A controversial Russian memorial plaque in a Prague cemetery has been removed after complaints that it honored the Soviet-led troops who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Martin Cerveny, the administrative director of Prague’s Olsany Cemetery, told RFE/RL on March 20 that Afganvet -- a St. Petersburg-based group for Russian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan that built the monument -- decided to remove the plaque because of the negative reaction it received.
A Czech version of the plaque honored "fallen soldiers and peacemakers." But the Russian-language version said: "In eternal memory and honor of the fallen soldiers, internationalists, and peacemakers."
The Russian-language text of the plaque said: “In eternal memory and honor of the fallen soldiers, internationalists, and peacemakers.”
The word "internationalists" was taken by Czechs to include the Soviet troops who occupied Czechoslovakia from 1968 until 1991, when the last Soviet soldiers left the country.
It also was seen as honoring Russian troops who fought in the August 2008 war against Georgia and those who were deployed last month in Crimea in Ukraine, where a Russian occupation has paved the way to annexation.
Cerveny says Afganvet still has a contract for the monument near a Russian Orthodox chapel in the cemetery. He says he is scheduled meet with members of Afganvet early on March 21 to discuss whether a new plaque containing more sensitive language will be placed on the granite monolith that remains in the cemetery.
"The plaques were removed on [March 19] at some point in the afternoon," Cerveny said. "They were removed by the owner of the monument, i.e. by the representatives of the civic association that built the monument. It was a result of their reaction to the negative responses thast they received by this activity of theirs. According to their explanation, it was not their intention [to cause an outrage]. And they realized that in the social context [after being criticized publicly] that the writing on the plaques was not appropriately formulated. So that's why they removed them."
The cultural section of the Russian Embassy in Prague said the monument meant to honor veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
The head of Afganvet’s Prague branch, Oleg Goncharov, told RFE/RL that the project had nothing to do with the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia -- a Kremlin-ordered crackdown against the so-called Prague Spring reform movement.
He said it was meant to honor "peacekeepers from all countries in modern times."
But Igor Zolotarev, deputy head of the Czech government’s council for ethnic minorities, says the monument mocked the memory of more than 100 Czechoslovaks who died as a direct result of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion.
Zolotarev alleged that the monument also was part of a plan by pro-Kremlin private Russian organizations to gradually remove the graves of Russian emigres who fled to Prague after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and were buried adjacent to the place where the new monument was erected.
“If they had built it in the area containing the graves of Soviet Red Army soldiers -- even that would be outrageous, though not as much," Zolotarev said. "But to build it where they have placed it dishonors the place. And that’s an absolute outrage.”
Goncharov denied Zolotarev’s allegation that his group wants to gradually remove the graves of Prague’s anticommunist Russian emigres.
"Of course, we didn't choose the place on our own," Goncharov said. "We were given this possibility. [The administration of the cemetery] showed it to us, and we went through the common procedure and approvals. We arranged the rental of the place. We did everything according to the norms."