Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman with China's President Xi Jinping before a meeting in Beijing. Zeman is strongly pro-China. Photo: Madoka Ikegami/AFP

PRAGUE – The man touted as Czech Republic’s next foreign minister previously worked as a consultant for one of the largest Chinese investment groups in the country, potentially signaling a shift by the Central European nation towards cozier relations with Beijing. 

Deputy Interior Minister Jakub Kulhanek was an “outside consultant” for CEFC Europe, part of the CEFC China Energy conglomerate that in 2014 was ranked among the ten largest privately-owned conglomerates in China. 

The same year it began investing heavily in the Czech Republic. CEFC China Energy founder, Ye Jianming, became an advisor to pro-Beijing President Milos Zeman in 2017, an unprecedented move in a country where foreign nationals are rarely granted such status.

Czech politics have been polarized for years between politicians and parties who argue that the country’s foreign policy should align less with the West and more closely behind Moscow and Beijing, an appeal led by Zeman. 

The majority of the political establishment, however, remains firmly Eurocentric and Atlanticist, a tradition dating back to the fall of communism in 1989. But they lost a key proponent on Monday when Tomas Petricek was sacked as foreign minister. 

Petricek, who has argued for a Western-looking foreign policy, fell out with Zeman and the leader of his own party, the Social Democrats (CSSD), the junior partner in the Czech Republic’s minority government. 

Last week, Petricek collected only 95 votes from party delegates at an internal leadership election, and the incumbent Social Democrat chief, Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, received the majority backing. 

Hamacek’s Social Democrats and Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ ANO party, the main partner in the coalition government, have slumped in opinion polls ahead of October’s general election.

By appeasing Zeman over foreign policy, they could benefit if he stumps for his supporters to vote for the ruling parties.

Jan Blatny was fired as health minister after he opposed the use of Chinese and Russian vaccines. Photo: Michal Cizek/AFP

Russian state media reported on Thursday that Hamacek, who is also acting foreign minister, ordered Czech ambassadors in Washington and Moscow to propose Prague as a host for a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden.

Neither Washington nor Moscow have proposed or are known to be considering such a summit. Hamacek also said he will visit Moscow next week to discuss procuring Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccines, a source of tension between the cabinet and President Zeman. 

Petricek noted after his dismissal that he had long been a “thorn in the side” of Zeman, who is pushing for the Czech Republic to use Russian-made vaccines as well as allow a Russian firm to potentially construct a nuclear power station in the country. 

Last week, the government also dismissed Jan Blatny as health minister over his opposition to using Chinese and Russian-made vaccines, neither of which have been approved as safe by either European or Czech drug regulators. 

Zeman and his team are thought to be close to Moscow, which has reportedly led to tensions over security between the president’s court and the Czech intelligence service known as BIS. He has also been the loudest proponent of a pro-Beijing shift in policy. 

Zeman, known for his history of illiberal and xenophobic comments, said in 1996 that politicians who wanted better relations with Beijing should be “ready to go under plastic surgery to slant their eyes.”

However, after he was elected president in 2013, he flip-flopped and pushed for greater relations with Beijing. In 2014, he called for the Czech Republic to become China’s “gateway” to Europe. 

Two years later, when welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping to Prague, he ordered a 21-gun salute, a tribute not given to a foreign leader for over half a century. 

China’s President Xi Jinping (L) and Czech President Milos Zeman at the Economic Discussion Forum with Czech and Chinese investors on March 30, 2016, in Prague. Photo: Michal Cizek / AFP

However, Zeman appeared to be changing his view when, in early 2020, he threatened to boycott an upcoming summit between China and 17 Central and Eastern European states known as the “17+1” forum. 

At the time, China had only invested US$960 million in the Czech Republic, less than it had in other countries in the region. Zeman bemoaned the perceived as paltry sum as “a stain on Czech-Chinese cooperation.”

He later backtracked on his threat to boycott the summit, which was canceled anyway because of the pandemic. However, the Czech Republic’s relations with China have become a source of intense debate in recent years. 

Last August, Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil, who hails from an opposition party, made a formal visit to Taiwan, a diplomatic red line in China, which considers the self-governing island as a renegade province.

“You cannot accept being someone’s servant, because if you do, then when you obey once, it’s assumed that you obey every time,” he said in Taipei in an apparent reference to Beijing’s relations with the Czech Republic. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was in Germany at the time, threatened that the Czech Republic would “pay a heavy price” for the visit. Zeman later sought to cut Vystrcil out of foreign policy meetings. 

