PRAGUE — Czech President Miloš Zeman was roundly criticized for refusing to take part in Tuesday’s commemoration of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led forces.
The chairman of the center-right TOP 09 party, Jiří Pospíšil, accused the president of neglecting his constitutional duties by not taking part in events marking such an important moment in the country’s history.
An estimated 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops and more than 6,000 tanks invaded Czechoslovakia in the early hours of August 21, 1968, to suppress the political liberalization that came to be known as the Prague Spring. The invasion and subsequent occupation resulted in the deaths of 137 Czechoslovak civilians.
Ivan Bartoš, the head of the Pirate Party, said he is not surprised by the president’s “sad” announcement considering his political worldview, a reference to Zeman’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zeman has repeatedly defended Putin against criticism from the West, calling for an end to economic sanctions against Russia and even denying that Moscow has deployed soldiers in Ukraine.
Zeman’s spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček, justified the president’s absence in a tweet that read, “Mr. President delivered a courageous speech when he said during the start of the normalization [or post-invasion period] that he did not agree with the occupation. He was ousted from his job at the Economic University for this statement. Such a statement is more valuable than the thousands of purely formal and unfaithful speeches that will certainly be delivered on August 21.”
The tweet inspired a Czech political activist, Robin Suchánek, to lobby public broadcaster Česká televize to show a commemorative speech by Slovakia’s president, Andrej Kiska, which is being shown on Slovak television.
The broadcaster agreed. As a result, the major Czech event commemorating the 1968 invasion will be a speech by a foreign head of state, which will almost certainly be regarded as a black mark against Zeman’s statesmanship.
Zeman’s no-show is puzzling since he has in the past condemned the invasion as a crime, and during a recent visit to Moscow strongly criticized a magazine article that claimed Czechs should have been grateful for the Warsaw Pact aggression.
According to political analyst Jiří Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and a former adviser to late Czech President Václav Havel, Zeman likely chose not to make any comments because “he knew he couldn’t please anyone, in Moscow or in Prague. I suspect he didn’t want to stir things up, and because he is in cahoots with Putin he just decided to stay silent.”
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš did take part in a commemoration ceremony on Tuesday, but he was repeatedly heckled and his brief speech was drowned out by whistles and jeers. His coalition government was voted into power largely because of the support of Communist lawmakers, which angered many Czechs.
The head of the Czech Communist Party, Vojtěch Filip, made few friends in the Czech Republic, for himself or Babiš, when he told the Guardian this month that Russia bears no responsibility for the invasion because the Soviet leader who ordered it, Leonid Brezhnev, was Ukrainian and “the major force of the invading armies were Ukrainian.”