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Unexpected reaction in Prague after Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Statement of Czech President Milos Zeman about the situation in Ukraine following Russia's invasion. Screenshot from CNN Prima YouTube channel.

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

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

Lipavský has publicly endorsed the view of the Czech secret services on Russia and China, who in their public annual reports have regularly designed both countries as representing the biggest threats to the Czech Republic's national security. Zeman attempted to veto Lipavský's appointment 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 marking the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Zeman, who is known for keeping a long silence on divisive issues, made statements in a video that completely contradict his former position, apologized for being wrong and described Russia's decision as 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 zločinu 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 I value the Russian victims of World War Two, but this does not mean that I will agree with the invasion of a foreign army on the territory of a sovereign state. Russia has thus committed a crime against peace.

A few days ago, I said that the Russians are not crazy and will not 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 strong negative effect on 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 Czechoslovak state experienced a similar situation in 1938 after Hitler claimed large parts of the country predominantly inhabited by ethnic Germans, known as Sudetenland, under the pretense of protecting them. The parallel with Putin's discourse on February 21 resonates deeply with Czech audiences, who remember how France and the UK failed in their military obligations and thought they could appease Hitler at the Munich conference. World War Two showed how wrong and mortally dangerous this assessment was.

In step with Zeman's change of heart, the government took swift measures on February 24 to punish Russia, announcing it would close Russian consulates, and close its own two consulates in Russia. This exacerbates a deep diplomatic crisis that led in April 24 to the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats and 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 can be seen on this tweet, Prague mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, also from the Pirate Party and a fierce critic of Russia and China, joined a major demonstration on Prague Wenceslas Square, where thousands of Czechs expressed their support for Ukraine:

Prague stands with Ukraine.  

The Ukrainian embassy in Prague has also shared images of the demonstration:


 

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

2 comments

  • Pavan Koomar

    Note small error in your article: Great Britain did not “fail in its obligations” in 1938, it was not an ally of Czechoslovakia, rather the latter’s allies were France and the Soviet Union, and was not in agreement to the original 1920 decision in Paris to apportion the German-peopled Sudentenland entirely to the new Czech state.

  • Frank

    Well, I’m afraid you are not correct, Pavan. What you meant is probably “Little Entente” agreement. The member of such an agreement was not definitely Soviet Union. This alliance was formed by Czechoslovakia, France, Romania, Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Historically, Sudetenland was always part of Bohemian Kingdom (then CS). In fact, this alliance was to protect central and southeast part of Europe against Germany and Soviet Union (officially to protect Trianon peace agreement).
    Why do I have to read here Hitler’s propaganda again in the 21st century?

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