Vienna The Czech Republic has made a clear commitment to Europe and to the West. The voters chose retired General Petr Pavel as their new president on Saturday with 58.3 percent. The 61-year-old won a victory over his opponent Andrej Babis, which was even clearer than the polls had predicted.
Pavel had promised to bring calm and decency back to Czech politics. In doing so, he struck a chord with the population, even if his political program remains rather vague.
But the Czechs have obviously had enough of the provocations and scandals of current President Milos Zeman. Even Babis could not convince with his shrill campaign.
Pavel, who was born in 1961 in the far west of what was then Czechoslovakia, is a blank slate politically. This is unusual for the Czech Republic, where, with the exception of Vaclav Havel, all presidents since reunification have been heads of government.
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The married father of three made a career in the armed forces. “I was born in the army and grew up in it,” the convinced professional soldier once explained. The fact that he joined the Communist Party as a parachutist in 1985 caused controversy even before the election campaign.
Much respect in military circles
Pavel explained the “faults” in this controversial period of life with his young age and the impossibility of advancing in military service without a declaration of loyalty to the regime. Babis, the opponent in the second round of the presidential election, therefore portrayed Pavel as a “former spy” and compared him to Putin.
Despite his communist past, Pavel enjoys a great deal of respect in western military circles. This is supported by his election as chairman of the NATO military committee in 2015. Pavel held the highest military office in the defense alliance for three years. His former colleagues still speak about him with respect today.
Rose Gottemoeller was NATO Deputy Secretary General almost at the same time: “He always appeared with dignity and was well prepared,” recalls the American when asked. “And he played an important role in realigning the alliance after the annexation of Crimea.”
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The diplomat, who teaches at Stanford University, points to the challenges posed by the focussing of resources on the eastern flank, the establishment of the NATO battle groups and the so-called spearhead. Pavel mastered this successfully.
“He is very self-contained, which is typical for special forces,” says Hans-Werner Wiermann. The Lieutenant General a. D. served as a German representative with Pavel on the Military Committee. He was not a particularly strong chairman, which is why NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg did not always see him as an equal. “He was an honest soldier, not a military-political strategist.”
But precisely as a Czech and a representative of a small nation that took a relatively moderate stance towards Moscow, he successfully mediated between the positions in NATO, according to Wiermann.
A supporter of Ukraine
Pavel himself took a stance similar to that of the German government as late as 2015, when he made ending the war in Donbass a top priority, arguing that arms sales to Ukraine would only add to more deaths.
During the election campaign, however, the independent, who ran with the support of the governing parties, presented himself as the guarantor of broad military and humanitarian support for Ukraine. In a hard-fought campaign, Babis therefore portrayed him as a warmonger and presented himself in Orbanian fashion as representing a “neutral” stance in the Ukraine war.
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However, the fact that the 68-year-old even ruled out sending Czech troops to help in an attack on NATO partners in one of the TV debates hurt him. In any case, the Czechs seem to regard a general as more trustworthy than an agitated populist.
This says a lot about the change in mentality that Moscow’s aggression has brought about, even among a people considered more apathetic than bellicose.
With the election of Pavel, the Czechs voted for the second time for those forces that have positioned themselves as pro-European, pro-Western and directed against Babis: In October 2021 they gave a government mandate to a centre-right coalition of five parties.
This pushed back Russian and Chinese influence even before the Ukraine war. Since Moscow’s invasion of the neighboring country, Prague has not only taken in half a million refugees, but has also provided frontline military assistance.
This clear stance is surprising, since self-perception as a bridge between East and West was firmly anchored in the Czech Republic. In view of the economic problems and the dependency on Russia, especially in the energy sector, the continuation of politics cannot be taken for granted.
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