Klaus' rule promising for Europe and beyond

Commentary by Pete du Pont

New president's election comes at crucial juncture as EU and Iraq hold world's attention.

While the world was preoccupied with weapons inspections in Iraq, a gathering recently took place in Prague that promises to have lasting geopolitical effects. Vaclav Klaus - revolutionary, economist and former prime minister - was sworn in as president of the Czech Republic.

Klaus' election comes at a crucial moment. In the coming months, two events will once again propel Klaus and the Czech Republic into the vanguard of global politics: the eastward expansion of the European Union and the disarmament of Iraq. We can expect that Klaus' presidency will benefit people and markets on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike most of his counterparts in European leadership, Klaus' political experience goes beyond legislative horse-trading and reflects a lifelong devotion to democracy and free-market economics. Klaus spent most of his life under totalitarian regimes. From behind the Iron Curtain, he longed for what his counterparts in France and Germany took for granted: American-style freedom. While Joshka Fischer bullied policemen in Frankfurt, Klaus read Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. That education in classical economics served him well when the Soviet empire collapsed and he - along with Vaclav Havel - stepped forward to lead Czechoslovakia into the free world. Klaus led the longest-lived post-Soviet reform government and presided over the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia.

Between 1989 and 1996, his policies - first as finance minister and later as prime minister - brought about a period of strong economic growth. In 1989, only 3 percent of Czech gross domestic product (GDP) was in the private sector. Under Klaus, the country discarded its massive government structure and quickly outstripped its neighbors. By the end of his term, the country repaid its International Monetary Fund loans two years ahead of schedule, gained admission to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and earned an A" rating from Standard & Poor's. Perhaps most telling, Klaus' economic reforms were embraced by Social Democrats. As a result of Klaus' legacy, Czech GDP doubled.

The country now has one of the highest per capita income figures in Central Europe and attracts $5 billion annually in foreign investment. Among former Soviet satellites, the country is the only one where communists have not returned to power. As Klaus mentioned in his inauguration speech, the most critical issue facing the Czech Republic is accession to the EU. Another priority is the process of integration of our country into the EU and a defense of our interests inside this association. Persistently, I shall base my positions on a president's first and foremost loyalty: that to his country," he said.

However, Klaus is not a euro-skeptic; instead, he prefers to be called a euro-realist. He recognizes the potential for a European-wide free-trade area. Klaus knows what is needed for cooperation among member states. This is a different vision from the federalist camp, which - as Jacques Chirac recently indicated in his lecture to Eastern European candidate countries - would consist of a unified European state with decision-making power concentrated in the West. As Klaus acknowledges, the direction integration takes is important not only for its effects on economies of member states but also for its potential to influence U.S.-European relations. Klaus' predecessor, Havel, was one of eight Eastern European leaders who signed a letter supporting U.S. efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein. Taking questions on Iraq at his first press conference following his Feb. 28 victory, Klaus said he would back the Czech government's pro-U.S. position, although he noted that most people were against the war. Having lived more recently under the types of government that were once seen as an alternative to American-style democracy, Klaus and fellow Eastern Europeans are less keen to discard Europe's relationship with the United States - especially when the point of contention is a militant and expansionistic ruler not unlike the men who once ruled Eastern Europe.

Judging by his long record of service to the cause of human freedom and economic growth, there can be little doubt that Klaus is indeed a man of action and that his election as president augurs well for his country, Europe and the United States.