Slovak president refuses Moscow invite as criticism of Czech peer rises

By bne IntelliNews March 18, 2015

Slovakia has been cast as a weak link in the EU's stance towards Russia, while the neighbouring Czech Republic has largely escaped criticism. However, as the Slovak president announced on March 18 that he will not attend the official celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow in May, his Czech peer's acceptance continues to provoke fury.

Slovak President Andrej Kiska announced he will turn down Moscow's invitation due to Russia's annexation of Crimea a year ago, as well as what is claimed to be its continued aggression in east Ukraine. Meanwhile outspoken Czech President Milos Zeman is still batting away accusations that he is undermining Brussels.

"Considering the developments in Ukraine and Crimea, I don't want to take part in a celebration of army power at a military parade, but I do want to commemorate those who deserve it most from us, namely the soldiers who died in WWII," Kiska said according to TASR. 

The Slovak president - an independent and political novice who surprised by winning the presidential vote in March 2014 - had said earlier that he would make a final decision in April. However, previously a clear opponent of the West's stance on Russia, Slovakia has been turning its foreign policy around in recent months

Pressure from Washington and Brussels, and Russia's insistence that it will divert gas flows headed to Europe away from Ukraine appear to have had strong effect. Slovakia, which carries the gas westwards from the Ukraine border, would be the biggest loser in the EU should Moscow shift gas transit to the south as it claims it plans.

Close ties

However, the Slovak political establishment, and particularly the ruling Smer party, still has close ties to Moscow. That makes it a tricky call for Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has in the recent past been a critic of EU sanctions against Russia.

In September, Slovakia opposed some of the proposed EU sanctions against Russia relating to capital markets and the ban on exports of some dual-use goods and technologies. Moreover, it claimed the country could lose up to 10,000 jobs if Russia decides to respond EU's sanctions by banning car imports from Europe. However, it has since become a stalwart of the effort to send EU gas to Kyiv; the country has meanwhile reported Russian deliveries under its own contract have been cut.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 17 Moscow expects the Slovak PM to attend, TASS news agency reported. However, Fico's spokeswoman Beatrice Szaboova refused to confirm, saying only that a decision on his participation has not yet been made.

Russia has invited 68 world leaders to participate in the celebrations. Among those who have confirmed they will attend are the Chinese, Indian, South African, Vietnamese, and North Korean Lavrov says.

However, at the EU level there is no consensus regarding participation. Countries, such as Greece have already announced their attendance. With others suggesting they're also ready to join, critics claim EU sanctions against Russia could be at risk, although a veto of EU policy on the issue would be seen as far more serious and direct action.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said following talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin that the issue of prolonging sanctions against Russia will be decided by June. Political discussions on the economic measures will be resumed at the European Council summit on March 19-20, with a focus on compliance with Minsk ceasefire agreements for the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Spreading unrest

Czech President Milos Zeman is another that has stepped out of line to confirm he will attend the Moscow event. The outspoken head of state has long been noted for his Russian links, and has raised fury with several controversial statements over recent months. 

However, the government has remained far more careful to try to tread a neutral line. Indeed, Zeman's actions are as likely to be a ploy to spread antagonism within the coalition government as anything. According to that plan, criticism of his planned trip continued unabated on March 18.

Critics say Zeman's visit undermines the stand taken by the European Union. The Czech president claims his absence would be disrespectful to the Russian soldiers who helped oust the Nazi regime.

Opposition politicians have urged the government to refuse to finance Zeman's trip, however the request, filed by former lower chamber speaker Miroslava Nemcova from the right-wing Civic Democrats, was declined by the government. Illustrating the difficulty of his position, Prime Minister - and sworn Zeman enemy - Bohuslav Sobotka insisted the government must follow protocol.

At the same time, a petition signed by 11,000 Czechs was delivered to the Senate calling on the the upper house to investigate Zeman's actions and consider impeachment proceedings. According to the organisers, Zeman's opposition to sanctions against the Putin regime following events in Ukraine means the president is acting against the interests of the Czech Republic, reports Radio Praha.

The petition comes at a time when support for the increasingly controversial president is declining as the population becomes more critical of his diplomatic faultlines and pro-Russian rhetoric. A survey by STEM agency showed in February backing for Zeman fell to 43% from 57% four months earlier.

Zeman drew more criticism recently when he condemned EU sanctions against Russia and called the conflict in Ukraine a "civil war". The president's comments have provoked a war of words between the foreign ministry and Prague Castle, with many claiming Zeman has sought to undermine foreign policy.

Zeman's pro-Russian stance in particular provoked street protests late last year. The president was booed and pelted with eggs during celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17.


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