Europe, Headlines

POLITICS-CZECH REPUBLIC: Premier Asked to Step Down Over ‘Arafat- Hitler’ Comparison

Brian Kenety

PRAGUE, Feb 21 2002 (IPS) - Czech opposition leaders have called on Prime Minister Milos Zeman to resign.

They accuse Zeman of provoking an international scandal by branding Palestinian Authority Chairperson Yasser Arafat a ‘terrorist’ and comparing him to Adolf Hitler whilst on an official visit to Israel.

Zeman was already under fire from neighbouring Germany and Austria for labelling ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II as “Hitler’s fifth column” and “traitors” lucky to have escaped the death penalty.

In an interview with the English edition of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, published on Feb 18, Zeman is quoted as saying that Hitler was the “greatest terrorist in history”. He goes on to suggest that Palestinian terrorists should be removed from Israel – in the same way that the Sudeten Germans were deported from his own country – if they refuse to meet Israeli peace conditions.

When asked by the Ha’aretz reporter if he was comparing Arafat to Hitler, Zeman said: “Of course, of course.”

At a news conference on Feb 17, Zeman expressed strong support for right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stance that peace talks with the Palestinians living under occupation cannot be renewed until all violence has stopped.

“You cannot negotiate with the people who kill civilians for political purposes,” Zeman said, referring to Arafat.

His remarks triggered a diplomatic backlash from the Palestinian Authority, a protest by the League of Arab States, and Cairo to request Zeman postpone a planned visit at the end of February, during which he was also to make a stop in Tunisia.

Zeman’s remarks came on the heels of the conclusion of a dialogue between the European Union (EU) and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Observers say the talks marked the first serious discussion between the Muslim world and the West in a context where many Muslims fear that the ‘war against terrorism’ could be transformed into a campaign against Muslims.

Eager to diffuse tensions, top officials from the EU, Germany, Austria and Spain – which currently holds the rotating EU presidency – demanded an explanation from the Czech leader.

Jean-Christophe Filori, a spokesperson for the EU executive arm, the European Commission, said: “It goes without saying that we strongly disagree with such statements. Such language is not what we can expect from a future member state.

“May I also recall that the Czech Republic has concluded the negotiation chapter on foreign policy and, by doing so, the Czech Republic committed itself to align itself with the EU foreign policy – including the EU positions on the Middle East issue. Of course, against this background, such statements are not really helpful for the efforts of the EU in the region,” said Filori.

The Czech Foreign Ministry was at pains to say that Zeman’s statements were misinterpreted by the Ha’aretz daily and that there had been no change in Prague’s support of the EU policy in the Middle East. Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo called the remarks “outrageous”.

He said they showed Zeman had not only adopted the Israeli line, but had flouted diplomatic courtesy and spoken out against his own country’s political line.

“It seems Mr Zeman is not fully aware of his government’s very positive position towards the just Palestinian cause, represented in supportive votes and position in the United Nations and other international fora,” said Abed Rabbo in a statement.

Initially, Zeman said he had been misquoted, but after excerpts of the interview were released along with television footage, the gaffe- prone Czech prime minister increasingly blamed his poor English.

“Unlike my other pronouncements, for example the one about (Austrian far-right politician) Joerg Haider and others on which I can nail my colours firmly to the mast, this affair has been caused by clumsy English – it is as simple as that,” Zeman told reporters.

He added that a “full stop” used instead of a comma was the cause of the scandal. Zeman said his complete answer was, “Of course – indeed – it is not my duty to judge Arafat.”

Palestinian charge d’affaires, Djamal Djamal, told Czech Television after a meeting with the director of the Middle East department of Czech Foreign Ministry earlier this week: “(We) have been again assured of the Czech Republic’s long-term unchanged position towards the Palestinian people and the Middle East crisis and of the necessity of a peaceful solution on the basis of the U.N. legitimate international resolutions.”

An official visit to Prague on Wednesday by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer – aimed at easing cross-border tensions and discussing Prague’s preparations to join the EU – was overshadowed by the Czech-Palestinian row.

Fischer told a news conference on Wednesday, after meeting with Zeman, that Berlin was satisfied with the Czech premier’s explanations on both the Palestinian question and his remarks about Sudeten Germans. “All the irritations … were cleared up,” said Fischer.

The German foreign minister underscored the fact that his countrymen carry a responsibility for the activities of the Nazi-era regime, but said that Czechs had not only been victims, adding that “the banishment (of Sudeten Germans) has always been an injustice in our eyes, because it was a collective punishment”.

The EU commissioner responsible for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, has said he is satisfied with the way Zeman had explained his comments.

But Munich’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung is less forgiving of Zeman, arguing in an editorial this week that he is clearly unable to cope with the diplomatic demands of his office.

“Mr Zeman tramples across the world stage in an increasingly uncontrollable manner,” it says, “which could be related to the fact that he is staggering towards the end of his term in office.”

The Czech premier’s excuses to the international community, on both the Sudeten Germans and Palestinians, also have done little to quell his domestic critics, who see the episode as one in a string of highly undiplomatic outbursts harmful to the Czech Republic’s interests abroad, including its EU candidacy.

Czech President, Vaclav Havel, said Tuesday he was “deeply disturbed” by the alleged remarks, which he said could “only further increase tensions” between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Speaker of the Lower House, Vaclav Klaus, himself a former prime minister, accused Zeman of seriously damaging Czech interests by his total lack of restraint and “totally absurd” remarks.

Along with its partner in the ‘Coalition’, a two-party opposition group, the Freedom Union is calling for an extraordinary session of the lower house of Parliament to seek a ‘no confidence’ vote in Zeman’s minority government.

“Mr Zeman is no longer able to represent the Czech Republic. His effort to explain his comments look untrustworthy and expedient,” Freedom Union party leader Hana Marvanova told journalists Wednesday.

Such a vote is unlikely to occur. The support of at least 50 deputies is needed to call a session to ask a premier to resign and the Coalition has only 37 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies. The centre- right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which has a power-sharing arrangement with Zeman’s centre-left Social Democrats (CSSD), has said it would not support the Coalition’s no-confidence measure.

The ODS Thursday called on its political rivals not to “create pre-election chaos.” Klaus, the ODS chair again condemned Zeman’s performance abroad, but also blamed the opposition Coalition grouping for taking advantage it to destabilise domestic politics.

Zeman has clearly suffered at home from the political fallout. Although he has said he would step down as prime minister following parliamentary elections in June, both he and Klaus are widely believed to be interested in filling the shoes of President Havel, whose term expires next year.

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