Budapest, Hungary – Vaclav Klaus, the former Czech Prime Minister and President, has just been awarded the Petőfi Prize during a ceremony held in the Hungarian capital.
An Orbanized Petofi Prize?
Established in 2009 by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society to recognize “outstanding efforts made to advance freedom and democracy of Eastern European nations”, the award is named after Sandor Petőfi, the foremost 19th century poet, revolutionary and key figure of Hungary’s national awakening. It had, for instance, been awarded to U.S. journalist, writer and Pulitzer prize winner Anne Applebaum in 2010.
“As someone who spent four decades of non-freedom in a communist Czechoslovakia and witnessed the total failure of the communist irrational and oppressive political and economic system, I have always considered freedom and liberty the main issues worth fighting for”, M. Klaus said upon receiving the award in Budapest. “I agree with Ronald Reagan: ‘Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirits'”.
He also used the opportunity to convey his own vision for Europe’s future, which sounded tailor-made to please Hungary’s current leaders: “We should not be ashamed of giving the nation a fundamental position in our thinking and behavior, of course, on condition we know that before the notion of the nation (and the state) we should always insert two essential individualistic entities of the Western (and European) civilization and culture – the man (and, of course, the woman) and the family”.
Zoltan Kovacs, the Hungarian Secretary of State for International Communications and Relations and government spokesman, congratulated Vaclav Klaus, “the distinguished former President of the Czech Republic and forerunner in the battle against communism and for freedom in Eastern Europe”.
Others were not so enthusiastic about this year’s laureate, pointing on social media that “Klaus was more a band-wagoner that a frontrunner in the battle against communism in (then) Czechoslovakia. But given that he is a conservative-turned-radical right politician, he is an obvious candidate for Orbanized Petofi Prize”.
Vaclav Klaus, a divisive figure in Czech politics
Not unlike his successor Milos Zeman, who enjoys sparking new controversies on a regular basis, Vaclav Klaus, 77, is a controversial figure in Czech politics and society. His populist, anti-EU, pro-Russian stance has been at the center of numerous polemics, while his denial of the man-made reality of climate change has often caused outrage. His rhetoric remains, however, popular among certain parts of the Czech population, including his strong opposition to multiculturalism and refugee quotas.
An economist by training, founder of the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS), leading figure of Czech politics in the 1990’s and 2000’s, Czech Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998, V. Klaus oversaw the dissolution of Czechoslovakia with then-Slovak counterpart Vladimir Meciar. Critics accuse both men of having fueled, in the early 1990’s, nationalist sentiments on both sides of the border for political gain and perceive them as the main architects of a “Velvet Divorce” that occurred against the will of a majority of Czechs and Slovaks.
A fierce EU critic
Although Klaus was Czech President from 2003 to 2013, at the time when the Czech Republic joined the European Union, he appears as one of the most vocal and virulent critics of the EU. During a TV interview last June, he argued, for instance, that Russia was no threat to the Czech Republic, contrary to the European Union and Brussels autocrats.
As head of the Prague-based Vaclav Klaus Institute, which he founded in 2012, the former head of state still regularly gives his take on current Czech and European affairs. In an interview with the Washington Times last September, he argued that “Europe needs a revolution, hopefully a Velvet Revolution as we did in the 1980’s”, criticizing the “dictatorship of the old political elites of Europe, starting with Madame Merkel, Mr. Juncker, Mr. Macron”, “the multi-culturalists, politically correct European elites who really want to somehow mix the nations and to bring diversity”.
While some movements, including far-right SPD party, currently call for the Czech Republic to exit the EU, and despite his fierce opposition to what he often describes as Brussels diktats, M. Klaus isn’t in favor of a ‘Czexit’: “We don’t have the luxury of being an island. We are in the heart of Europe, we are geometrically in the real center of Europe. All our neighbors are in the EU. So, I don’t share the dreams of many of my colleagues and friends that there would be something like” a Czech version of Brexit, he told reporters.
And now, a little something light for your entertainment: M. Klaus, then President of the Czech Republic, in one of his most memorable moments, caught – on camera – stealing the semi-luxurious pen of the Chilean President while on official visit in the Latin American country.