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How Klaus baffled Barroso and Solana with his Russian

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One British colleague asked me whether Czech President Václav Klaus speaks Russian. I answered that he does and that he is also duly proud of it.

There was a complaint coming from Russian sources who said the Czech president spoke Russian during the EU-Russia summit in Khabarovsk. That reportedly confused his European colleagues who, as representatives of countries untouched by Russian influence – were not able to understand him.

I explained that the Czech president is always happy to demonstrate his knowledge of English, German and Russian. After he was elected president in 2003, I spent two years travelling with him all over the world as the “Castle” reporter. He spoke German in Germany, English in London and Russian in Petersburg or Kazakh Almaty. He made a very good impression, of course.

I understand that it may be annoying to wait for translation, when I’m able to say everything I need in a foreign language. However, according to diplomatic convention, one usually communicates through interpreters during official meetings so that no one is favoured or disfavoured.

Languages are getting more and more important
That is how it works especially in the multi-lingual European Union, where a minister, prime minister or president are entitled to using their mother tongue. Politicians who speak only Czech or Greek are in a worse situation when negotiations are held backstage. Whispering in one’s ear does no work that well if you need an interpreter.

Thanks to his language skills, Klaus is undoubtedly an exception especially among statesmen from post-communist countries. Not speaking of the political herd in the Czech parliament where provinciality rules. There is a difference in whether I ‘m able to thumb only through Czech newspapers or also British and German ones.

The knowledge of foreign languages is becoming more and more important in the world of politics, especially on the EU level. One may recall the terrible shame that the candidate for EU Commissioner, Miloš Kužvart, suffered when he was using one sentence “I am optimistic” to all questions that he received.

Klaus in a bubble
When one spoke about the future President of the European Commission in the past weeks, it was obvious, that at the time of the expanding EU the President would have to speak at least French and English so that he would be able to speak with Sarkozy and Brown. José Manuel Barroso has the advantage that he is in command of both languages and so he stands a good chance to defend his post.

Knowledge of at least one of the three EU working languages – French, English and German – will probably be a precondition when choosing the new EU President. Czechs or Hungarians can only sigh over the fact that the former British prime minister and candidate for the post, Tony Blair, does not need to learn English.

If one masters more languages, they can more easily get rid of the possible fear of the unpredictable outer world. The paradox is that President Klaus, who speaks three foreign languages well, seems to strengthen the fear of the world that lies beyond the Castle. It is probably easier to close oneself in one’s own bubble and take others for inscrutable saboteurs rather than to try to communicate with them.

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