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Czech Defense minister: waiting for Godot

Published : 18 February 2013
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Two months after the stormy dismissal of Ms. Peake, the Czech Republic is still looking for its Defense Minister. The Prime Minister Petr Nečas, who is currently assuming the responsibility of the ministry on an interim basis, promised a nomination after the Presidential elections of January 27th.

Effectively, the potential election of Karel Schwarzenberg, the current Minister of the Foreign Affairs and chief of TOP09 party, as new Czech President would have heavily modified the political balance inside the government and requested a deep reshuffle.

Anyway, since it is his opponent Miloš Zeman who has been elected, the ministerial reshuffle is no longer necessary and nothing is preventing the nomination of a new Defense Minister. However three weeks after the above-mentioned election, the Defense Ministry is still managed by the Office of the Government. What are the reasons that could explain that lack of enthusiasm for such a ministerial position?

The Czech Defense Ministry, the new “hot potato” of the governmental majority

The difficulties which are complicating that nomination are political and personal.

They are first political because the new candidate must not modify the political balance inside the government. The nomination of a TOP09 candidate is excluded because this party has already two other “heavy” ministries (Foreign Affairs and Finance). ODS is facing the same obstacle because it gave precisely the Defense Ministry to Ms. Peake, president of the third political party of the coalition, in exchange of the Ministry of Transport. The burning failure of Ms. Peake and the absence of political legitimacy of her party LIDEM, which is issued from the disintegration of the Public Affairs party, are preventing it to propose a credible candidate (the only potential candidate Viktor Paggio is refusing to cooperate with the government since Ms. Peake’s dismissal).

That’s the reason why the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday during a TV broadcast that the new Defense Minister has to be a specialist of this domain without any political affiliation.

However the choice will remain hazardous because, for the time being, all the candidates who were contacted – often diplomats – declined to accept this position. Effectively, nobody wants to become part of a dying and unpopular government which will end its political mandate in barely more than one year at the latest. And this is without talking about the little room for maneuver that will be left to Mr. Vondra’s successor. Everybody will understand why the contacted ambassadors or politicians preferred to decline such a tricky honor.

Vlastimil Picek, the current 1st Deputy Defense Minister, who is not linked with any political party and who perfectly knows this domain, could appear as a suitable candidate. But TOP09 is not in favor of nominating a former military as head of the Defense Ministry and Ms. Peake has a personal hostility towards general Picek because she was precisely fired after her attempt to get rid of him.

Other names are being heard as potential candidates such as Jan Vylita, the current general Secretary of the Defense Ministry or Ondřej Páleník, former director of the Military intelligence and current head of the Administration of State Material Reserves.

At first the candidature of general Páleník should meet the same hostility from TOP09 because of his status of former soldier. Even if I have to remind that nobody, not even TOP09, is protesting against the fact that a former policeman is now Minister of the Interior. So why is there such an obsession against the former soldiers who are candidates to the Defense Minister position?

On the other hand, Jan Vylita appears as an ideal candidate: he is not affiliated with any political party; he has a good knowledge of the various dossiers of the Ministry since he is working there for two and half years, in particular with Alexandr Vondra. The only question is: will Mr. Vylita want to assume this position where he’ll get more kicks than compliments?

A year without any Defense Minister: a possible solution but not very desirable

So is it possible that the current management of the Defense Ministry – current affairs solved by General Picek and political decisions assumed by the Prime Minister – could go on until the next Parliamentary elections of spring 2014?

Theoretically it is not impossible. Some malicious gossips are pretending that the military establishment would be happy with such a management which would give them more freedom. They are even taking as a paradigm of this situation the decision of sending around 50 Czech instructors to the European Mission in Mali. This is an audacious shortcut made by a well-known Czech journalist who is only forgetting that the military don’t decide deployments to operations: this is a political process which has to be first endorsed by the government and then voted by the Parliament. For the Czech participation to the European Training mission in Mali, the government approved this deployment on 6th February, the Defense Commission of the National Assembly voted it on 14th February and we are waiting for the Senate vote on 20th February.

However a tandem Prime Minister- General Picek as head of the Defense Ministry is technically possible even if it is not very favorable to the Ministry itself.

Effectively the Ministry is expecting in 2013-2014 a lot of reorganizations and reforms. In order to overcome the natural resistances which are triggered by those changes, the full power and legitimacy of a sitting Minister will be necessary. A Deputy Minister, for no matter how good he might be, has not the same status as a sitting Minister…

And the discussions about the Budget 2014 which will start in June could be particularly unfavorable to the Defense Ministry if there is no Minister to oppose the formidable Minister of Finance Kalousek.

So whoever will be nominated Jan Vylita, Vlastimil Picek, Ondřej Páleník or another, the Czech Republic cannot afford to remain without a Defense Minister, unless it wants to torpedo the Ministry!