Among the first things Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, says to me when we sit down is: “That is not the issue.” It was his response to my first question, about the likely outcome of this weekend’s Czech parliamentary elections, and it sets the tone of the rest of the interview.
We meet in London for afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, because afternoon tea is what the president’s schedule in Britain allows. He comes with the Czech ambassador to the UK, two aides and two British Special Branch detectives in his wake.
This sudden irruption of alpha males causes flurries of interest among the ladies-who-take-tea, who are the larger part of the fourth-floor restaurant’s clientele of an afternoon. The Special Branch guards disappear, as their training dictates. So, perhaps for unrelated reasons, does the piano player, who had been tinkling pleasantly. The ambassador and the aides sit at the table next door, and occasionally, when he wants to make a large point, the president addresses them as well as me.
Klaus is famously a nightmare. He lets nothing pass, challenges most things and has no small talk. A few weeks from his 65th birthday, he has a full head of greying hair, a large thick moustache and the vigorous air of a man who enjoys a lot of sport.
I tell him that I first met him in mid-December 1989, when I was based in central Europe at the close of the communist era. He had just been installed as finance minister, propelled from semi-dissident economic studies into a large, cold and dark office in which (as I wrote at the time) he spent some time punching a vast intercom to try to get his secretary.
He acknowledges that we met, but does not treat it as a gambit for gossip. Nor does he express any interest in one of the world’s best choice of teas. The ambassador advises the Lapsang Souchong, so he has that, but most of it goes cold.
It is the immediate aftermath of the local body elections in Britain, and Klaus has just had a meeting with the Conservative opposition leader, David Cameron, whom he found in a fine mood. “He is expecting the same [as happened in the local elections] to happen in the next general election,” said Klaus, declining to pass a view on whether that would be a good or bad thing for Britain.
Later, when I ask him if he sees a threat from the extreme right in Europe, he again says, “That’s not the issue,” adding, “I see the absence of political parties which are clearly visible on the right as the problem. With the exception of the Tory party and Czech Civic Democrats (the so-called ODS, the party he founded and led before his presidency) there are no parties of the right. There are Christian Democratic and centrist parties. This creates an empty space. Jorg Haider and Jean-Marie Le Pen [of the Austrian Freedom Party and the French National Front respectively] may not be my cup of tea. But it’s clear that they are a reaction where there is no standard party of the right.”
He has the right to pronounce on politics because he has been the most successful post-communist leader in eastern Europe, bar none. He has been finance minister, prime minister, leader of the opposition and now president of his country over the past 17 years. His dominating character stood out in a country - and a region - in which the communists were beaten into sullen retirement and the oppositionists who first took over were nervous, inexperienced and soon fell to squabbling.
He barrelled through, discovering in himself a populist touch that played well in campaigns and radiating a certainty that he would change the state and was able to bear the burden of leadership. The Czech Republic, having taken some hard medicine, is now growing at about 5 or 6 per cent a year, which he says will continue.
He is less famous, but much more successful, than the other Vaclav - Havel, his presidential predecessor - and there was and is no love lost between them. I tell him I remember that while Havel was being lauded round the world as a man of great courage and vision, he (Klaus) would inveigh against irresponsible intellectuals, meaning Havel. He won’t talk about that now. “I cannot, in my position.” Indeed, with rare self-deprecation, he says that, “I am, of course, a typical intellectual myself.”
Part of the reason he has been so successful is that his prickly rejection of received wisdom meant he wasn’t captured by either of the warring camps of post-communism, and could become his own man and politician.
He was stunted by communism, he says, because he was an internal critic, kept from responsible jobs. But he was not of the dissident crowd and did not sign up to Charter 77, the rallying point created by Havel for those opposed to communist rule. He is brusque with the suggestion that people may be nostalgic for past security. “The release from communism has given the Czech Republic a much better present and future. I disagree with the interpretations of opinion polls which say there is nostalgia for the past. There is no nostalgia, even in Russia. There is just the normal human view that things were better when you were young. This isn’t a desire for the communist system to come back. It seems to me,” he says, telling me how to do my job, “that it would be useful for you to explain that point to Britain and to western Europe, because they don’t get it.”
