Zdenek Hrib attends a march in solidarity with Ukraine. Photo via his Twitter feed.

President Zeman changes course, says Russia “has committed a crime against peace” and calls for harsh sanctions. From Global Voices.

Quite unexpectedly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shifted the position of Moscow’s most influential supporter in the Czech Republic: President Milos Zeman, who has just described Moscow’s actions as a “crime.”

The Czech Republic has a conflicted relationship with Russia. Politically speaking, its government is divided: Zeman has long made his unwavering support for Moscow very public. Yet the October 2021 parliamentary elections brought a new coalition and a new minister of foreign affairs, Jan Lipavsky, who represents the Pirate Party.

Lipavsky has publicly endorsed the view of the Czech intelligence agency on Russia and China, which in its public annual reports has regularly described both countries as representing the biggest threats to the Czech Republic’s national security. Zeman attempted to veto Lipavsky’s appointment when given the list of the new government, described him as anti-Russian, and delayed his nomination for weeks, but eventually had to accept his nomination.

This long-standing antagonism collapsed on 24 February, the day that marked the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Zeman, who is known for keeping a long silence on divisive issues, made statements in a video that completely contradict his former position, apologized for being wrong, and described Russia’s decision as a crime.

“I love Russian culture and I value the Russian victims of World War II, but this does not mean that I will agree with the invasion of a foreign army on the territory of a sovereign state. Russia has thus committed a crime against peace,” Zeman said in a statement broadcast by CNN’s Czech partner station, Prima.

He also said, “A few days ago, I said that the Russians are not crazy and will not attack Ukraine. I admit I was wrong.”

He called for immediate action to ban Russia from the SWIFT banking system, a sanction that could have a strong negative effect on Russia’s economy. The Baltic states are also calling for this measure.

Zeman’s unexpected U-turn on Russia can be explained by the fact that the former Czechoslovak state experienced a similar situation in 1938 after Hitler claimed large parts of the country predominantly inhabited by ethnic Germans, known as Sudetenland, under the pretense of protecting them. The parallel with Putin’s discourse in his 21 February address resonates deeply with Czech audiences, who remember how France and the UK failed in their military obligations and thought they could appease Hitler at the Munich conference. World War II showed how wrong and mortally dangerous this assessment was.

In step with Zeman’s change of heart, the government took swift measures on 24 February to punish Russia, announcing it would close Russian consulates, and close its own two consulates in Russia. This exacerbates a deep diplomatic crisis that led to the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats last April and major downsizing of the Russian embassy in Prague, following accusations of terrorist acts by Russian agents on Czech territory in 2014. The government is also considering suspending visas for Russian visitors, except for Russian activists seeking refuge.

As can be seen in this tweet titled “Prague stands with Ukraine,” Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, also from the Pirate Party and a fierce critic of Russia and China, joined a large demonstration yesterday on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, where thousands of Czechs expressed their support for Ukraine:

The Ukrainian embassy in Prague has also shared images of the demonstration on its Twitter feed.

Transitions note: We received this message on 24 February from a journalist in Ukraine: It’s okay for now. We’re trying to keep calm despite the full-scale invasion, heavy attacks on hospitals and military facilities, breaking international law. I live near Kyiv, but when Russia launched a massive attack on the Antonov International Airport in Hostomel, we relocated to my sister. As it has been reported, 18 Russian military transport aircrafts will probably land there with 40 paratroopers on board of each plane. On the road we saw a lot of Ukrainian armed vehicles. My friends in Kyiv leave their homes and go down to the bomb shelters, share videos of smoke and flames. There is no possibility to evacuate safely because a lot of people try to leave Kyiv, there are severe traffic jams all day, and I think it’s not safe to head those roads, they can be targets as well. The Russians also control the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant. [Update, 25 February]: There were some severe attacks on Kyiv sometimes accompanied with sabotage by disguised Russians in the form of Ukrainian armed forces. … Now not only military facilities are attacked but also civilian objects are affected by indiscriminate shelling. There are victims among children in kindergarten (Okhtyrka, Sumy region) so the Russians have crossed the line not once but systematically.

Filip Noubel is the managing editor of Global Voices, an international community of writers, translators, academics, and human rights activists. This commentary first appeared on Global Voices.