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Zeman sworn in as Europe-friendly Czech president

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Europe-friendly leftist Milos Zeman was sworn in as Czech president on Friday, replacing ardent eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus and becoming the EU member state's first head of state elected in a direct vote.

Zeman, 68, earned a standing ovation for his inaugural speech in which he vowed to play "the role of a mediator and moderator" in the republic's rough-and-tumble political scene.

But analysts have warned that the veteran leftist is likely to engage in a tug-of-war with the wobbly and austerity oriented centre-right minority government of Prime Minister Petr Necas.

The recession-mired country of 10.5 million people, which saw its economy shrink by 1.1 percent last year, is in for more tough times this year as its export-based economy feels the effects of the eurozone crisis.

As 21 salvos boomed outside, Zeman took his oath in the historic Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle, packed with lawmakers, government ministers, diplomats, constitutional judges and clergy.

He vowed to thwart the mafia, neo-Nazis and media he said were "focused on brainwashing and manipulating the public opinion."

He is known for a strong aversion to journalists, whom he has described as "manure" and "superficial".

Previous Czech presidents including Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel and his successor Klaus were elected by parliament until lawmakers approved the switch to universal suffrage in February 2012.

The move was intended to boost the legitimacy of the office amid criticism their choices were dictated by back-room political horsetrading.

The presidency is largely ceremonial, with powers limited primarily to appointing the prime minister, central bankers and top judges.

Zeman, a former prime minister and economist known for not mincing words, won a direct vote in January, scoring almost 55 percent support in a second-round run-off.

The burly, silver-haired chain smoker with passion for local wine and spirits is a self-described "euro-federalist" whose earlier leftist government helped negotiate the Czech Republic's 2004 accession to the European Union.

Klaus, a 71-year-old ardent eurosceptic, served two five-year terms marked by high-pitched controversy after replacing anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel in 2003.

His final days in office were also dogged by controversy.

Czech senators on Monday voted to press charges of high treason against Klaus over his controversial amnesty freeing almost one-third of all Czech inmates, although the move was only a symbolic censure.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130308/zeman-sworn-europe-friendly-czech-president