Miloš Zeman’s victory in the Czech Republic’s presidential election runoffs over the weekend went largely unnoticed in Kosovo. Domestic Czech politics rarely dominate headlines in the region, while Zeman was already the incumbent; on one level his re-election — securing 51 percent of the runoff votes against his rival Jiři Drahoš — preserves the status quo.
However it is precisely the status quo that has raised a sense of unease amongst liberals in Europe and that should be viewed with concern by Prishtina. The 73-year-old veteran populist politician is anti-immigration, pro-Russia and has a critical approach toward Kosovo’s independence.
Campaigning under the slogan “Stop immigration and Drahoš — this country is ours,” Zeman’s victory is part of a recent trend in Central Europe, with Poland and Hungary having shown similar tendencies toward populist, inward-looking politics.
But Zeman’s election for a second time to Prague Castle is a particular blow for bilateral Kosovo-Czech relations. Although the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy and the president is not the most powerful political figure, his reaffirmation for a second term, if not worsening diplomatic ties with Prishtina, does little to enhance the prospect of progress.
Vladimir Đorđević, an international relations assistant professor at Mendel University in Brno, believes that on a European level, Zeman’s influence will be limited given that his agenda is largely an unpopular one, but that it will be a frustrating period for Prishtina. “I believe that no major damage may be done … but I also do not think any major improvement in Kosovo-Czech relations may actually be expected,” he told K2.0.
Considered by many to be a Putin ally, Zeman hardly employed an amicable diplomatic stance toward the statehood of Kosovo in his previous term. He refused to appoint a Czech ambassador to Prishtina — continuing the policies of his predecessor Václav Klaus — and has also questioned Kosovo’s right to independence, on occasions drawing a comparison with Crimea.
Fortunately for Kosovo, the Czech Republic’s presidents and prime ministers have had a history of disagreeing on the topic of Kosovo; the country’s government has been more constructive when it comes to Czech-Kosovar relations, supporting Kosovo’s UNESCO bid in 2015, as well as other international membership attempts.
However this precarious dynamic could be at risk. In October 2017, anti-establishment party Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) became the largest party in Czech parliamentary elections, with Andrej Babiš, a multibillionaire friend of Zeman’s at its head.
Babiš, already briefly formed a government following the elections, but he stepped down from his role as prime minister in January amid corruption allegations and a vote of no confidence. However Zeman has promised to give him another shot to form the government, and early elections should not be ruled out. If Babiš is re-elected, the Czech position toward Kosovo looks increasingly uncertain, while international support would by no means be guaranteed.
A “disengaged relationship”
The current state of bilateral Czech-Kosovar relations reflects a situation where little progress has been made since the Czech Republic’s support for Kosovo in its two most defining moments in recent history.
Then Czech President Václav Havel spoke out strongly in favor of NATO’s intervention that ended the war in Kosovo, and became one of the first statesmen to visit in June 1999 after the intervention of NATO infantry troops. The new Kosovo state subsequently awarded him the very first Dr. Ibrahim Rugova Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy and Humanism, in 2009.
Zeman himself, then as prime minister, also supported NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. However, that could have had more to do with the Czech Republic having joined NATO just 12 days before the bombing campaign was launched than any particular consideration of the situation in Kosovo.
The Czech Republic also recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty on May 21, 2008 — just a few months after Kosovo’s February 17 Declaration of Independence — albeit at the second attempt and with the support of just 11 out of 18 cabinet members.
Apart from these major moments, despite the latter’s potential to influence close neighbor Slovakia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty, relations between Prishtina and Prague have been somewhat stagnant.
As part of a December 2017 Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS) report on engagement between EU member states and Kosovo, Czech researcher Tomáš Dopita, suggests that part of the reason for this could be traced to historical roots. “It is important to understand that the Czech people feel a cultural closeness with the Slavic peoples in the Balkans and that there is a long-term special relationship with the Serb nation that can be traced back to the pan-Slavic movement in the 19th century,” Dopita writes.
However, Kosovo has also shown little interest to increase diplomatic ties with Prague. The position of Kosovo’s ambassador to the Czech Republic has remained vacant for over a year, while the website of Kosovo’s embassy there does not provide a translation of events in the Czech language.
Even in simple practical terms, Kosovo and the Czech Republic have not managed to intensify relations with each other, with Kosovars applying for Czech-issued Schengen visas needing to travel to Skopje.
Dopita describes the bilateral relations in general as “disengaged” and suggests that Prishtina in particular needs to up its game.
“This is critical because we can expect that in the new political set-up following the October 2017 general elections, and the January 2018 presidential elections, the relations with Kosovo can, once again, become issues of high public and political contention,” he wrote, before Zeman’s election. “Kosovo representatives should be ready to publicly make the case for Kosovo when the situation demands it.”
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.