Czech President Milos Zeman lights a candle to commemorate the victims of COVID-19 during a ceremony at Prague Castle on 10 May. Photo by David W Cerny via Global Media/Reuters.

What’s going on around the Czech president as he experiences the most difficult moments of his life. From Respekt.

Transitions editor’s note: Czech President Milos Zeman’s sudden hospitalization on 10 October, a day after parliamentary elections won by two opposition blocs, left him apparently unable to nominate the next prime minister. Doctors at the Central Military Hospital have not released information about Zeman’s condition, and his staff have maintained that he is able to perform his duties. On 18 October, after this article was published, Senate President Milos Vystrcil told the media that Zeman’s health rendered him temporarily “unable to perform any working responsibilities,” citing a statement from the hospital. Doctors evaluated Zeman’s long-term prognosis as “extremely uncertain” and said it was “very unlikely” that he will be able to carry out his duties in the coming weeks, Vystrcil said.

The last words that Czech President Milos Zeman pronounced in public were spoken almost four weeks ago, and they were brief. “I’m Potassium Man,” he joked to his closest aides as his security detail pushed him in his wheelchair from the Central Military Hospital (UVN) and got him into his limousine. During his eight days in the hospital he received several strengthening substances including potassium because, as his spokesperson said, he had ended up there due to “dehydration and mild exhaustion.”

Journalists were not able to speak with Zeman directly on that occasion, as his team kept the press at a distance and forbade photographing the head of state or recording his condition in any way. Since Wednesday, 22 September, he has held six political meetings with various visitors – the prime minister, several other ministers, the leader of the opposition, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – all without the presence of cameras. That’s all. Behind the scenes, wild rumors quickly began to spread that during some of his meetings Zeman had appeared disoriented, mixed up the names of those in the room, and abruptly transitioned from speaking Czech to Russian and back again.

Two Sundays ago, Zeman ended up in the hospital once more – and his trip there this time was dramatic. He was unable to communicate with those around him and hospital staff had to support his head, as he was unable to control his neck muscles. While the presidential office at Prague Castle continues to hide the state of Zeman’s health, other politicians are unraveling the problem of when it will be time to strip him of his powers due to his illness and incapacity to perform his duties. The most important task of that office is naming the new prime minister now that the elections to the lower house are over. Dramatic scenes have also transpired by Zeman’s hospital bedside, as his chief of staff has been bringing visitors to his room, without permission from any doctors – as many as five in a row during just one day last week. Respekt has learned that the Czech police president eventually had to intervene to stop this.

The Healthy Invalid

One of the last people to speak with Zeman directly was Prime Minister Andrej Babis, two Sundays ago. The meeting was held just a few hours after the premier learned he had lost the election. He went to the presidential residence in the chateau at Lany, where Zeman has spent most of his time for several years now due to his broken health. While in the past the prime minister had always given a media statement after such meetings, this time he quickly left through the chateau’s back door.

Shortly thereafter, the president’s motorcade left Lany with the head of state in an ambulance. Babis is said to been at the chateau for roughly an hour, only a few minutes of which were spent with Zeman himself. The prime minister has made no public statements about the president’s state of health or about what they discussed (or whether Zeman was able to communicate at all).

Doctors familiar with Zeman’s condition had forecast that his health would continue to deteriorate and declared that last Monday would be absolutely the last moment it would be possible to transfer him to the UVN, as his life would be in immediate danger. If the head of state refused to leave Lany by Monday evening, transferring him by helicopter at the very last moment was considered. Zeman ultimately agreed to be hospitalized during Sunday [10 October], when he was already apparently quite poorly. An ambulance immediately brought him to Prague. He entered the hospital through the front door, and as he was carried from the vehicle the transfer was recorded by journalists. It was not until that footage was publicized that Prague Castle was forced to admit, for the first time, what it has always refused to admit before – that Zeman “is ailing.” Officials have yet to publicize his diagnosis.

An Undesirable Event

Zeman is in an intensive care unit at UVN. Zeman’s spokesman has said he is receiving briefings from selected media, working, and being served his favorite fatty dishes, such as wine sausage. As evidence of Zeman’s activity, Prague Castle published the decree appointing the presiding judge of the Brno Regional Court, only to have it subsequently come to light that Zeman had initialed that document before being transferred to the hospital.

In contrast to the allegations from Zeman’s spokesman that he is in more or less fine condition, in the middle of last week UVN, for the first time, issued its own press release with the circuitous statement that the hospital “bears no responsibility for statements made by others, whether to the media or on social media.”

Prague Castle subsequently announced that Zeman had been visited at the hospital by his chief of staff, Vratislav Mynar, and by the outgoing speaker of the lower house, Radek Vondracek, in whose presence Zeman is said to have signed the decree to call the newly-elected members of the lower house into session.

