Professor, Political Economy New York University Prague
President Zeman’s demarche banishing the US Ambassador Andrew Schapiro from the Prague Castle is a welcome sign that at least some European leaders have drawn the line at Washington’s imperial-like bullying. After all there are limits to what they are prepared to tolerate. It is also an urgently needed reminder to Washington that some European leaders take seriously the values of democracy preached by America: genuine democracy is incompatible with the renewed Soviet-style practice of passing down instructions on how the foreign policy of putatively sovereign nations should be conducted. Although Zeman’s political role in the Czech Republic is honorary (rather than executive), it is to be hoped that the US political class will take notice and interpret his "disobedience” as proof that not everyone in Europe is ready to be pushed around without so much as a murmur.
Let’s briefly consider the most recent events providing the background to the spat – namely Moscow’s reclaiming Crimea. The peninsula was Russian from 1783 onwards, with the vast majority of its residents being Russophone. It was handed over to Ukraine by a totalitarian dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1954 when he needed to strengthen his hand in Kremlin power struggles. Of course the Communists would not have dreamt of conducting a referendum the way Putin did – paying heed to legality certainly was not their style.
Fast forward to February 2014, when, in another illegal act, Kiev fell under the sway of a virulently anti-Russian US-backed regime. Anticipating trouble, the Kremlin swiftly responded by re-claiming Crimea. Would any self-respecting power risk the unleashing of terror on its fellow nationals by far-right "punishers”, not to mention the inevitable transfer to NATO further down the road of the Russia-leased Sevastopol naval base? We saw how Britain, with US support, acted to reclaim the Falkland Islands in 1982 (after they had been annexed by an Argentine fascist junta), eventually declaring its inhabitants British citizens. By reintegrating Crimea with Russia, Putin (like Mrs Thatcher) corrected a historical wrong and respected the publicly declared wish of the overwhelming majority of the territory’s current population.
The US Ambassador in Prague may consider Zeman’s intention to take part in the celebrations in Moscow "short-sighted” and his appearance there "awkward”. However, many independently thinking people, not only in this country but throughout Europe and even in the US, may well see Zeman’s actions as a desperately needed affirmation of national sovereignty and, indeed, democracy. As the Czech President explained, he is going to Moscow above all to honour the 150,000 Soviet soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the liberation of this country from Hitler’s Nazi hordes. As he has put it, his visit to Russia will be a "sign of gratitude for not having to speak German in this country”. From an objective viewpoint, it is difficult to find anything disreputable in Zeman’s plans.
The Czech President’s stance is a courageous act in the context of the unashamed US/EU/NATO-supported revival of Nazi tendencies in Ukraine and efforts to portray the beast as a democracy-promoting force. Zeman has served notice that not everyone in Europe is willing to be pushed around by uncouth viceroys such as Victoria Nuland or the armchair warrior Senator McCain. This is exactly what was needed in a country long traumatised by foreign occupations and which has opened a new page within a supposedly democratic alliance. Zeman has also delivered a much-needed lesson in democracy to the increasingly faltering Washington. High-handed imperial-like instructions and a misplaced sense of solidarity in an alliance that is clearly losing its democratic ways have nothing to do with genuine democracy.