid the migrant flow into Europe.
Zeman has two children, a son from his first marriage and a daughter from his second.
A chain smoker, Zeman once confessed to a daily diet of six glasses of wine and three shots of spirits.
Apparently drunk, he infamously stumbled in the room containing the Czech crown jewels during his first inspection there, shortly after his election.
He later blamed the incident on a virus, which has since become a popular tongue-in-cheek euphemism for inebriation.
Zeman suffers from diabetic neuropathy, forcing him to walk with a cane.