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.