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Czech Snapshots

„Is that the guy who called the US recovery plan the ‚road to hell‘ and was spotted naked at Silvio Berlusconi's villa?“ asked a former Portuguese colleague of mine from Brussels the other day, when he learned that Mirek Topolánek had resigned as party leader. And that is exactly how the Western media will remember the former chairman of the ODS: the naked road-to-hell man. Plus the one whose government lost a vote of no-confidence while holding the EU presidency. And also, the one who had a tricky relationship with the press. As another former colleague, this time English, wrote in an email, „I still remember the disgust he felt towards all journalists when answering our questions!“

Despite all this, Mirek Topolánek was quite popular with the Western media – with the exception of the French press, who merely followed Nicolas Sarkozy's example in despising the then Czech prime minister. Topolánek was thought of as a straightforward politician – a man who spoke his mind bluntly and with minimum waffle. He made headlines and it was never a waste of time to attend his off-the-record-briefings in Brussels. These had substance, and wit at times, and dispensed with political correctness. The Czech PM at that time never thought twice about what should or shouldn't trip off his tongue.

That's also the core of the story leading up to his resignation. Asked to describe the personality of „typical gay“ by a gay lifestyle magazine, Topolánek refused, saying that personality isn't dictated by sexual or religious orientation. But he said it in a typically topolanesque way, pointing out that one Czech minister who is gay „would back off eventually“ while Jan Fischer, the current prime minister, „would back off even sooner and he's a Jew.“ Eyebrows were raised and Topolánek was later told to go for the sake of his party.

As if to prove his party's decision right, the ex-leader drew a rather extraordinary parallel when commenting on his departure to the Czech press, saying he was „executed“ by his party and that this „was a habit only of African tribes.“

If he was still prime minister, few African ambassadors to the Czech Republic would probably be asking for an audience. And if Topolánek was born Native American, his name would probably be The One That Can't Keep His Mouth Shut.

Many Western journalists still have trouble recognizing the current Czech president, who sounds like a fervent Thatcherite and Anglo-Saxon, as a Russophile. Yet the Medvedev-Obama summit in Prague produced another example of his pro-Kremlin tendencies. In an interview with Lidové noviny immediately after the event, Václav Klaus noted with satisfaction that the Czech-US relationship runs just as smoothly as that between the Czech Republic and Russia, putting both on an equal footing.

Interesting… The Kremlin has kicked a Czech public TV reporter out of Russia, the Czech Republic has expelled several Russians accredited with the embassy in Prague on suspicion of spying, and the government is reluctant to award a major energy deal to Rosatom, the Russian electricity giant, on the grounds of a possible threat to national security – which isn't the case with the American company Westinghouse – but in Václav Klaus's world, the Russians are just the same as the Americans and should be treated accordingly. Is it necessary to add anything?

The election campaign in the Czech Republic has taken a funny turn. The ODS launched a series of billboards mocking the welfare promises made by Jiří Paroubek, the Social Democratic leader and election front-runner, aping the visual style used by the Social Democrats on their own posters. So while Mr. Paroubek promises that he will cut neither pensions nor social benefits and would make doctors' appointments free of charge again, the slogans sponsored by the ODS say „I will prolong weekends by five days“ and „I will abolish morning hangovers.“

So far, the most popular, according to an unofficial poll on Facebook and elsewhere on the web, is the poster on which Paroubek promises, „I will bring Elvis back to life.“ Not bad!

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