President of the Czech Republic

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Thank you, Sir Roger, Mr Secretary General of the Council of Europe and Mr Secretary-General of the OECD.

I was here as a young, healthy man 18 years ago, in 1999, as Prime Minister of the Czech Republic. I still remember an excellent speech – of mine, of course – but also an excellent discussion after it. This is my second chance, which means that my next speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will be in 2035. I invite you to attend it.

I prepared some topics for my speech, but I would prefer to respond to questions because time is unfortunately limited. I have been informed about the first and probably most important question about sanctions against the Russian Federation and their consequences.

I believe that the Council of Europe’s endeavour towards friendship and not hostility and hatred among European nations – including Russia – will be successful in the long term.

Let me start with an historical example. I am a political old-timer and we old-timers do not have a high speed, but we do have plenty of experience. One experience of mine is that it is very difficult to make friends and very easy to invent enemies. Europe is a continent divided by many lines. One of those lines is between the Russian Federation and the rest of Europe – the European Union. I do not want to exaggerate and say that it is a repetition of the iron curtain, but there is still a division line.

Now we come to the core of the question that my colleague asked: the sanctions. Approximately 20 years ago, I visited Miami and met Cuban exiles. I told them, “Your strategy against the political system in Cuba is wonderful. All those boycotts, embargoes and sanctions! It is indeed a wonderful strategy, with one small mistake: Fidel Castro has been the President of Cuba for 40 years.” That has always been my argument historically. Please understand me: I am not discussing the justification for sanctions; I am discussing the efficiency of sanctions. Just today, the German newspaper, Die Welt, published an article saying that the European Union loses out from the sanctions, which do practically no damage to the Russian Federation. We all speak about win-win strategies, but that is a lose-lose strategy. Brexit, for instance, is a typical lose-lose strategy, and it is the same with the sanctions.

Instead of sanctions, I recommend communication between people at many levels. I have experience of totalitarian times. The Communists were extremely afraid of the phenomenon they called “ideological diversion”. They simply tried to close the borders. That is why it was called the iron curtain. There was censorship and so on. They were afraid that normal people on both sides would discuss and exchange views. What we need is a new type of ideological diversion that is peaceful. We need the exchange of students, tourists, entrepreneurs, politicians and so on, because that alone may change the politics of the countries we understand to be non-democratic or semi-democratic.

I will give one more example against sanctions. If you wish to increase the popularity of leaders – I am not speaking only about Mr Putin – then apply sanctions and blockades. Psychologically, there is the myth of the surrounded fortress. That myth needs a strong leader, and Mr Putin’s popularity is growing all the time. He has an 80% popularity rating, and I am sure that a substantial part of that has been provoked just by sanctions. By the way, my popularity rating is only 51%, but that is still a majority – a small majority, but still a majority, and there have been no sanctions applied against the Czech Republic.

In order to open the floor for the next question – I hope I have responded to the first question – I will conclude. To conclude is very simple: I believe that the role of the Council of Europe is to strengthen the friendship between European nations. To quote Charles de Gaulle, Europe is a continent that stretches “from the Atlantic to the Urals”. It perhaps stretches to the Pacific Ocean. You cannot divide European culture from Russian culture. Tchaikovsky is as important as Beethoven. Dostoevsky is as important as Shakespeare. Solzhenitsyn is as important as Hemingway, and so on. Why try to divide the political structure of Europe if you would be against the division of European culture? That is why I believe that the Council of Europe’s endeavour towards friendship and not hostility and hatred among European nations – including the Russian Federation – will be successful in the long term. As Keynes said, “In the long run, we are all dead”, but do not forget my invitation to my speech in 2035.

Dear colleagues, I wish you all the best. I wish you many, many friends and a very limited number of enemies. If you do have enemies, I wish you to have enemies of low intelligence only.


Thank you Mr President for your characteristically forthright and amusing address, and for your kind invitation to your next address. Members of the Assembly have questions to put to you.

I remind colleagues that questions must be limited to 30 seconds and must be questions and not statements. We go first to the political groups. I call Mr Vareikis on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr VAREIKIS (Lithuania), spokesperson for the Group of the European People’s Party

Mr President, you probably know that, for those in this Chamber, the most lovely and honourable Czech person is Václav Havel. We regard Václav Havel as a man who represents high moral standards in politics. So who, in your opinion, is the better candidate for the Václav Havel prize – the person who imposed sanctions for morality or the person who is lifting sanctions for business interest?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

I forgot to issue an early warning. I almost do not hear – a great advantage for any politician – so speak slowly and loudly. But still, with the help of my friend, yes, I understand you well. Václav Havel has been, and still is, the symbol of moral policy. If you compare moral policy with so-called realpolitik – a German term – you are sometimes unhappy that moral policy has nearly no success. But still, deep in my heart, I believe, even if I support the economic interest, that without protection of human rights, any business is only a short-term one. Václav Havel is still a very prestigious person. I know that his statue is here, but it is also in the capital of Washington. He will be for a very long time the symbol of velvet revolution – a revolution without blood and without violence.

