New Czech president expected to foster EU, Ukraine ties
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New Czech president expected to foster EU, Ukraine ties

Retired war hero Petr Pavel beat billionaire populist Andrej Babis to win Saturday's presidential election.
Retired war hero Petr Pavel beat billionaire populist Andrej Babis to win Saturday's presidential election.

PRAGUE: Newly-elected Czech president Petr Pavel, a former NATO general, will promote close ties with the European Union and offer firm support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion, analysts said.

The 61-year-old war hero beat billionaire populist Andrej Babis to win Saturday's presidential election.

A former chief of NATO's military committee, he will replace outspoken, divisive incumbent Milos Zeman who had fostered closer ties with Moscow and Beijing before making a U-turn when Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

Analysts told AFP that Pavel's experience in military diplomacy would be a clear asset as he held a very different presidency than his predecessor.

"We know that his contacts at NATO, as well as with peers from NATO member states... are very strong, and foreign policy will be his domain," said Pavel Havlicek, a scientist at the Association for International Affairs in Prague.

"I think he will be a proficient president if we realise the war in Ukraine is one of the key problems Europe is facing," Havlicek told AFP.

Pavel was a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the 1980s and began a rapid rise through army ranks until communism fell in 1989.

After Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Pavel became an advocate of EU and NATO membership.

During campaigning he argued there was still "no better alternative".

He also called for more aid to Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia in February last year.

"He is very much in favour of Ukraine, he has repeatedly voiced his support, and he's very critical towards Russia," said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst at New York University Prague.

"His stance will entail strong support to Ukraine without any conditions," Pehe told AFP.

- EU presidency -

European leaders have welcomed Pavel's win, which follows the Czech Republic's 2022 EU presidency.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Berlin would work "hand in hand for a stronger EU and NATO" with Pavel, while European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen praised his "strong commitment to our European values".

Pavel is also in favour of adopting the euro as the currency of the Czech Republic.

He is expected to work closely with his country's governing centre-right coalition led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala, which also provides military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

"Pavel will draw upon the government's policy in this sense, and I think there will be no fundamental disputes," said Palacky University analyst Pavel Saradin.

"There will be none of that ambivalence we had with Milos Zeman," said Pehe.

Analysts also expect Pavel to turn a more critical eye towards his country's close ties with the so-called Visegrad-four group, which consists of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been at odds with the EU over the rule of law in his country and his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pavel has criticised Orban on several occasions and met with opposition figures when he visited Hungary last December.

"He would rather redefine the regional cooperation to a broader format of more countries, meaning that Hungary's influence would be neutralised," said Pehe.

Havlicek said he also expected Pavel to strengthen ties with the United States.

"(Pavel) has great and strong experience with meetings and negotiations and he will show it," said Havlicek.

"He will be in his element when it comes to foreign policy."

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