Opinion divided over Zeman and Klaus attending “pro-Putin” conference

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek

Current Czech president Miloš Zeman and his predecessor Václav Klaus travelled to Greece together on Thursday for a conference organised by an associate of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The pair have been criticised for attending the event, but their supporters say the matter has been blown out of proportion.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
On Thursday President Miloš Zeman and the country’s previous head of state, Václav Klaus, flew together on a government plane to Rhodes.

On the Greek island, the pair – who have previously appeared there separately – will be keynote speakers at a two-day conference organised by Vladimir Yakunin.

He is a long-term close associate of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and was blacklisted by the US in sanctions imposed over the annexation of Crimea.

Also due to participate in Mr. Yakunin’s conference are Slovak Premier Robert Fico and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban. Like the current and former Czech heads of state, they oppose EU sanctions on Russian.

At the same event in 2014, President Zeman – speaking fluent Russian – compared the Ukraine crisis to a mere “flu”. This was seen as contradicting official Czech policy on the matter.

Vladimir Yakunin,  photo: Yuriy Golovin,  CC BY-SA 4.0
This year, not for the first time, there has been considerable condemnation in the Czech media of the fact Mr. Zeman and Mr. Klaus are attending the Rhodes Forum.

The news site Dotyk.cz wrote that “Putin’s fan club” was heading for the Mediterranean island. IHned.cz commentator Petr Honzejk suggested the Czech pair were playing into the hands of Russian propaganda.

However, others say the criticism is misplaced and overblown. Among them is Senator Tomáš Jirsa of the Civic Democrats, who spoke to Czech Radio on Thursday.

“I don’t think it’s a Russian conference. If my information is correct, the Slovak and Hungarian prime ministers are due to be there. My perception for some time has been that a certain section of the Czech media, which is unable to accept the outcome of the presidential election, criticises Miloš Zeman strongly whatever he does. Every year this conference is discussed – and every year people make it out to be a scandal.”

Radko Hokovský, the head of think tank European Values, takes a contrary view. He argues that condemnation of Mr. Zeman’s attendance is wholly justified.

Václav Klaus,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“It’s a conference organised by a close collaborator of Mr. Putin, Mr. Yakunin, who is cooperating on different projects supporting Kremlin disinformation campaigns in Europe. Conferences like this are actually platforms to spread the Kremlin’s interpretation of what’s happening in Eastern Europe. And this is contradictory to what is the Czech government’s interpretation of events. So I think it’s completely legitimate to criticise his participation in such a conference.”