Yet when I ask his views of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin - who visited Prague recently - and ask him if he believes Russia is darkening towards authoritarianism, he says, “I would say that is an unfair trivialisation of events. To describe Putin as a former KGB man makes people pay no attention to what has changed. Look at Russia now. I was twice in Russia before 1989 - I have been three or four times since. I speak Russian, but I am no expert. Nevertheless when I come to Russia, I know, I feel, I see that Russians are much freer than they have been for centuries - millennia. It’s not, of course, comparable with the situation in London or Prague. But I compare Russia with the past: the situation is visibly getting better.”
What he talks about longest and best is Europe. Klaus is also alone among the post-communist leaders in having developed a position on Europe which is - broadly speaking - Eurosceptic, though when I use it on him he gives me one of his “that’s not the issue” looks and says, “Don’t put me in the group of those who want a free trade zone. I don’t defend an EU based on a low level of competition but I’m against two main things. One is the movement away from intergovernmental decision-making to the supranational. I ask: what is the elementary unit? The EU or the nation state?”
The second thing is the continued harmonising and homogenising that followed the Jacques Delors era, culminating in the failed EU constitution. “A new framework is needed,” he says. “It should say, first, that we can’t go further and, second that we should go back, undo some things. The two referenda [in France and the Netherlands, on the EU constitution] clearly demonstrated that one size does not fit all.”
He has hardly touched the fragrant Lapsang, and I have drunk much of the pot. Cups of tea are also clearly not his cup of tea. His colleagues are eating biscuits, quietly.
I ask him about yet another sentiment, that of an anti-EU feeling, especially in Poland. “You have to differentiate positions. To be in the EU is to be seen as a good guy - that is, not a [Slobodan] Milosevic or an [Alexander] Lukashenko [the Soviet-style president of Belarus]. This is unfair. But European politicians succeeded in creating that feeling. They said: ‘You are either with us or you are Lukashenko.’ Of course everyone said: ‘We are with you!’ The whole thing was put in moral terms.” He says he is not sure when the Czech Republic will join the euro, and apparently doesn’t much care. He takes an economist’s detour on the disasters wrought by bringing together separate currencies, such as in the US after the Civil War. Wales suffered from that, too, he says. I say no, Wales didn’t have a separate currency; Scotland did, and it did initially suffer when the currencies were united. He was reluctant to concede the point on Wales, regarding me with suspicion, but let it go after a tussle.
Today (June 3) is the second day of voting in the Czech elections. Klaus’s former party, the ODS, has been running ahead in the polls. He doesn’t want to talk about it - though he says he’s against an electoral system which delivers fragmented (and in the past few years, weak) coalitions, and had pushed for a British first-past-the-post system when prime minister - only to see it blocked by the then president Havel and upheld by the constitutional court (”whom he appointed”, he says drily).
He also can’t resist having a swipe at the Green party, which has been polling around 10 per cent and may be a crucial coalition partner. He has in the past called them “terrorists” and now, though more diplomatic, still sees them as a “front party” for anti-growth leftists.
He confesses to one weakness, which isn’t really one: he organises his schedule around a course he teaches in the academic term at the Prague School of Economics, at four in the afternoon on a Monday. “I do it to have a good discussion. In a good class you find three or four bright students, and offer them a part-time job on the team.”
His time is up. He tells me he has arranged his flight in order to accommodate me, but it will not wait. Having learned that the piece will not be in question-and-answer form, he looks displeased and sweeps from the room, disturbing the ladies once more. As I go over my notes, the piano player comes back, and the afternoon tinkles on once more.
Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly, London
1 x sparkling mineral water
5 x lounge teas
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