TALLINN – Czech presidential candidate Andrej Babis caused an uproar when he questioned his country's possible assistance to its closest NATO allies in a live broadcast debate on Sunday, ahead of the country's second round of presidential elections, the news website euractiv.com reported.
The moderator of the debate broadcast by Czech Television asked Babis whether he would send Czech troops into an open conflict if Russia attacked Poland or the Baltic countries.
"Of course not. I think we need to talk about peace," Babis, a former prime minister, replied.
The Czech president is the official commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces, and the country is a member of NATO.
Babis' statement was immediately criticized by top Czech politicians, including Vice Prime Minister Marian Jurecka.
"I apologize to all the citizens of Poland and other allies; the commitment that comes from our membership of NATO is and will remain in place, despite what Andrej Babis said today in the debate," Jurecka wrote on Twitter.
After the debate, Babis tried to correct his words.
"In the Czech TV duel, I did not want to answer a hypothetical question about invading Poland or the Baltics. I am convinced that it won't happen, and I don't want to admit it at all. It is the responsibility of the world's politicians to prevent war. But if an invasion were to actually take place, I would of course comply with Article 5," Babis tweeted.
The final phase of the Czech presidential election campaign was shaped by the war in Ukraine and the restoration of peace. During the election campaign, Babis presented the other presidential candidate -- former chair of the NATO military committee Petr Pavel -- as a warmonger.
Babis and Pavel advanced from the first round of the direct elections neck and neck. The second round will take place on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28.
According to the latest poll by the STEM agency, Pavel would defeat Babis with 57.7 percent of the vote.
The winner will replace Milos Zeman, who has been in office since 2013.
A court in Prague last week acquitted Babis on charges of embezzling two million euros in EU grants, which may have boosted his support in the first round.
The verdict can still be appealed by the prosecutor's office. Babis has dismissed the fraud allegations as politically motivated.
Despite the scandals, his support remains high, especially among older voters. He has also been backed by incumbent Zeman, with whom he shares euroskeptic views.