Czech Republic

Burn boxers, burn!

Miloš Zeman, president of the Czech Republic, has just burned a pair of giant red underpants at a press conference called for this exact purpose. Meanwhile, Zeman has an even bigger iron in the fire.

Yes, it is true. The duly elected President and highest representative of the sovereign state of Czech Republic has just burned a pair of oversized boxer shorts. At a press conference called for this exact purpose.

Now, this was not just any old pair of humongous underpants the republic’s revenant in-chief set on fire; these come with a story. In 2015, a group of artists disguised themselves as chimney-sweeps and thusly camouflaged managed to sneak into the monster’s lair in the Prague Castle. Their aim, a daring feat of political disrespect: to replace the default Presidential standard (“Truth prevails!”) with a less absurd one. The deed was done and the Castle finally flew a proper flag — a giant pair of red boxers. “An appropriate banner for an utterly shameless man,” as the artists put it later.

The Castle’s response was a veritable hurricane of press-released manure, court summons and accusations of fascism (see, the Press Office believes the last time the standard was removed from its flagpole was during the Nazi occupation – which begs the rather discomforting question of how often, if ever, they actually clean the damn thing). In the end, artists were forced by the court to pay 63 000 CZK in reparations for the damaged roof and the cut rope. Given the average amount of damage a chimney-sweep does to a roof, the only possible conclusion is that it was an expensive piece of rope. And with that realization, the red boxer shorts effectively disappeared from the public eye. Until now, apparently.

Time to burn

A very simple and perfectly plausible explanation for bringing the underpants to light again could be Zeman’s sheer childish spitefulness. The day he chose for his precious pyromaniacal performance happened to be very close to one year death anniversary of one of the artists involved in the original flag heist. It could also simply be the fact Zeman was suspiciously absent from the media for several weeks. In a country run on sheer egotism, this obviously cannot stand.

There is also a somewhat interesting angle as a statement towards art in general. Zeman claims he obtained the underpants for the symbolic price of one crown, while others estimate their value at over two million. Although we are being repeatedly assured that the country’s economy is on the rise, that is still a rather expensive bonfire.

But the most likely explanation is that Zeman went back to his tried-and-true political tactics and the whole international embarrassment is just a smoke screen. One good thing about such tactics: in order for them to be effective and still shock the media and the populace, Zeman has to resort to increasingly idiotic stunts. Here’s hoping he is going to set fire to himself next time.

No smoke without (nuclear) fire

So what was it about? Earlier that day, a rather peculiar meeting took place in the Castle, featuring our beloved President, our even more beloved Prime Minister, and a somewhat more shadowy character – Daniel Beneš, head of ČEZ, the biggest energetics provider in the country (which happens to be 70% owned by the state). ČEZ is also a company only a week away from a reshuffle of its supervisory board, which is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of sinecures for politicians that need to be pushed just a little bit in the right direction by  a PM who has trouble getting a government through the Parliamentary confidence vote and by a President who has very definite ideas on what does and does not constitute a government that he is willing to work with.

In order to build even a minority government, Babiš needs a compromise with the Social Democrats as well as the silent support of the extremist parties – communists and the not-totally-fascist SPD. What is a better way to appeal to their better selves than by offering them new, exciting, and extremely well-paid ways to serve their country?

And of course, Zeman has an even bigger iron in the fire. With proper political pressure applied on ČEZ by politicians with the right sympathies, he is free to deliver the massive contracts for expanding both Czech nuclear power plants straight into the hands of his buddies at Rosatom. Even ignoring the well-documented Russian mastery of nuclear engineering (Chernobyl says hello), this would allow for unprecedented amounts of money from Russia flowing into the Czech Republic – to be snatched, divided, laundered and used to reaffirm Russia’s informational, financial and ultimately fatal hold on this country; something Zeman has been tirelessly working on for years.

Blaze of glory

Still, there is no need to waste a perfectly good symbol. In their blaze of glory, the boxer shorts ultimately reaffirmed the message they originally carried: that Zeman is a man with no scruples, no morals, and no shame. The boxer shorts said more about truth than any banner of truth could ever dream of saying. They were burnt for the ideal they carried, in the best tradition of Czech heroes who met their death in flames.

Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague, 1415.

Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, 1969.

Giant red underpants, 2018.


Michal Chmela
Michal Chmela is a translator and journalist.