As his country commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Soviet invasion that crushed an effort to ease the totalitarian grip of communism known as the Prague Spring, Czech President Milos Zeman is staying silent.
Zeman, an ardent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, refused to mark Tuesday’s anniversary of the 1968 invasion of then-Czechoslovakia.
His absence from the national stage underscores an intensifying struggle between political forces trying to uphold democratic values in the EU against a group of populist leaders pursuing “illiberal democracy” and challenging a “status quo” that was decades in the making.
Zeman sent his little-known deputy chief of staff to an event in central Prague attended by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, where a crowd of whistling protesters drowned out Babis’ speech.
They waved placards denouncing his reliance on the Communist Party — the descendants of the totalitarian regime behind the invasion — to stay in power.
Zeman himself has not commented on the anniversary, and Czech public television aired a speech by Slovakian President Andrej Kiska, whose country split from the Czechs in 1993.
“It’s the duty of today’s democratic politicians to protect our freedom,” Kiska said in a televised speech from the town of Sliac in central Slovakia. “We therefore need allies with the same values and the same respect for freedom, human rights and democracy. We have such partners in the European Union and NATO, the two pillars of our prosperity and security.”
Once a moderate intellectual and pro-Western Social Democrat prime minister, Zeman has joined a pantheon of euroskeptic leaders, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who have boosted ties with Putin.
His office rejected criticism as “an orgy of hate” and pointed to Zeman’s opposition to the post-invasion regime, for which he was thrown out of the Communist Party and his university teaching job in 1970.
“The president was courageous at a time when courage didn’t come cheap, and that’s worth much more than a thousand speeches delivered 50 years later,” the president’s spokesman, Jiri Ovcacek, said on Twitter last week. “The occupation was a crime. The president’s view hasn’t changed since 1968.”
Soviet forces swarmed across Czechoslovakia’s borders to put Kremlin-backed hardliners in power, reintroduce censorship and sever nascent ties with democratic states.
Scores of people were killed and hundreds wounded in the invasion. It ushered in more than two decades of armed occupation and a crackdown on civil society that saw many people persecuted and jailed.
The regime ended with the 1989 Velvet Revolution in which Zeman allied with Vaclav Havel, who became the first post-communist president.
Since then, the Czechs have joined NATO and the EU and watched living standards jump to surpass older EU members Portugal and Greece.
Yet, populist politicians have made gains with anti-immigrant platforms that portray established parties as incompetent and corrupt.
That approach helped Babis prevail in last year’s elections. He is now in a minority administration that survives with the tacit backing of the Communists, and he has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum for giving them their biggest role since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Zeman, who has courted far-right parties in an anti-immigrant campaign that has put the nation of 10.6 million people at odds with many of its EU partners, has applauded the tie-up.
Backed by advisers with links to Russia, he has also denounced US and EU sanctions against Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and stoking a separatist war in that country’s east.
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