Opponents of Kremlin-friendly Czech President Milos Zeman are hanging red boxer shorts from windows on August 21 in protest at his decision not to make a speech or attend any commemorative events on the 50th anniversary of the invasion of the former Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact.
Red underpants have become the symbol of anti-Zeman sentiment. The president hit back at his critics and shocked journalists by inviting them to a bizarre press event on June 14 when he set a huge pair of red underpants on fire.
Unlike Slovak counterpart Andrej Kiska, who will make a speech to be broadcast by Slovakia’s public station RTVS and Czech TV channel CT24, Zeman will be conspicuous for his silence as Czechs and Slovaks recall the momentous events of 1968 in which Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia along with around a quarter of a million troops to crush the Prague Spring move towards political liberalisation. The choice of protest symbol relates to a 2015 stunt by activist group Ztohoven in which giant red boxer shorts were attached to the flagpole where the presidential standard flies atop Prague Castle to object to Zeman’s closeness to Moscow and Beijing.
The Czech Republic’s Fleet Sheet Final Word column responded to Zeman’s decision not to give a speech by writing: “As it happens, each of the three Czech presidents [since the 1989 Velvet Revolution and subsequent Velvet Divorce of the Czechs and Slovaks] has been in office on one of the 10-year anniversaries of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact on Aug. 21, 1968. Vaclav Havel was the president on that day in 1998, Vaclav Klaus in 2008 and Milos Zeman in 2018. Zeman, as the incumbent president in a world that is far more divided than it was 10 or 20 years ago, has decided to exercise his right not to incriminate himself by saying something that would get him in trouble either with a large part of the electorate at home or with his friends in Moscow.
“Vaclav Klaus was far from quiet 10 years ago. He compared Aug. 1968 to the Nazi occupation in March 1939 and said it was the biggest shock since the end of WWII. Vaclav Havel's comments from 10 years earlier are harder to track down, but in speaking to Czech Radio he emphasized the resistance to the invaders by society and the media. Havel's words are hauntingly transportable in time to the Trump-Putin era.”
Jiri Pehe, a former adviser to the late President Havel and a frequent Zeman critic, told RFE/RL that he was stunned by the president's decision not to give a speech on one of the darkest days of Czech and Slovak history or pay his respects by attending a commemorative occasion. Noting that the invasion caused many people to flee the country, a decision which often meant never seeing your family again, he was reported as saying: "Although this is not embedded in the constitution, the president has a job description... to speak on such an important anniversary."
August 21 will at least see Czech PM Andrej Babis (Ano party), Senate President Milan Stech (Social Democrats) and Speaker of the House Radek Vondracek (Ano) speak at a memorial event in front of a Czech Radio building in Prague that was occupied by Soviet troops after the invasion.
Zeman’s silence also drew a stinging rebuke from journalist Robert Malecky of the E15 daily. He said that Zeman was allowing Kiska to become the president of all Czechoslovaks.
Apologist for Putin
The populist and often foul-mouthed Zeman narrowly won re-election in a run-off vote in late January. The 73-year-old former Social Democrat, popular in the provinces but widely detested in Prague, vilifies Islam, has flirted with the far right and is often an apologist for the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His bid for re-election, in which he was too infirm to campaign, was dogged by allegations that it was benefiting from money from Moscow.
In November last year, Zeman once again broke ranks with other European leaders and the Czech government by visiting Putin and calling for sanctions against Russia to be dropped.
Zeman has long argued that the Czech Republic should focus on rebuilding its business links to its former overlord.
He has also praised Russian intervention in Syria (and criticised the US’s) and dismissed the Kremlin’s incursions into eastern Ukraine, calling the conflict a civil war. Zeman shrugged off the annexation of the Crimea, calling it a “fait accompli”, and suggested that Russia merely financially compensate Ukraine.
As Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, wrote last year in Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe, a report compiled for the European Council on Foreign Relations: “President Milos Zeman’s outspoken criticisms of Nato and the EU are gleefully repeated in Moscow’s propaganda campaigns throughout central Europe.”
Russia has been very successful in spreading its propaganda inside the Czech Republic, notably by getting online disinformation into popular local websites such as Parlamentni listy.
Rethinking Marshal Konev
Also on August 21, Prague 6 city district hall is set to unveil three bronze plaques in Czech, Russian and English at the Dejvice statue of Marshal Ivan Konev.
The plaques replace a marker that referred to Konev as a Soviet and Czech hero. There has long been much debate among Czechs as to how much of a hero Konev really was.
The new plaques state that Konev led the First Ukrainian Front that liberated north, central and east Bohemia and went on to become the Eastern force that was first to enter Prague on May 9, 1945 as WWII neared its end. They also describe how the marshal later led the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956; helped build the Berlin Wall in 1961; and personally oversaw the intelligence gathering performed before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.