Former NATO general Petr Pavel takes reins as Czech president

PRAGUE, March 9 (Reuters) - Petr Pavel, a former Czech army chief and high-level NATO official, started his five-year term as Czech president on Thursday with pledges to keep helping Ukraine and support painful economic policies.

Pavel beat populist former prime minister Andrej Babis in a January election on pledges to firmly anchor the central European country in the European Union and NATO, a turn from predecessor Milos Zeman who had tried to boost relations with Russia and China.

Pavel, a social liberal who campaigned as an independent, has conveyed a message of unity after the divisive Zeman, who retired after 10 years in office on Wednesday.

Czech presidents do not have many day-to-day duties but they pick prime ministers and central bank heads, have a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers, and can push the government on policies.

A career soldier, Pavel joined the army in Communist times, was decorated with a French military cross for valour during peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and later rose to lead the Czech general staff and become chairman of NATO's military committee for three years before retiring in 2018.

Pavel, 61, has fully supported continued aid for Ukraine in its defence against Russia's invasion, and reiterated that in his inauguration speech at the 15th century Vladislav Hall of the Prague Castle.

He said Ukraine was also an example that smaller countries can be successful, especially if they cooperate with others.

"It is a united Central European voice that will be important if we are to help Ukraine to victory," he said.

"It is not only our historical experience that should be a reason to continue our support. In doing so, we are ultimately helping ourselves."

After taking oath of office, Pavel greeted thousands of supporters at the Prague Castle square, some waving Czech and European Union flags, while a choir sang the national anthem and a Czech version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'".

Pavel said he would also back policies to quash inflation, which ran at 17.5% in January, and fix public finances.

"I will support measures which will make this possible, although they will sometimes hurt," he said.

One of Pavel's first tasks will be to decide whether to veto a bill limiting a rise in pensions from June, which was hastily approved by parliament and which the opposition led by Babis says violated the constitution.

A presidential veto can be overcome by the government's parliamentary majority. But it would be an immediate clash between Pavel and the centre-right government which had backed him in the election.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Toby Chopra and Angus MacSwan

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