Every October 28, the anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia is celebrated by an evening of pomp and circumstance that almost feels outsized to today’s Czech Republic and its political class. Government officials, diplomats, religious leaders, and other dignitaries gather in the gorgeous 14th century Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle to witness the president’s annual address to the nation and the ceremony honoring a small list of distinguished individuals with the highest awards for military and civil merits. In any given year, the group would include World War II veterans, survivors of Nazi and Communist terror, distinguished academics, artists, and writers, and a couple Olympic-medal winners.
While the choice of specific individuals—made at the President’s discretion—usually attracts some degree of controversy, the modern day Czech Republic has never seen a scandal of the magnitude comparable to the one surrounding this year’s ceremony.
For one, three out of the seven political parties represented in the lower chamber—Christian Democrats, Civic Democrats and the center-right TOP09—have announced that they are boycotting the event altogether—something unheard of since 1989. The leadership of the Social Democrats, the largest party represented in parliament, has left the decision whether to attend up to the discretion of its members.
The reason? President Miloš Zeman has decided to retract an award to George (Jiří) Brady, an 88 year old survivor of camps at Terezín and Gleiwitz—the latter being one of Auschwitz’ sub-camps. Brady, who lives in Canada and is a recipient of the Order of Ontario, has lectured internationally about the Holocaust and played a pivotal role in publishing in English a collection of writings (in fact, a secret magazine) authored by young boys imprisoned at Terezín, the vast majority of whom later perished in the gas chambers.
Mr. Brady also happens to be the uncle of Daniel Herman, the Czech Republic’s minister of culture. Last week, Mr. Herman was among the Czech officials who met with the Dalai Lama on his visit to Prague. As always, Chinese authorities expressed their consternation at “anti-China separatist activities” and summoned the Czech Ambassador to a meeting in Beijing. Within hours, President Zeman, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, and the speakers of both chambers of the Czech Parliament released a sycophantic statement in which they said that the meeting did not reflect a shift in Czech foreign policy, which still fully respected “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China, of which Tibet is a part.”
If the aim was to appease the Chinese, the tone and timing of the letter probably did more harm than good. In response, 50 legislators led by the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee Karel Schwarzenberg, organized an impromptu meeting with the Dalai Lama in parliament. Leading universities, including Charles University in Prague, decided to fly the Tibetan flag.
Although the President’s head of protocol informed Mr. Brady by phone of the impending award on October 12, his name was missing on the list released by the President’s office after the Dalai Lama’s visit. According to Mr. Herman, the President had threatened to withdraw the honor from Mr. Brady if the minister were to receive the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Though small-minded and vindictive, by itself the episode might have been insignificant. Yet it adds to a long list of missteps, controversies, and poor judgment, which have characterized Mr. Zeman’s current term in office. From his love of drinking, possible financial ties to Russia, to his attendance of far-right rallies, he is a living case study of Central Europe’s democratic backsliding.
Once an erudite, highly intelligent researcher operating within communism’s “grey zone” in the 1980s and organizing semi-legal academic seminars and discussions about economic reforms, he almost single-handedly revived the Czech Social Democratic Party and led it to an electoral victory in 1998. From then onwards, Mr. Zeman has seen a steady intellectual decline, first leaving public life for several years before running for president and ultimately becoming a conduit for the Kremlin’s propaganda and a premier advocate of cozying up to other autocratic regimes. But even for his more fervent supporters, the Brady Affair might be a final straw that will help send Mr. Zeman, due for reelection in early 2018, back into retirement—which is where he belongs.
Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Twitter: @daliborrohac