That man up there, ’mid the rooftops, is Zdenek Hrib, the mayor of Prague. I have a piece about him on the homepage today: here. I’ve done a podcast with him: here. Last week, he was part of a Czech delegation that traveled to Taiwan. He had been there before: as a student of medicine. Indeed, Hrib is an honorary citizen of Taiwan. He has also forged a sister-city agreement with Taipei. You can imagine the reaction of the PRC.
The Czech delegation to Taiwan was headed by Milos Vystrcil, the president of the senate. In a speech to Taiwanese lawmakers, Vystrcil recalled John F. Kennedy, and his “Ich bin ein Berliner.” That was a stirring statement of solidarity to beleaguered people. In the same spirit, Vystrcil said, “I am Taiwanese,” in Mandarin.
Of course, the Chinese government was furious. The foreign minister, Wang Yi, said that Milos Vystrcil would “pay a heavy price.” Vystrcil admitted that he was “scared,” but added that “courage is about overcoming these fears and concerns.”
A Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman pointed out that the Czech government itself was at odds with Vystrcil and his delegation. That is so right. The Czech president, Milos Zeman, denounced Vystrcil for a “childish provocation.” He also said that Vystrcil would be barred from future foreign-policy briefings by the government.
Zeman is a warm supporter of the government in Beijing, and he is a warm supporter of Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow as well. I touch on this in my piece today. I also addressed it in a piece last month, about Ondrej Kolar, a “district mayor” in Prague. Kolar had to go into hiding, owing to threats from Russia. Zdenek Hrib has been a target of the same threats.
Hrib’s sin, in Putin’s eyes, was to preside over the renaming of the square next to the Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov, as you remember, was the leader of the opposition to Putin in Russia. He represented hopes for democracy in their country. Nemtsov was gunned down within sight of the Kremlin in 2015.
Several capitals have renamed squares for Nemtsov — squares by Russian embassies — including Washington, D.C.
Hrib says that both China and Russia have, in effect, two embassies in Prague: their official embassies, and one each within Prague Castle, where the president works.
The Czech Republic is badly split between people in the Havel tradition, roughly speaking — freedom, democracy, and human rights — and people who align with Russia, favor authoritarian rule, and embrace a pan-Slavism. The second camp has the upper hand at the moment. It is bigger, more popular.
Mayor Hrib says that the national government is a curious mixture of former Communists and present-day oligarchs. This mixture is seen elsewhere in Europe, too (including in Russia).
Consider this amazing fact: Two years ago, President Zeman refused to participate in ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring. In my mind, that was like an American president’s sitting out the Fourth of July.
What do the terms “left” and “right” mean? They used to be pretty clear, I think. But how about now? What is Zeman? What is Putin? Are they “left” or “right”? Putin is a onetime KGB colonel who laments the passing of the Soviet Union and runs Russia like a mafia chief. At Erdogan’s latest “inauguration,” the most prominent guests were Orban, Medvedev, and Maduro. They spoke of a new alignment, and reflected it.
The fault line, it seems to me, increasingly runs between advocates of democracy — whatever their particular views on taxation, defense, and other matters — and advocates of myriad forms of un-democracy. This is a burning issue, that will burn on . . .