The very model of a modern useful stooge

We’ve been exploring the evolution (or, more properly, devolution) of former Czech president Václav Klaus, who, hailed only a couple of years ago as a “champion of liberty,” has since become a “slavish defender” of Vladimir Putin – in particular, of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus smile as they shake hands during a meeting in Moscow's Kremlin on Friday, April 27, 2007. (AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
Klaus and Putin at the Kremlin

As we saw yesterday, Klaus – by way of making a case for Russia’s claim to Ukraine – called Ukraine an “artificial entity” with “no historical tradition of statehood.” Andrei Illarionov and Dalibor Rohac of the Cato Institute refuted this “most extraordinary claim” with ease, citing previous incarnations of the independent Ukrainian state, going back to the Kievan Rus (882–1240) and the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia (1199–1243).

But Klaus doubled down. “For Russia,” he maintained, “the Ukraine is more than just its closest foreign country, more than e.g. Estonia, Tajikistan, or Azerbaijan. It is the historic cradle of its statehood and culture.” To which Illarionov and Rohac pointed out that “England is also the cradle of the modern United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But…we doubt that Klaus would see that as a reason or a justification for any of those countries to claim English lands.”

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Anne Applebaum

Writing in the Washington Post on October 16 of this year, Anne Applebaum – the author of the definitive history of the Gulag – brought us up to date on the unsavory Klaus-Putin axis. Klaus, she noted, had spoken this year at the World Public Forum’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” – an event, sponsored by Putin intimate Vladimir Yakunin and featuring sizable contingents of Russian secret service agents, that annually brings together “people willing to endorse Russian views of the world.” At the forum, Klaus defended Putin’s actions in Syria, calling them “a logical step.”

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Klaus reviewing troops in Moscow, 2007

Noting that Klaus has “financial links to Moscow” (she didn’t go into detail), Applebaum compared the World Public Forum to the Soviet front groups of the Cold War era. Those groups, she recalled, “were run by ‘agents of influence’ — people who knowingly promoted the interests of the Soviet Union in the West — or ‘useful idiots,’ people who did the same thing, unconsciously, usually out of ideological naiveté.” But Klaus and other participants in the forum, she underscored, aren’t exactly idiots, spies, or traitors; they’re people who, for whatever reasons of their own, “seek openly to legitimize the anti-NATO, anti-European, anti-Western views of the Russian elite” and “to undermine Western security and support the spread of Russian authoritarianism in Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East.”

She concluded: “So what do we call them? We need a new vocabulary for a new era.” Which is precisely the reason why we coined the term “useful stooges.” How sad that Václav Klaus, once a hero of freedom, has become the very model of the modern useful stooge.

Not everybody is put off by the new Klaus. Tomorrow we’ll meet somebody who thinks his new political line is just plain terrific.

Václav Klaus: blaming Georgia, blaming Ukraine

Yesterday we began discussing former Czech president Václav Klaus‘s defense of Vladimir Putin – in particular, Klaus’s claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the fault of the US and EU. “Among former European statesmen,” wrote James Kirchick a year ago in the Daily Beast, Klaus has long been Putin’s most slavish defender, even more vociferous than ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.” That’s saying a lot, given the extremely chummy relationships Putin enjoys with both of those men. (We examined Vlad’s “bromance” with Berlusconi not that long ago.)

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Klaus with his hero

The mutual respect between Putin and Klaus goes back a few years. As Kirchick pointed out, Putin awarded Klaus the Pushkin medal in 2007; in 2008, “Klaus was the only European leader to blame the Georgians” for Putin’s invasion of their country; in April of last year, Klaus and a former aide, Jiri Weigl, wrote an article defending Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

In an article for the World Affairs Journal, Andrei Illarionov and Dalibor Rohac of the Cato Institute took a close look at Klaus’s defense of that invasion. Saying that Klaus “might well be the most prominent foreign figure defending Russia’s annexation of Crimea and denying Kremlin’s complicity in the war unfolding in the East of Ukraine,” Illarionov and Rohac sum up – and respond to – his position as follows:

Ukraine's fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych gives a news conference in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Moscow, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Making his first public appearance since fleeing Ukraine, fugitive Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych pledged Friday to fight for his country's future but said he will not ask for military assistance. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Viktor Yanukovych

Klaus argues that the separation of Crimea from Ukraine resulted from genuine efforts of its people to attain independence. But he offers very little evidence for that claim. Crimea long enjoyed considerable autonomy within Ukraine, including its own constitution. The only openly separatist movement in Crimea…secured only three seats out 100 in the last election to the Crimean Parliament. And between 2011 and 2014, the publicly declared support for joining Russia among Crimean inhabitants was between 23 and 41 percent.

