President Zeman awards state decorations on Czechoslovakia Independence Day

Miloš Zeman and Nicholas Winton, photo: ČTK

Czech President Miloš Zeman bestowed state decorations on more than 30 personalities on Tuesday, on the occasion of Czechoslovakia Independence Day. Among the recipients of the awards were Sir Nicholas Winton, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky as well as five Czech soldiers killed in Afghanistan. But the president has come under criticism over some names on his list.

Miloš Zeman and Nicholas Winton,  photo: ČTK
The Czech national holiday on October 28, commemorating the foundation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, is when the country’s president traditionally decorates outstanding personalities for their contributions and services to the Czech Republic.

This year, President Miloš Zeman chose 33 people to receive the honours. At a special ceremony on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Zeman bestowed the top Czech state decoration, the Order of the White Lion, on Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust, and on the former British prime minister Winston Churchill.

Sir Nicholas, who is 105 years old, was flown to Prague for the occasion on a Czech military plane. He said he was happy to receive the award in the presence of seven of the 669 children he put on trains from Nazi-occupied Prague to safety in Britain.

“I’m delighted that so many of the children are still about and are here to thank me. In a way, perhaps, I should not have lived so long to give everybody an opportunity to exaggerate everything [I did] in the way they are doing it today.”

Robert Fico and Miloš Zeman,  photo: ČTK
At a ceremony in the Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle on Tuesday night, another 31 people were decorated by President Zeman. Prime Minister Robert Fico received the Order of the White Lion for his contribution to the Czech-Slovak relations, while former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky for the assistance his government provided to thousands of Czechs who left Czechoslovakia in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion.

The Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was awarded to the late singer and songwriter Karel Kryl, the traveller Miroslav Zikmund, the Austrian entrepreneur and philanthropist Eduard Harant, and the singer Hana Hegerová.

Five Czech soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan in July posthumously received the Medal for bravery in Combat.

Another 19 people were decorated with the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit, including the late Russian anti-communist dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Catholic priest Josef Štemberka who was murdered by the Nazis along with his parishioners in Lidice in 1942, and Božena Fuková, a former communist MP who refused to back the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Filip Renč and Robert Sedláček,  photo: ČTK
But President Zeman’s decision to decorate the film directors Filip Renč and Robert Sedláček has come under criticism from several politicians and commentators. Critics say that at their relatively young age, their biggest contribution was to Mr Zeman’s presidential campaign. Filip Renč made a campaign video for Mr Zeman while Robert Sedláček shot a documentary film about him, celebrating Mr Zeman’s political genius.