Zeman intervention steps up pressure for return of Ukrainian Czechs

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

Repeated requests by hundreds of ethnic Czechs in Ukraine for repatriation have become a source of conflict on the Czech political scene. Though the Foreign Ministry refused to set up a repatriation programme for Ukrainian Czechs, they have found a powerful advocate: President Miloš Zeman, who is now pushing for action. But a mass repatriation of Czechs from Ukraine might put the government in an awkward position.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Some 70 families of ethnic Czechs in Ukraine look more likely to return to the country of their ancestors after President Miloš Zeman backed their requests for repatriation. They say they fear a deteriorating security situation in Ukraine as well as fears of an open conflict with Russia.

Their calls have previously been denied by the Czech Foreign Ministry. It says no mass repatriation programme is necessary – and that any Ukrainian citizens with Czech roots could use existing channels to relocate to the Czech Republic.

The list of Czech families asking for repatriation has also come under scrutiny, with Czech community leaders in Zhitomir and elsewhere in Ukraine saying they had no knowledge that such a list was being put together.

But Mr Zeman, who last month came out in support of another such request from Ukrainian Czechs, has proven to be more welcoming than the foreign minister. He has criticized the Czech Embassy in Ukraine for its alleged negative attitude to the Czech community there, and asked the Interior Ministry to deal with the issue.

A pro-Russian rebel walks past a burning private house in Donetsk,  Ukraine,  October 5,  2014,  photo: CTK
The first step will consist of verifying those who allegedly signed the letter addressed to the Czech president. Hynek Kmoníček is the head of the Foreign Affairs Department at the president’s office.

“If it turns out that the people on the list meet the respective requirements and the Interior Ministry has something to offer to them and pay for it from its own budget, the interior and foreign affairs ministries will submit a proposal to the government.”

The Foreign Ministry has however long claimed that Czechs in Ukraine face no immediate threat that would justify the costs of their mass transfer to the Czech Republic.

But such a move might the Czech government in an awkward position as it could support Russian propaganda that claims Ukraine has been taken over by a “fascist junta”. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka voiced his concerns on Czech TV on Saturday.

“The demands for repatriation could be used by Russia in its propaganda against Ukraine. But they could also complicate our relations towards Ukraine.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“It appears that many people want to repatriate to avoid being drafted into the Ukrainian army. So this is not an easy issue, and I would not want Ukrainian Czechs to become victims in a propaganda war.”

Ukrainian Czechs could however become the victims of a struggle between the Czech president and Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek, who was in the past one of Mr Zeman’s harshest critics within the ruling Social Democratic party.

Some observers have noted the president’s initiative could be motivated by efforts to assume more power in stipulating Czech foreign police at the expense of the ministry, and to get his own nominee into the post of the Czech ambassador in Kiev.