The Czech president addressed the Dialogue of Civilizations conference on the Greek island of Rhodes in fluent Russian. The annual event is organized by a Vienna-based group called World Public Forum. Its president is the Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin, who has himself been targeted by US sanctions.
In his 17-minute address on Friday, Mr Zeman criticized the sanctions imposed by the EU and US on Russian over Moscow’s support for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
“We have to remove the sanctions which are not only useless but they cause a reverse effect than their authors hoped to achieve. We need to develop a dialogue based on the exchange of people, commodities and capital as well as completely uncensored information,” Mr Zeman said.
Much of the president’s remarks dealt with the threat of the terrorist group Islamic State, which Mr Zeman said was a cancer compared to the “civil war” in Ukraine. The West and Russia must join forces in fighting Islamic terrorism, he said. Indeed, Mr Zeman warned, Ukraine could in the future become a terrorist haven just like Libya and Iraq.
The president’s remarks contradict past declarations by the Czech foreign minister, Lubomír Zaorálek, who last month denounced the incursion of Russian armed forces into Ukraine.
But Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has also questioned the effectivity of the sanctions, and asked for concessions to protect the Czech industry. David Frous is a spokesman for the Czech Foreign Ministry.
“I don’t think they were necessarily in conflict with what Czech Republic’s view. We have repeatedly emphasized that not all the sanctions applied have the expected impact on the Russian economy, and in consequence on the Russian behaviour towards Ukraine.”
However, the president Mr Zeman has come under fire in the Czech media both for the content and the form of his Rhodes address. Some commentators criticized his very participation in the event which he first attended in 2005 but this arrived for the first time as the president of his country.
Commentator Jefim Fištejn says the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have become the most vocal opponents of the EU’s stance on Russia which could have serious consequences for the countries’ future.
“We are part of the western of the Western civilization with all its achievements and values. Trying to be in between, trying to be in between the different worlds is dangerous for such a country whose geopolitical position is very delicate. Any unclear and dubious statements weaken the country’s geopolitical roots.”
The Czech public seems to be split on the issue of Russian policies in Ukraine and the EU’s reaction to it. In the latest survey, one third of the respondents opposed the sanctions while 48 percent supported them. Some 10,000 people have meanwhile signed petitions calling for a tougher stance on Russia.