Czech President Milos Zeman has declined to apologize for a controversial “personal opinion” that Russia should essentially buy the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Now, however, others are apologizing on his behalf.
In response to the President’s comments, Czechs began sending apologies to the Ukrainian Embassy in the Czech Republic. They also initiated an online flashmob denouncing Zeman’s comment and apologizing to Ukraine.
Participants shared photos of themselves holding signs bearing the slogan “Czech Republic is not Zeman” and encouraged others to share their posts under the hastag “#SorryUkraine.”
But Czech citizens weren’t the only ones left scrambling to make up for their President’s opinion. Zeman’s comments — which directly contradict Czech foreign policy — also provoked an official outcry both at home and abroad.
Czech Your Privilege
On October 10, Zeman angered Ukraine with comments he made during a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg. In response to a question from Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Honcharenko, Zeman called Crimea’s illegal annexation a “fait accompli.” He then suggested Russia pay Ukraine compensation for the territory.
“Crimea is annexation, without any doubt. But Crimea is at the same time fait accompli,” the Czech President said. “If there is a dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, I think, and it is only my personal view, that there would be [possibly] some compensation for Crimea, in financial form, or in natural form. I mean oil or gas.”
Zeman also underlined that negotiations over Crimea “must avoid European war.”
Ukrainian MP Honcharenko then left the PACE session in protest.
“With his words Zeman betrayed the memory of the victims of the Prague Spring,” the MP later wrote on Facebook. “It is advantageous for him to forget about Russian tanks on the streets of Czech cities. And we see them on the streets of our cities right now!”
Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe, Dmytro Kuleba, also responded to Zeman’s comment on Facebook. Kuleba stressed that “Crimea is not for sale” and claimed that Zeman’s sole purpose during the PACE session was to “agitate” by transmitting Russian ideas regarding the legalization of Crimea’s annexation.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement of indignation.
Czechia Strikes Back
In response, the Czech Embassy in Ukraine quickly stated that Zeman had expressed a personal point of view regarding the annexation of Crimea and advised applying to the President’s Office for commentary.
In turn, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka took to Twitter in an attempt to do damage control. “Zeman’s speech at the Council of Europe is in sharp contradiction to our foreign policy, and the President had no mandate from the Czech government,” Sobotka wrote.
Zemanův projev v Radě Evropy byl v příkrém rozporu s naší zahraniční politikou a prezident k němu neměl žádný mandát české vlády.— Bohuslav Sobotka (@SlavekSobotka) October 10, 2017
The Czech Prime Minister also stressed his country’s respect for international law.
“The Czech Republic stands for the respect of international law. EU sanctions against Russia are linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and these agreements cannot be violated,” Sobotka emphasized.
During his speech at a PACE plenary session the following day, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko responded to Zeman’s comment directly, saying “I strongly reject the statements of those who call Crimea a ‘fait accompli’.”
Poroshenko also stated that the PACE rostrum was not created for appeals “to trade territories for money, oil or gas.”
Meanwhile, the Embassy of Ukraine in the Czech Republic began to receive words of support and apologies from Czechs for Zeman’s comments.
“I want to thank the dozens of Czechs, often complete strangers, who sent words of support and [...] apologies to the embassy today,” Yevhen Perebyinis, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Czechia, wrote on Facebook. “I know well that millions of Czech friends are in solidarity with Ukrainians in our struggle against the Russian aggressor and occupation.”
Czechs also began issuing apologies on social media.
On October 12, the Czech Senate passed a resolution on Zeman’s “opinions.” It denounced the President's statement on the grounds that it “legitimized the aggression of Russia, which is contrary to international law,” České Noviny reported.
“The head of state must respect the foreign policy of the Czech Republic,” the Senate said.
But the President’s office remained indignant.“The president did not legalize the annexation of Crimea, he expressed a balanced and realistic view,” said Zeman’s press secretary, rejecting the Senate’s complaints.
The next day, the Prague Daily Monitor reported that the Czech President still refuses to apologize for his comments on Russia’s Crimea annexation because “he only expressed his opinion and he never apologizes for his opinions.”
BACKGROUND: Last month, the European Union decided to extend individual sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea until March 15, 2018. On October 12, Ukraine, Montenegro, Albania and Norway officially aligned themselves with this decision. The day before, PACE had approved a resolution creating conditions for lifting political sanctions against the Russian delegation. Russia has not participated in PACE meetings since it illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.
/Written by Eilish Hart