Russian Trip Roulette

In Czech politics, as in the infamous Russian roulette, it’s all about the spin…

The Czech Republic has been in the international spotlight again after President Miloš Zeman announced plans to attend the 2015 Victory Day military parade in Moscow, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and acknowledge the huge Soviet loss of life arising out the liberation of what is now the Czech Republic.

At first sight, this might seem to be a no-brainer – after all, the Czech War Graves commission registers 97,325 Soviet war graves (compared to 279 American), which is a considerable sacrifice by anyone’s standards. Why shouldn’t these fallen be remembered?

The problem, of course, is that Russia today is receiving the international cold shoulder, thanks to its  annexation of the Crimea last year and Moscow’s continued military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. It doesn’t help that Victory Day tends to be where new Russian hardware appears first – this year will allegedly see new design howitzers, APVs and tanks on display.

It was left to the US Ambassador to Prague, Andrew Schapiro, to express the exasperation felt by other nations at this apparent attempt at rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. Speaking to Czech Television, he said that “standing on a platform reviewing a military parade at a time when that military is destabilizing a European nation is not really a good message to send.”

In a fit of pique at what he saw as unwarranted interference in his affairs, Zeman responded by barring the ambassador from making official visits to Prague Castle – a gesture that is perhaps more symbolic than practical given that the Czech head of state does not have an active role in government. The president took some criticism from both the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and the Defence Minister Martin Stropnicky over the incident, and the Czech press too was generally unsupportive; there were even calls for him to apologise to the ambassador.

Zeman has however been a divisive figure for quite some time. He was regarded as a risky choice by foreign observers even at the beginning of his tenure in 2013. Over the last six months or so he has been criticised for using vulgar language to describe the Russian band Pussy Riot in a live broadcast, failing to invite certain university rectors to state occasions because of personal disputes, and claiming that the handicapped should not be integrated into regular schools. He is, then, no stranger to controversy, and his actions or personality have even stirred some Czechs into direct action – he was pelted with eggs on last year’s anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, and protesters holding red cards regularly turn up at his public engagements. 

This time around, however, the president didn’t get the last word. His trip to Moscow will be paid for not from Prague Castle’s budget, but from the Foreign Ministry’s, and the government is far more interested in preserving the country’s reputation in the West. A meeting was held, and the decision deferred… giving enough time, no doubt, for a compromise to be hashed out behind the scenes. Lo and behold, Zeman decided that he would not attend the parade after all, but would use his time in Moscow to lay a wreath and meet the Slovak president instead.

So in this particular game of Russian roulette, everyone seems to have dodged the bullet – Sobotka kept other EU leaders happy and his government’s reputation intact and Zeman garnered praise from the Russian Foreign Ministry, while Schapiro, despite the Czech president’s petulance, got what his government wanted. Privately, the Prime Minister is no doubt furious about having been put on the spot, the President annoyed about having his trip plans thwarted, and the Ambassador fuming by the sheer ridiculousness of having had to speak out publicly on such an issue… but publicly, at least, everybody wins.

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