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Andrei Illarionov

Klaus also maintained that the pro-freedom demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan Square turned radical and that the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych chose to respond with “concessions” rather than “repressive action.” As Illarionov and Rohac pointed out, this claim is absurd. So is Klaus’s apparent belief that the Maidan protests were planned by people in Western Europe and the U.S. Ditto his bizarre description of Ukraine as largely an “artificial entity that did not turn into an independent state until the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago.” Illarionov and Rohac had a definitive reply to that: “why should modern Ukraine seem any more ‘artificial’ than, say, the independent Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, with its sizeable German, Hungarian, Rusyn, and other populations?…Is Poland ‘an artificial entity’ because it includes territories of the former German, Austrian, or Russian empires?”

But Klaus reached even further. We’ll get around to that tomorrow.

Václav Klaus: “champion of liberty” turned Putinist

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Václav Havel

In its brief history, the Czech Republic has had two presidents in a row named Václav. Both have been men of extraordinary substance. Václav Havel was an eloquent playwright and courageous dissident who, in a single profoundly perceptive essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, explained to his people, then suffering under the yoke of Communism, how totalitarianism works – and how individuals who consider themselves weak, terrified, and alone can contribute to its overthrow and help bring about their own liberation. Millions of citizens of Czechoslovakia and other Soviet satellites who read Havel’s essay (circulated by samizdat) and took his words to heart played an active role in the fall of the Iron Curtain. When Czechoslovakia won its freedom in 1989, Havel was as inevitable a choice to become its first president as George Washington was to become the first president of the United States. (Indeed, the National Assembly selected Havel by a unanimous vote.) When Slovaks decided they wanted their own country, splitting Czechoslovakia in two, Havel ran for and was elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he held until 2003. (He died in 2011.)

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Václav Klaus

Internationally, his successor, Václav Klaus, has been overshadowed by Havel. But Klaus, who served as president from 2003 to 2013, was also admirable in many ways. Havel was a poet; Klaus is a trained economist – a student of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and admirer of Margaret Thatcher who knows how markets work. While Havel supported the European Union, which he viewed as a means of keeping the peace in Europe, Klaus considers it an all too Soviet-style superstate run by arrogant political elites who don’t understand economics, aren’t answerable to the electorate, and want to have their fingers in every pie – who are driven, that is, by a compulsion to control, to regulate, and to tax. Havel was sympathetic to Nordic-style “market socialism”; Klaus is a strong enthusiast for free markets, period. If Havel was a hero to liberals everywhere, Klaus made a worldwide name for himself as an outspoken libertarian.

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Klaus: from Thacherite…

After he left office, however, it didn’t take long for Klaus’s international luster to start fading. Named in March 2014 a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute – perhaps the most respected libertarian institution – he was cut loose by Cato only months later. “The alleged reason for the split,” wrote James Kirchick in a December 2014 article for the Daily Beast, “is the former Czech leader’s slavish defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, as well as his hostility to homosexuality and cozying up to figures on the European far right.”

Slavish defense of Putin? Could this “champion of liberty,” as Cato’s president had called him, really have thrown in his lot with the Russian thug?

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during his meeting with Armenian President Serge Sarksyan in Yerevan December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (ARMENIA - Tags: POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
…to Putinite?

Alas, yes. On February 21 of last year, noted Kirchick, “Klaus took to the website of his foundation to question Ukraine’s very right to exist as a sovereign country.” He called it an “artificial entity.” In May, Klaus commemorated the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II victory by visiting the Russian Embassy in Prague with what Kirchick described as “a bevy of aging Czech communists and old KGB informants.” At a July conference, Klaus “railed against ‘unilateral pro-Western propaganda’ and offered to help divide Ukraine based upon his own experience in the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia.” In September, speaking to free-market economists at an event hosted by the Mont Pelerin Society, Klaus brought up the subject of Ukraine on his own, blaming the “Ukraine problem” on the US and EU and absolving Putin of blame. At a conference sponsored by the Russian Foreign Ministry, he said the following about the cold shoulder he’d gotten from Cato: “The US/EU propaganda against Russia is really ridiculous and I can’t accept it.”

More tomorrow.