Lord ANDERSON (United Kingdom), spokesperson for the Socialist Group

Mr President, on sanctions, recall that we are not the European Union; we are not NATO: we are a human rights Organisation. Our Russian colleagues have chosen to absent themselves from this Assembly. The Russian Federation has chosen to downgrade the European Court of Human Rights in favour of its constitutional court. As an observer of the Russian Federation, do you see any prospect of improvement in human rights in that country?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

We have discussed with some functionaries of the European Council the impact of the Russian Federation rejecting the provision of money for the budget of this Organisation. Well, if you have no Russian representatives in this Assembly, why pay money for the Organisation in which you do not participate? That is a very simple question. I may apply my disagreement with any sanctions, and also disagreement with financial sanctions from the side of the Russian Federation. It is, they tell me, approximately 10% of the total budget – an enormous amount of money, of course. But if you want to change the attitudes of any human person or any State, it must be present in the dialogue. If it is excluded from the dialogue, then, as Talleyrand said, “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”

Mr GONCHARENKO (Ukraine), spokesperson for the European Conservatives Group

Mr President, let me give my personal reaction to what I have heard from you. I want to remind you that there was an aggressor in the 1930s in Europe, there were attempts to pacify him, the result was a great war, and one of the first victims of this war was your homeland. The question from our group is about the annexation of Crimea. What should be done by the Council of Europe and the international community to make the Russian Federation stop its repressive policy and deterioration of the human rights situation in Crimea?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

A wonderful, wonderful idea, but the political world is full of wonderful ideas. Some of them are even in the political cemetery. I will quote a former German president, Mr Gauck, who said publicly in Prague, “If we try to take Crimea again and return it to Ukraine, it would mean European war.” I only quote it – nothing more. So do you want to risk a European war? Crimea is an act, without any doubt. Crimea is at the same time a fait accompli. In response to the second part of your question, what are we to do? Well, if there was a dialogue between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, I think – it is only my personal view – that there would possibly be some compensation for Crimea in financial form or in a natural form, by which I mean oil or gas. This is only my personal proposal – nothing more. We respect that we try to avoid European war and at the same time we try to compensate Ukraine.

Ms FIALA (Switzerland), spokesperson for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

Dear Mr President, on behalf of my Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, and as a Liberal, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the international conference held in Prague last week. Immigration detention of children is coming to an end under your chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers with the legislative changes foreseen after the fruitful symposium in your country.

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

The migration problem is one dividing line I did not mention. There is, as you know, a dividing line between the Visegrád group and the rest of the European Union. The Visegrád group is strictly against illegal economic migration, for many reasons – there is no time to repeat them. As a reasonable solution, we must help migrants in their domestic countries. That means that from the national budgets of European countries it is necessary to finance, for instance, electricity, schools, hospitals, water resources and so on – but, I repeat, in domestic countries of those migrants, not in European countries.

Let me add one argument more. I do not speak about fresh working forces and so on, but basically the European Union has 8% unemployment. There is a brain drain. If young, healthy men leave their homeland, they weaken its economy. The brain drain, which is sometimes a muscle drain, may condemn such countries to permanent backwardness, because they lose an important part of their workforce – perhaps even millions of people – which is also my argument against illegal and economic migration. I have nothing against refugees who have been persecuted for political reasons in their own country. They are not illegal migrants or economic migrants.

Mr KOX (Netherlands), spokesperson for the Group of the Unified European Left

You spoke relevant words about the inadequacy of sanctions in Europe and the need to overcome the confrontation in Europe but, more concretely, what would be your road map to get the European Union and the Russian Federation away from this dangerous confrontation and towards a better co-existence on this continent? To say only that sanctions do not work is not enough. What is your road map to overcome these difficulties?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

I will try to respond frankly. It is about people-to-people communication. Let us organise workshops, seminars, conferences and so on, so that we can see the ideological diversion. I talk to Russian people, and they are not illiterate or uneducated. They are able to hear and they have their own arguments, and we must be able to hear those arguments, too. The founder of my State, Tomáš Masaryk, said, “Democracy is discussion.” Let us discuss.

Ms FILIPOVSKI (Serbia), spokesperson for the Free Democrats Group

Mr President, how do you see the situation between Catalonia and Spain? Many European countries have different points of view on the immigration crisis over the past four years. Do you believe it is possible to reach a comprehensive solution? What is your understanding of the political double standards in the Council of Europe?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

There is perhaps a tendency towards the regionalisation of Europe. It is not a good tendency that we do not evaluate our personal values. There should be real processes, because it is not only Catalonia; it is also Scotland. A referendum on Scottish independence has been declared for the next year, as far as I know.