A Pew Research survey of European views of China in 2017 found Czechs to be the second-least positive, after only the Swedes. 

A more recent study by Sinophone Borderlands, a local initiative, found the Czech Republic one of the most polarized countries in Europe when opinions on China are broken down by party affiliation. 

Surprisingly, supporters of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party are among the most positive about China. Among the least positive are supporters of the Civic Democratic Party and the libertarian Pirate Party, respectively the first and second-largest opposition parties. 

Zdenek Hrib, the mayor of Prague and member of the Pirate Party, replaced Prague’s sister-city relationship with Beijing for one with Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, in 2019. 

Mayor of Prague Zdenek Hrib (L) and the mayor of Taipei Ko Wen-je walk at the Old Town Square in Prague on January 13, 2020. Photo: Michal Cizek / AFP

Whether the country’s foreign policy interests lie with the European Union and America, or with Russia and China, has become a sort of “cultural war” in the Czech Republic. 

For many Czechs, anti-Beijing sentiment shows one’s opposition to the authoritarian instincts of some local politicians, including President Zeman, as well as honoring the country’s vision of itself as liberal, democratic and Atlanticist, characteristics that defined political thought after the fall of communism in 1989. 

Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist icon and first president of the Czech Republic after Czechoslovakia broke up in 1993 was a committed Atlanticist, spoke regularly about Tibetan independence and rejected appeals to forge closer relations with Beijing or Moscow. 

Havel, who has become a global icon of democracy, defined a political style that was liberal at home and anti-authoritarian abroad. 

When former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo made a state visit to the Czech Republic last year, he opined that several Czech politicians, notably the mayor of Prague, Hrib, are continuing Havel’s tradition. 

In the 2000s, however, political opponents of Havel began arguing that the Czech Republic needed to forge closer relations with Russia and China for economic reasons.  

In many cases, particularly with Zeman, analysts argue that a pro-Beijing position has less to do with ideology and is more associated with “elite capture”, in which China finds willing supporters in foreign governments through corruption and financial reward. 

According to some analysts, the latest cabinet reshuffle could see the Czech Republic lurch closer to Beijing. 

On Tuesday, Hamacek wrote on Twitter that the Social Democrats will nominate Kulhanek to fill the foreign minister role.

Tipped new foreign minister Jakub Kulhanek was an “outside consultant” for CEFC Europe, part of the CEFC China Energy conglomerate. Image: Czech Republic Foreign Ministery website

Kulhanek had formerly held deputy positions in the foreign ministry and defense ministry, and studied international relations at Charles University in Prague. He also holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University in Washington and is known to be one of Hamacek’s closest advisers. 

After a stint in the Foreign Ministry, Kulhanek worked as a consultant for CEFC Europe, where he formally registered as an “external consultant for investment projects and the regulatory environment in the EU.”

In 2018, a Czech newspaper, Hospodarske noviny, reported that Kulhanek may pose a security risk to the nation after he became deputy interior minister in light of his time as a consultant with a Chinese company. 

CEFC’s founder Ye was arrested in Beijing in 2018 on accusations of bribery. Subsequently, many of the company’s assets in the Czech Republic were bought out by the Chinese state-run giant CITIC. 

There could be more China-related scandals in the pipeline. Jan Zahradil, a Czech MEP and leader of the EU-China Friendship Group, is reportedly under investigation by EU regulators over potential conflict of interest with China.

Zahradil was forced to resign as the rapporteur for the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement in late 2019, just months before the pact was passed, over his links to a Czech-based organization connected to Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party. 

Jaroslav Tvrdik is seen by some as a proxy for China’s commercial interests in the Czech Republic. Image: Twitter

According to Czech media reports, Kulhanek worked alongside Jaroslav Tvrdik, a defense minister under Zeman’s government in the late 1990s and who is thought to have been the point-man in the president’s relations with the CEFC conglomerate, during his days as a CEFC consultant.

Tvrdik became president of the Slavia Prague football team when CEFC bought the club in 2015 and then became deputy chairman of CEFC’s Czech subsidiary. He remains a key figure after CEFC’s assets were bought out by CITIC. 

Reports also suggest that Tvrdik and another of Zeman’s scrutinized advisers, Martin Nejedly, who allegedly has close ties with Russian state firms, helped arrange the sale of one of the Czech Republic’s largest media groups to CITIC in April 2020.