Once again – this time in an unusually direct statement – the hospital objected to Prague Castle’s announcement: Mynar “unexpectedly, and without the knowledge of the presiding physician, brought [Vondracek] into the intensive care unit to visit the president. The UVN record of this unauthorized entry is listing it as what is called an undesirable event.” Doctors and nurses attending Zeman are regularly asked to show their identification and strict security measures prevail on the ward so no information will leak about his illness. In the past, as Respekt has reported, Zeman’s medical records have been kept under a fictitious name, and anybody who wishes to see them has to register and state the reasons for accessing them.

People who have encountered Zeman in recent months describe his condition as constantly deteriorating. Behind the scenes, speculations have repeatedly surfaced among politicians that Zeman has had a small ICU installed at Lany, but if that has happened it was not paid for from the budget of the presidential office.

Not Responsible?

Former President Vaclav Klaus, who is close to Zeman and was recently hospitalized at the UVN himself, has indicated that Zeman’s disease is a “liver problem.” That would correspond to Zeman’s years of excessive alcohol intake, poor diet, and the unhealthy lifestyle on which he has always relied. Media outlets have reported that Zeman’s problem is the accumulation of fluid in his abdominal cavity, a condition called ascites that may be related to cirrhosis of the liver. Denik N then also reported that Zeman also has hepatic encephalopathy, which manifests itself in various mental and neurological disorders and is caused by liver failure. This condition has four phases, the mildest of which involves sleep disorders and incoherent speech, while the final, fourth stage is coma. This outcome is caused by toxins permeating the brain because the liver is no longer able to filter them out due to the effects of the disease.

“Hepatic encephalopathy means that the ability to think normally is ruled out. If the president takes specific steps in the hospital and it is possible, given his disease, to cast strong doubt on his state of mind, then over time those steps could be open to attack because he may no longer be responsible for his own behavior,” a leading Czech doctor told Respekt.

Extreme Solution

After a time, Zeman could still go back to Lany if the doctors manage to at least partially stabilize him, but it can be anticipated that he would have to regularly return to the UVN to have his liver flushed. At his age and in his condition a transplant is impossible. Such hospitalizations could become protracted, and Zeman could experience related mental disorders until the end of his life.

Vondracek, who is politically close to Zeman, has said that when he visited him the weekend before last they spoke together about the post-election situation. Zeman is said to have promised to be “original” in resolving it. No photographs or recordings of the meeting have been published, so those allegations cannot be verified.

Vondracek’s visit to the UVN was distinctly non-standard. He is said to have been brought to Zeman by the chief of staff, Mynar, but he is not the only person to have paid the head of state such a visit. Respekt’s sources say five other people who are not Zeman’s family members have been brought there (and Denik N reported that some were kicked out). The doctors treating Zeman were so upset by this “line” of visitors that they contacted the director of the hospital, Miroslav Zavoral, to put a stop to it. Zavoral then contacted Czech Police President Jan Svejdar.

Vondracek subsequently said that he had not been brought to see Zeman by the chief of staff, but that police had escorted him into the room. Police say this did not happen. What is the aim of such visits? Zeman’s people could have been attempting to demonstrate, through Vondracek, that Zeman is able to sign official documents in the presence of others so that if any more are signed in the future, Prague Castle can argue that Zeman had the strength to do so. The news site Seznam has reported that police will be investigating whether anybody from Zeman’s entourage falsified the signature on the document convening the first session of the lower house.

This week the Senate’s constitutional committee is scheduled to meet to discuss activating Article 66, by which a head of state can be stripped of official powers, including the power to appoint a prime minister, if both houses of parliament find that he is incapacitated. Zeman would still remain in office in such a circumstance, but his authority would be passed to the leaders of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The lower house is scheduled to meet on 8 November, and the two blocs formerly in the opposition now have a majority of 108 seats as a result of the recent election. The new head of the lower house will come from within their ranks, which means that if Article 66 is activated, that person could be empowered to nominate the new prime minister.

For the time being, the leaders of the five-party coalition that is now coming together to form a government have not sent any clear messages about activating Article 66. Mostly they are reiterating that Zeman will be able to name Petr Fiala [leader of the center-right Civic Democratic Party] as the next prime minister, that first the two have to meet – Fiala does not yet have an appointment – and then they will see.

“We take Article 66 to be an extreme solution, we believe we will not have to use it, that we will manage to reach agreement,” the leader of the Christian Democrats, Marian Jurecka, told Respekt. “If we were to see that the president’s health made it impossible for him to carry out his functions, then we would have to deal with that. I don’t want to forecast such a forced solution, but we all know that that option exists.”

Ondrej Kundra is deputy editor in chief of the Czech weekly Respekt, where this article was originally published in longer form. Reprinted with permission.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.