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Czech President draws controversy ahead of 50th anniversary of Soviet invasion

Prague, Czech Republic – On August 21st 1968, troops from the Warsaw Pact countries (apart from Romania and Albania) invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the period of liberalisation known as the “Prague Spring” and cutting short Alexander Dubček’s attempts to implement “socialism with a human face”. The Soviet-led invasion remains to this day one of the most tragic and traumatizing events in the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s history.

Known for his pro-Russian views, Czech President Miloš Zeman has decided not to give any speech for today’s commemorations marking the 50th anniversary of the Soviet invasion. His decision was vigorously criticized in the media, as well as by many politicians across the political spectrum.

Addressing this controversy, President Zeman’s spokesman Jiří Ovčáček argued that Zeman had already shown his courage by publicly opposing his country’s occupation back in 1968, right at the beginning of the “normalisation” period. Adding that he was also thrown out from the University of Economics for it, M. Ovčáček argued that this was worth more than a thousand speeches.

Interviewed by local media, political analyst Jiří Pehe called this justification “extraordinary”: a member of the Communist Party during the Prague Spring, Miloš Zeman was indeed thrown out shortly after… as were half a million of his co-citizens. Many of them also lost their jobs during the normalisation era.

The head of state’s refusal to take part to the celebrations is only the latest example illustrating the country’s ambiguous relationship with Russia and its difficulty to come to terms with its past.

Last week, the leader of the Czech Communist Party sparked outrage when he argued that Russia was not responsible for the 1968 invasion. He blamed, instead, other Central and Eastern European nations and members of the Warsaw Pact, like Ukraine, Poland and Hungary.

On the other side of the border, Slovakia‘s President Andrej Kiska will address the nation on Tuesday night from Bratislava. Due to their own president’s silence, many Czechs have asked that Kiska’s speech be broadcasted live on Czech Television.

All across the Czech Republic and Slovakia, events will take place today to commemorate the invasion and honour those who lost their lives. A huge concert will also be organized this evening on Wenceslas Square in Prague, with famous Czech singers interpreting popular tunes from the 1960’s alongside the Czech Radio’s Symphonic Orchestra.

One can only hope that no new false notes will cast a shadow over today’s commemorations.