PRAGUE—Czechs are voting in the first round of presidential elections Friday and Saturday and a world power is on the ballot: Russia.
is seeking a second term and has cast himself as
partner in Europe. Prague’s relationship with Moscow is “10 times” more important than with neighbors like France, he told the Russian president in November, chitchatting in Russian in front of journalists who he berated for their inability to speak the language. The 73-year-old has proposed a referendum asking Czechs if they want to leave the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Ex-prime minister, Euroskeptic,
Mr. Zeman’s praise for Mr. Putin—which extends to approval of his Crimea annexation and his airstrikes on Syrian cities—has bewildered the roughly 45 % of Czechs that disapprove of the president in polls, but is a nonissue for the base who still stands with him.
Fifty years ago this August, Soviet tanks rolled through Prague, killing more than 100 dissidents and cementing in many Czechs a generational desire to escape Russian influence and join the West.
Now, those memories are bygones for some Czechs who see their country as dominated by Washington and the EU.
The close elections, which will likely go to a Jan. 26 runoff, are seen as a clarifying moment.
“The importance follows from this question: Where do we belong?” said
a pop-jazz songwriter among the nine competing candidates. “Do we really take seriously our commitments to NATO and the EU? Or are we going to become a Trojan horse of other powers?”
Mr. Zeman is the face of a reckoning among the small states of Central and Eastern Europe over their place on the continent.
An EU decision to settle thousands of refugees in former Communists states like the Czech Republic has intensified a feeling that these nations lack a voice in Europe’s biggest club. While Czechs overwhelmingly poll positively on the EU and don’t want to leave, a majority objects to getting more deeply involved in the union, for example, by adopting the euro or allowing the EU to settle refugees there.
The impending exit of the U.K.—often an advocate for Europe’s smaller states—has increased a wariness that the EU will be dominated by larger states such as Germany or France, where President
has pushed for the union to become more politically and economically intertwined.
An influential minority—tiny in Poland, but growing elsewhere—has come to see better relations with Russia as a way to counterbalance Europe’s old world powers.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán has permitted Russia to build a nuclear power plant in his country, meets Mr. Putin often—most recently, they attended a judo match together—and has called Russian democracy a model for Europe. Mr. Orbán, once a Soviet Union dissident, is almost certain to win his third consecutive term in 2018.
“Memories fade and there is no imminent threat [from Russia],” said
a research fellow at American Enterprise Institute, who sees Mr. Zeman as a slight favorite to win the Czech vote. “If people associate Russia with anything, it’s the Russian wealth that’s hidden in the Czech Republic.”
By regional standards, Mr. Zeman is among Mr. Putin’s most vocal supporters. He has called for Ukraine to trade its claim to Crimea for Russian gas. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2017, he proposed shifting NATO into a Russian-U.S. alliance against terrorism.
“There must be if possible, a coalition—why not?—between the United States and Russia,” he said. “Russia has its experience with terrorism.”
Mr. Zeman is leading a country once famous for the dissident and theater-company activists who led this country out of Communism and into Western-style democracy. Mr. Zeman, prime minister from 1998-2002, was among them.
“It is unbelievable,” said
a disaffected 34-year-old Prague voter. “It is as if we have forgotten the [Soviet] invasion of Czechoslovakia.”
Lately, Mr. Zeman has soured on the West’s vision for Europe and his country’s democracy has become a circus of scandals and fraud investigations. The Czech Republic has had nine governments in the past 15 years and currently, there is no government in place.
Last October, billionaire media mogul Andrej Babiš and his Movement of Dissatisfied Citizens party won legislative elections, promising to dismantle the country’s constitutional order, abolish the senate, make the prime minister more powerful, and finally get stuff done.
“We just celebrated the completion of a highway that took 37 years,” Mr. Babiš said in one pre-election rally. “It’s a catastrophe.”
Three months later, Mr. Babiš, who won one-third of the vote, is still unable to form a government from the parliament’s nine feuding parties. This week, he postponed yet another vote to form one.
A victory by Mr. Zeman, who likes Mr. Babiš, would help keep the billionaire as a kind of caretaker prime minister. But Mr. Babiš’s aides are divided on whether they want to be led by their current president.
“This country needs a president in the next term who is pro-EU and for westernization,” said
an adviser to Mr. Babiš and the head of his party’s delegation to the EU parliament. “There is quite a lot at stake.”
Write to Drew Hinshaw at email@example.com