Putin: Russia bears "moral responsibility" for 1968 Soviet invasion

Russia's President Vladimir Putin with President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK

A full military band was on hand to welcome Russia's President Vladimir Putin to Prague on Wednesday - the first state visit by a Russian president for 13 years. Waiting for him at the Castle gates was the Czech president Vaclav Klaus, who later held a state banquet in Mr Putin's honour.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin with President Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Relations between the Czech Republic and Russia took a turn for the worse after the fall of Communism in 1989, for a number of reasons. The Czechs, who were once very much in the Soviet camp, joined NATO and the EU, and turned thier backs on Moscow. There were also protracted talks about Russia's Soviet-era debt to the Czech Republic, and finally there was Chechnya - many Czech officials, chief among them former president Vaclav Havel, were very critical of Russian actions in Chechnya, and that didn't go down well in Moscow.

Now that's all changed. Russia has long come to terms with Czech membership of NATO and the EU. The debt was finally settled last year, and Mr Havel has been replaced by Vaclav Klaus, a far more pragmatic and more business-oriented leader, and one who's made normalising relations with Moscow one of his priorities. That's what this visit is all about - showing that the two countries have entered new phase in their relationship. Mr Putin is in Prague to discuss such things as Russian oil and gas supplies to the Czech Republic, and investment opportunities for Czech firms in Russia.

However the past did raise its ugly head too. Several Czech newspapers claimed this morning that Mr Putin had "apologised" for the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. He didn't go quite that far - he used the term "tragedy" to describe the events of 1968. He also referred to his predecessor Boris Yeltsin's 1993 visit to Prague, and Mr Yeltsin's description of 1968 as an act of aggression.

"When President Yeltsin visited the Czech Republic in 1993 he was not speaking just for himself, he was speaking for the Russian Federation and for the Russian people. Today, not only do we respect all agreements signed previously - we also share all the evaluations that were made at the beginning of the 1990s...I must tell you with absolute frankness - we do not, of course, bear any legal responsibility. But the moral responsibility is there, of course."

On Thursday morning Mr Putin laid flowers at the graves of Russian soldiers who died liberating Czechoslovakia in 1945. Later he was due to hold talks with Czech officials, including prime minister Jiri Paroubek. Those talks are expected to reinforce the message that the two countries have mended their fences, and are now looking to the future, not the past.