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Czech president 'accepts' PM's unoffered resignation

Associated Press logo Associated Press 4/05/2017 By KAREL JANICEK, Associated Press
Czech President Milos Zeman, left, points his stick as Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka prior to their meeting in Prague on Thurday, May 4, 2017. Sobotka arrived at Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, on Thursday for consultations with the president following his decision to resign with his government over the business dealings of his finance minister. (Michal Dolezal/CTK via AP) © The Associated Press Czech President Milos Zeman, left, points his stick as Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka prior to their meeting in Prague on Thurday, May 4, 2017. Sobotka arrived at Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, on Thursday for consultations with the president following his decision to resign with his government over the business dealings of his finance minister. (Michal Dolezal/CTK via AP)

PRAGUE — It's no secret that Czech President Milos Zeman is not a fan of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

But what happened on Thursday surpassed anything that had happened between them in the past and shocked the country.

Sobotka arrived at Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, on Thursday for consultations with the president following his decision to resign with his government over the business dealings of his finance minister. Sobotka had announced earlier in the day that he would formally submit his resignation later in the month.

But on arrival, Sobotka was told to make a statement to the media.

As the premier looked confused, Zeman pointed to a microphone with his walking stick.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm really not sure what to speak about," Sobotka said, adding he had come to talk to the president.

Zeman, though, had more to say. In an apparent deliberate act of humiliation, he told Sobotka he was accepting his resignation. He thanked Sobotka for his work and asked the government to remain in place until he appoints a new prime minister.

"I'm not here to resign," a visibly shaken Sobotka replied. "I expected to hold standard talks with the president."

The scene was broadcast live by public television.

Zeman told him to blame his office for informing him too late about a change in the premier's plan. Sobotka originally planned to resign this week.

The president also told Sobotka he was not ready to meet him over the issue again.

"This ceremony is final and I can see no reason to repeat it again," he said, and left.

Sobotka remained to tell reporters the scene had been unnecessary.

"This is Czech politics, I'm afraid," he said, adding that he would submit his resignation later, by letter. He then left to join Zeman for private talks — the contents of which the assembled media could only guess at.

"It was quite an unusual manifestation of arrogance toward the prime minister," analyst Kamil Svec commented on Czech public television.

"I haven't experienced anything like that," said Jaromir Volek from Masaryk University. "We took another step toward the East."

The animosity between the two dates to 2003 when both were members of the Social Democrats. Sobotka is believed to be one of those who didn't support Zeman's first presidential bid and contributed to his loss in a parliamentary vote. Zeman, who was considered a favorite, called them traitors and left the party.

In a later incident — one of many — Zeman told a crowd of his supporters that there were two ways to get rid of Sobotka: either democratically in elections or undemocratically with a Kalashnikov rifle.

Though they may not want to see each other again, the politicians still have to solve a political crisis triggered by Sobotka's recent resignation announcement. He cited allegations that the finance minister — billionaire businessman and Zeman ally Andrej Babis — had not properly explained suspicions that he avoided paying taxes.

Babis, one of the richest Czechs, is a rival of Sobotka's leftist Social Democrats and heads the ANO centrist movement that is a favorite to win October's parliamentary elections.

Sobotka said doubts have surfaced about how Babis obtained his wealth. He said he wanted to hand over to Zeman a report that sums up Babis' suspicious business activities.

The leaders of the three-party coalition are scheduled to meet next week over the crisis.

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