Tuesday

16th Aug 2022

Putin's ally in Prague Castle

  • Milos Zeman (l) pictured with French president Francois Hollande (Photo: francediplomatie)

The EU's line on Russia is fragile. The governments of Cyprus, Slovakia, Austria and Greece oppose European sanctions against Russia, be it for ideological or economic reasons.

To those Moscow-friendly countries, one more should be added - the Czech Republic in the form of its prime constitutional representative.

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  • Prague Castle - the president's official residence (Photo: Metal Chris)

Its directly elected president, Milos Zeman, has been expressing views sympathetic to Russia ever since Russian-backed rebels made it to Donetsk and Lugansk to start waging war.

There are plenty of examples.

Zeman has dismissed the situation in Ukraine as a “civil war” and downplayed the seriousness of the conflict while comparing it to “something like a flu”.

He has dubbed EU economic sanctions against Russia "ineffective" and "stupid".

Zeman said these words, in fluent Russian, on the island of Rhodes, where he was, as the only head of an EU state, a guest at a meeting entitled: Dialogue of Civilizations.

The event was organised, and paid for, by Vladimir Yakunin, the chief of Russian railways, a former KGB operative and an oligarch put on the US blacklist after the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Zeman counts Yakunin among his “long-time friends” and he, to the great embarrassment of the Czech government, was present in Prague Castle for a high-level conference about the Holocaust last month.

There he was spotted chatting with Martin Nejedly, chief executive of the Czech branch of the Russian energy firm, Lukoil. Since Zeman took office, Nejedly has been the president’s official adviser and one of his closest allies.

The president last month also made comments backing Moscow's line that Ukraine is a hotbed of neo-nazis.

He referred to an internet video he saw from a march on 1 January to commemorate the death of nationalist Stepan Bandera, where people were chanting: “Death to Poles, Jews and Communists without mercy.”

The Czech embassy in Kiev later admitted it could not verify the president’s words. His spokesperson has since repeatedly refused to give the source of the president’s information.

Ukraine policy

The Czech government, dominated by social democrats, is pursuing a different policy on Ukraine.

Foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek has been a member of the Russia-critical front since the beginning and PM Bohuslav Sobotka has approved all sanctions so far, despite initial hesitation due to industry pressure.

Zeman’s views are also not shared by the general public. According to a recent survey by Czech poling agency CVVM, more than 75 percent of Czechs believe Russia is to blame for the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Yet it is Zeman who is apparently winning the PR battle, with his views widely reported in foreign media, including in Ukraine.

The president can say whatever he wants, having neither to bargain with coalition partners, nor report to parliament.

The government has tried to downplay his statements but is increasingly aware of how much they are getting noticed in the rest of the EU and Nato

Prime minster Sobotka’s room for manoueuvre is limited however.

First, Zeman can use his constitutional powers should he feel under pressure from the government. The president signs parliamentary bills into laws and nominates the prime minister and each member of the cabinet.

Second, Zeman has influence among a number of Sobotka’s own MPs who admire the president since he was the strongman at the helm of the social democrats (CSSD).

The executive bureau of the CSSD recently adopted a resolution in which the ruling party ruled out supplying weapons to Ukraine.

The motion was unexpected since the party bureau hardly ever discusses foreign policy - but the reason for the move is simple.

The CSSD's national congress is in March and the prime minister along and the foreign minister, both viewed by long-term party members as too one-sided and pro-American, need to secure their own chairs.

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