I have mentioned Crimea, and there is also the problem of Kosovo. The independence of Kosovo was not a reasonable solution because it was against the United Nations resolution on the territorial integrity of Serbia. One standard is being applied to Kosovo and another, opposite, standard is being applied to Crimea.


We have time for a very few questions from the floor. I call Ms Duranton.

Ms DURANTON (France) (interpretation)

There have been sometimes violent demonstrations in Prague about migrants and immigrants. What is the Czech Republic doing about such hate speech?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

There have been demonstrations in Prague both for and against migrants, although the demonstrations against migrants may be bigger. It is a little paradoxical, because the territory of Czechia, including Prague, has no migrants at all – from the Czech point of view, migrants are like the Yeti or Madame Columbo – but we know there are plenty of migrants in Austria, Germany and elsewhere, hence the demonstrations against migrants. Some political representatives say there is no reason to apply the European policy of relocation, and they recommend, as I have recommended, helping people in their own territory.

It would not be democratic to stop these demonstrations. In a recent year, and at the same place, there was one demonstration against me and one demonstration in my favour. I participated in both, because I am a democrat.


Mr President, I acknowledge your personal input in raising awareness of the Armenian genocide. Human rights education is among the priorities of the Czech chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. It is imperative to include crimes against humanity as a topic within school curriculums. Is the level of education on crimes against humanity sufficient in Europe? What can the Council of Europe do to support the integration of this topic in the curriculums of member States?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

That is a complex question. The level of international crime is growing because of Islamic terrorism. I am open and frank, and I do not use the phrase “Islamic terrorism” lightly but, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it has Islamic origin. It is connected with genocide in Armenia. Yes, I was heavily criticised when I declared the same thing as France did, for instance, but as the Assembly knows, the French Parliament even adopted a law about that genocide. On the other side, I have been criticised for having a good economic relationship with Azerbaijan. I am probably Jekyll and Hyde, but nobody knows who is Jekyll and who is Hyde.

What can we do against international criminality? Invest in the police and the army, and have the courage to invest in our own guns. My wife also has a pistol. Of course she passed all necessary tests, but now I am guarded by my wife, and not only by bodyguards. The second amendment to the American constitution says that everybody has the right to have a weapon – of course they must fulfil the necessary conditions and tests. We Europeans are a little more careful than the Americans, but after Barcelona and many assassinations, I think that the difference between Europeans and Americans is not so great.

Mr HOWELL (United Kingdom)

Mr President, I want to take you outside Europe for a moment. What can you do, and what can we do, to bring peace to the Middle East?

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

My response will probably be a deep disappointment to you. I am a friend of Israel – a deep friend of Israel. That is why I think that peace in the Middle East should be based primarily in the safety of Israel. I know the history of all the wars starting from 1948. Israel was victorious in every war, but had it been defeated it would have meant the end of that State – the Jewish State. Unfortunately, in some countries or movements – Hezbollah, Hamas, and others – there survives a tendency to diminish or to destroy Israel. What should we do to have peace in the Middle East? We must disarm the terrorist organisation, and first of all Hamas and Hezbollah.


Thank you, Mr President. Sadly, that concludes the speakers whom I am able to accommodate because of time and the President’s commitments.

Thank you, Mr President, for this exchange of views. In concluding your speech you emphasised one of the core ideas at the heart of the Council of Europe, which is to build friendship between European nations. For me and, I hope, for all of us, friendship means unity, shared values, honesty and, above all, respect. The Council of Europe is what it is today – a common legal space and a human rights protection system that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific – because 47 European nations have voluntarily committed themselves to respect a common set of standards. All the Council of Europe’s 47 member States must respect that commitment for there to be that unity, mutual trust and friendship. The Assembly offers a platform for contacts and exchanges between Europe’s politicians, and it will continue to work hard to achieve that goal. I thank you warmly, Mr President, for the contribution to that process that we have received from you today.

Mr Zeman, President of the Czech Republic

Let me add my sincerest thanks to my friend sitting beside me who was an amplifier of your totally unheard questions. Thank you, Rudolph, and thank you all. See you not in the next century, but in the next decade. Bye, bye.


There are a few housekeeping announcements before we leave. The third ballot for the election of the President will close in two minutes at 1 p.m. Anybody who has not voted has a fast run to the back of the President’s chair to vote. Would the tellers please make their way to the room behind the President’s chair in order to start counting the votes the moment the ballot closes at 1 o’clock?

The ballot for electing the judge in respect of Georgia to the European Court of Human Rights is suspended, but not closed, until the afternoon’s sitting. Voting will reopen at 3.30 p.m. and close at 5 p.m. As I indicated, we hope to announce that result later this afternoon.