Unexpected reaction in Prague after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Global Voices Français

Statement by Czech President Milos Zeman on the situation in Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Screenshot from CNN Prima’s YouTube channel.

Quite unexpectedly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the position of Moscow’s most influential supporter in the Czech Republic: President Miloš Zeman, who has just called Moscow’s actions a “crime”.

The Czech Republic has conflicting relations with Russia. Politically speaking, his government is divided: President Miloš Zeman has long made public his unwavering support for Moscow. Yet the October 2021 parliamentary elections brought a new coalition and a new Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Lipavský, who represents the Pirate Party.

Lipavský has publicly endorsed the views of the Czech secret services on Russia and China, which in their public annual reports have consistently singled out the two countries as posing the greatest national security threats to the Czech Republic. Zeman attempted to veto Lipavský’s nomination when given the list of the new government, described him as anti-Russian, and delayed his nomination for weeks, but eventually had to accept his nomination.

This long-standing antagonism collapsed on February 24, the day that marked the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Zeman, who is known for maintaining a long silence on divisive issues, made statements in a video that completely contradict his former stance, apologized for being wrong, and called Russia’s decision a crime:

Zeman says:

Mám rád ruskou kulturu, vážím si obětí ruského lidu ve druhé světové válce, ale to neznamená, že budu souhlasit s tím, aby na území suverénního státu bez vyhlášení války vstoupila cizí armáda. Rusko se tímto činem dopouští zlocinu proti míru.
Před několika dny jsem řekl že Rusové nejsou blázni a že na Ukrajinu nezaútočí. Přiznávám, že jsem se mýlil.

I love Russian culture and appreciate Russian victims of World War II, but that does not mean that I will agree with the invasion of a foreign army into the territory of a sovereign state. Russia has thus committed a crime against peace.

A few days ago I said that the Russians weren’t crazy and wouldn’t attack Ukraine. I admit I was wrong.

He also called for immediate action to ban Russia from the SWIFT banking system, a sanction that could have a significant negative effect on the Russian economy. The Baltic States are also calling for this measure.

Zeman’s unexpected U-turn on Russia can be explained by the fact that the former state of Czechoslovakia faced a similar situation in 1938 after Hitler claimed large parts of the country mainly inhabited by ethnic Germans, known as name of Sudetes, under the pretext of protecting them. The parallel to Putin’s February 21 speech resonates deeply with the Czech public, who remember how France and the UK failed in their military obligations and thought they could appease Hitler at the Munich conference. The Second World War showed how wrong and mortally dangerous this assessment was.

Along with Zeman’s reversal, the government took swift action on February 24 to punish Russia, announcing that it would close Russian consulates and close its two consulates in Russia. This exacerbates a deep diplomatic crisis that led to the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats on April 24 and a major downsizing of the Russian embassy in Prague, following accusations of terrorist acts on Czech territory. in 2014. The government is also considering banning visas for Russian visitors, except for Russian activists seeking refuge.

As seen in this tweet, Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, also from the Pirate Party and fierce critic of Russia and China, joined a large protest in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, where thousands of Czechs expressed their support for Ukraine:

Prague is alongside Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Prague also shared images from the protest:

Berta D. Wells