Presidents Milos Zeman and Vladimir Putin – Too Close for Comfort?

Moscow/Prague, Nov 19 (CTK) – Czech President Milos Zeman, who starts a visit to Russia on Monday, is known for his positive approach to Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, but on some occasions the Czech cabinet warned that Zeman’s views on events involving Russia go counter to Prague’s official foreign policy.


Controversies have aroused, for example, over Zeman’s statements about the conflict in Ukraine and the West’s following introduction of anti-Russia sanctions.


Zeman emphasises Russia’s importance as a trade partner of Czechs. Putin has repeatedly appreciated Zeman’s approach to Czech-Russian relations.


Zeman, in his capacity as Czech president since 2013, has met Putin several times, including at the Moscow celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the World War Two end in May 2015, and during his trips to China in 2015 and earlier this year.


“It is largely owing to you that our [bilateral] relations have kept on a high level and have been developing in recent years, regardless of difficulties,” Putin told Zeman.


The Zeman-Putin meetings always aroused controversies. Their meeting in Beijing this year became known, among others, for Zeman’s remark that there were too many journalists present in the negotiating premises and that it would be good to liquidate them, to which Putin diplomatically reacted saying “They need not be liquidated but, true, their number should be lowered.”


In connection with his Russian trip in 2015, Zeman came under criticism for having planned to attend a Russian military parade that most Western leaders boycotted due to the preceding annexation of Crimea by Russia. Zeman finally did not attend the parade.


Reservations about Zeman’s visit to Russia were voiced by then U.S. ambassador to Prague, Andrew Schapiro, whose relations with Zeman and his office cooled down then. Zeman said he would not allow any ambassador to meddle in his trips and that the door of the Presidential Office was closed to Schapiro.


Zeman has repeatedly spoken against the international sanctions imposed on Russia in reaction to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In his speech at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) a couple of months ago, Zeman called the annexation of Crimea a fait accompli and said Kiev and Moscow should agree on compensation for it, either financial or in the form of oil and gas supplies. Kiev resolutely rejected the idea, as did Moscow, which said any compensation is out of the question. Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka said Zeman had no mandate from the Czech government to speak on Crimea or the sanctions and that his statements were at sharp variance with the Czech Republic’s foreign policy.


Condemning the sanctions, Zeman cites Czech-Russian trade as a reason. In 2014, Czech companies exported goods worth 113 billion crowns to Russia, compared mere 75 billion crowns in 2016. Nevertheless, in the first half of 2017, the export increased by 14 percent to 54 billion crowns year-on-year (exports to Russia make up 1.9 percent of overall Czech exports). The imports from Russia rose even faster, by 54 percent year-on-year to 70.7 billion crowns in the first seven months of 2017, compared to 83.8 billion in the whole year 2016.


“Regardless the decline from the preceding years, the trade turnover rose by 44 percent at the beginning of this year. It is a good sign and a good trend that must be maintained,” Putin said, commenting on bilateral trade.


The Czech exports mainly include vehicles, engineering machines and devices, devices for automatic data processing, electric devices and appliances. Gas and oil dominate the imports from Russia to the Czech Republic, which is dependent on Russian gas. Last year, 61.5 percent of gas imported to the Czech Republic came from Russia. Other import items are mainly iron and steel, and machines for energy generation.


For many Czech firms, the Russian market is crucial because some of them operate or operated in Russia as general suppliers, a position they often fail to achieve elsewhere abroad.


The most serious problem in Czech-Russian relations in the past years was the planned installation of parts of the U.S. anti-missile defence shield in Central Europe. Russia criticised the plan as a step to breach the strategic balance of forces and threaten Russia’s security. Putin, in his then capacity as Russian prime minister, called the shield, including a radar base near Prague, a provocation and a threat comparable with U.S. Pershing rockets. After Barack Obama’s arrival in the post of U.S. president, Washington withdrew the project in September 2009.