Presidents anti-Muslim rhetoric and criticism of EU has won him plaudits at home and in neighboring countries, but raises questions for rest of Europe

In Pragues magnificent ninth-century palace, once the seat of power to Holy Roman rulers, Milo Zeman has a mundane preoccupation sharply at odds with the grandeur of his surroundings.

Do you smoke? asks the Czech Republics president, lighting the first of several cigarettes during an interview with the Protector at his sumptuous official residence overlooking the city.

Unfortunately the smokers are a discriminated minority and we are persecuted in all hotels, all eateries, everywhere, he continues indignantly, defending a habit he once rejected as harmless if not started before persons under the age of 27. It is like in the case of the[ American] prohibition. Whiskey as a consequence was more expensive and very low quality. And now smoking is alsoes nearly prohibited.

The contradiction of modern scientific orthodoxy seems a far cry from the moral authority exuded by one of his predecessors, the late Vclav Havel, a former anti-communist dissenter who was the Czech Republics first chairman in accordance with the 1992 breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Yet it is typical of the unabashed advocacy of traditional mores and popular pastimes that Zeman has stimulated his trademark since becoming his countrys first directly elected head of state in 2013.

Last year, the president whose drinking exploits, including occasionally appearing to be inebriated in public, had now become legendary stirred disagreement by wishing death to abstainers and vegetarians during a meeting with winemakers.

His spokesman insisted he was referring to Adolf Hitler, a renowned teetotaller who did not eat meat. Whatever the truth, it was undoubtedly popular with Zemans working-class advocates, predominantly based in the provinces far removed from cultured, cosmopolitan Prague.

Such earthy folksiness resonates even further, however beyond the boundaries of the Czech Republic and with potentially important outcomes for Europes future. It strikes a powerful chord in neighbouring Slovakia, Hungary and Poland which, together with the Czech Republic, make up the Visegrd group of countries. This potent eastern European populism is likely to be on full display when the European Unions members gather in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, on Friday for the first summit since Britains Brexit vote.

Milo
Zeman with Angela Merkel during the course of its German chancellors visit to Prague last month. Photo: Michal Cizek/ AFP/ Getty Images

For Zeman is most in his part when talking about his opposition to accepting Muslim refugees from Syria and elsewhere to ease Europes migration crisis.

The Czech president has unleashed a rhetorical fusillade against Muslim incomers of such intensity that it constructs the anti-Islamic sentiments of Robert Fico, the Slovakian prime minister, and even Viktor Orbn, Hungarys prime minister who is holding a referendum next month is targeted at establishing public opposition to accepting migrants seem mild in comparison.

Zeman has warned that the Czech Republic home to merely 3,500 Muslims out of a population of 10. 5 million, according to official figures could be targeted in a jihadi assault and exhorted Czechs to arm themselves against what he referred to as a possible super-Holocaust. The concern is believed to have inspired the unprecedented introduction of metal detectors to screen the crowds of foreign tourists that visit Prague palace each day.

The alarmist message is particularly striking because unlike most anti-immigrant legislators in western Europe, Zeman, 71, is a social democrat( and former communist) rather than a rightwinger, and the Czech Republic has been largely spared the waves of refugees that have swept into neighbouring Austria and Hungary en route to Germany.

The stridency has been lent greater importance and popularity by Zemans hostility to proposed quotums that would scatter refugees across EU countries, a position he voiced forcefully to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, when she visited Prague last month.

My first sentence in the meeting with Madam Chancellor was: If you invite somebody to your homeland, you do not send them for a lunch to your neighbours. Very polite sentence, isnt it? says Zeman, speaking English in disarmingly avuncular tones belying his uncompromising sentiments. The German leader simply smiled with a view to responding, he says.

There is little to smile about, however, when Zeman sets out what he sees as the threat being were imposed by revolutionary Islamists and even moderate Muslims, who he says could be radicalised to commit terror attacks as ordinary Germans were once inspired to fanatically back Hitler.

In the 30 s, the overwhelming majority of Germans were decent people, the nation of Goethe and Schiller and so on, he says. In a few years, they became Nazis, even fanatic Nazis. And the radicalisation of the till these times moderate Muslim population might be like the case of the German population. It might be easier than the German population,[ because] you have a very radical ideology based on a religion.

Challenged to justify applying this to secular , non-practising Muslims, Zeman invokes a former Czech education minister in calling Islam a religion of death and points to what he says are the teachings of the Quran.

You might say that Islamic migration is composed of peaceful people. Let me give you one example. The posture of Islam I do not speak about jihadists, I speak about Islam towards females, half of the population. As you know, in the Quran, females is something like the inferior part of mankind.

Zemans intemperate and, to many, downright offensive language has drawn accusations of populism and unavoidable comparings with the US Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. He counters by citing Winston Churchill.
Winston Churchill has been always a populist and he was right. And all the persons who criticised him were wrong, says Zeman. What does it entail, a populist? It is a slogan, a label , nothing more.

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Umbrellas are used to protect Zeman from rockets thrown by protesters during a speech in 2014 in Prague. Photo: Petr David Josek/ AP

Criticism is also levelled at the presidents Euroscepticism, manifested in his denunciation of EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea. Zeman has demanded referendums on the Czech Republics membership of the EU and Nato, while insisting he would advocate staying in each.

The countrys need to remain in the EU, which it joined in 2004, is justified by fund, money, money, he says, before launching into a brief and unmelodic rendition of Abbas famous hit. My cynical rationale is that we are not the net payer in the European Union. We get a huge amount of subsidies from European monies, he says. This is not the situation of British people, of course.

Still, he says, the EU is unlikely to survive Brexit without triggering further exits unless there is a change of leadership and radical reform to stem nonsense directives.

The union, he says, is like a broken-down develop described in an old Soviet joke about the collapse of communism. The third part of the gag has the train with Brezhnev on board, he explains. He says, comrades, if the develop stops, we shall close the drapery and imitate that the train is still going on. The European Union is the third part of this gag. They simply close the draperies and simulate that without any change of strategy, the European union is going on.

Then the president seeks to conclude the interview, merely to have second thoughts on realising he has not finished his last cigarette, giving him time to contemplate the impact of Brexit on Britain.

Long live Great Britain. But I wonder whether Scotland will stay in Great Britain, he muses.

Does Czechoslovakias velvet divorce creating the Czech Republic and Slovakia hold any lessons for the UK and a possible independent Scotland? I do not wish you your splendid isolation. Isolation is splendid in the long term but you know what Keynes said in the long term we are all dead. Bye-bye.

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