Czech president sparks fresh controversy in Moscow with sanctions suggestion
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.
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.
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.
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.