Czech president sparks fresh controversy in Moscow with sanctions suggestion

Vladimir Putin, Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

Czech president Miloš Zeman’s Moscow trip on Saturday was closely observed at home and abroad. And while the head of state did not witness the massive military parade in Red Square, he courted fresh controversy with comments that sanctions against Russia could be relaxed by the end of the year.

Vladimir Putin,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Some controversy sidestepped some ignited, that more or less summed up Czech president Miloš Zeman’s controversial trip to Moscow to take part in the commemorations of the end of the Second World War.

Zeman’s trip at the invitation of Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was already under the spotlight given the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and earlier annexation of Crimea as well as the fact that he was the only EU head of state who accepted the invitation. The Czech president took some of the sting out of the criticism by shunning the military parade in which 16,000 soldiers, armoured vehicles, helicopters and planes that reflected Russia’s current military prowess.

The time was used for a meeting with Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, also under fire at home for his attendance. Later, the Czech president fulfilled the main mission of his trip, laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

One of the issues raised in a meeting behind closed doors with president Putin apparently focused on one of the major business issues between Prague and Moscow, the five billion crown debt to Czech companies and the state connected with the construction of a gas fired power plant in Russia.

Military parade in Moscow,  photo: CTK
President Zeman used that fact to take aim at his critics. “I regard it as one of the natural responsibilities of a Czech president to defend the interests of the Czech Republic in spite of the fact that some idiots refuse to understand that five billion crowns is quite an important sum and have tried to prevent me from making this trip to Moscow.

Vladimir Putin praised Miloš Zeman as one of the few European politicians who had a clear perspective and independent policies. And president Putin voiced the hope that he could contribute to an improvement in relations: “You know that it is not our fault that relations with Europe got colder. We hope that with politicians like you, relations can not only be restored as they were before but that they can move forward.”

On that subject President Zeman suggested that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine had petered out apart from sporadic local incidents. He suggested in an interview with a Russian radio station that if Moscow was shown to be fully respecting the conditions of the last Minsk ceasefire agreement then the European Union should move to lift the economic sanctions imposed on Russia. That step could take place by the end of the year, he added.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: Filip Jandourek
But that suggestion was clearly a step too far for the Czech government at home. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has this to say in reaction: “If the conditions of the Minsk Agreement are respected fully, then it is possible to envisage that the sanctions could be reduced or cancelled but I do not think that could happen this year.”

Most Czech politicians on the centre-right reacted critically to Zeman’s suggestions that sanction could be lifted by the end of the year. They pointed out that it would be for the European Union as a whole to decide the fate of the sanctions against Russia and that Moscow would have to do more to convince them before that could take place.