When Russia hosted leaders from Cuba's Raul Castro to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe for May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, Czech President Milos Zeman was one of only two EU heads of state in town.
Although Zeman stayed away from the military parade in Red Square, the visit was a coup of sorts for the Kremlin. With all major Western leaders boycotting the show of weaponry to protest Moscow’s interference in Ukraine, the trip gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to claim he and the country have friends in the heart of Europe.
The visit caused headaches for Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and sparked a row between Zeman and the U.S. ambassador to Prague, who questioned the wisdom of his trip.
For Zeman, it meant a tough reception from the press and the political elite upon his return to the Czech Republic after the celebrations marking the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Miroslav Kalousek, a former finance minister and leading member of the TOP 09 political party, accused Zeman of "bowing before a dictator who is threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine."
Writing in the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, commentator Miroslav Korecky said Zeman’s Russian visit seemed to have "been choreographed by Kremlin propagandists."
With Russian photographers frantically snapping away, Zeman sat down for talks with Putin, just hours after the military parade on Red Square.
Putin, who had accused the United States of forbidding European leaders to go, struggled to hold back his glee over Zeman's visit. "I want to say that it pleases us that there are still leaders in Europe who are able to express their opinion, and who follow an independent political line," he said.
Putin added that thanks to politicians like Zeman it would be possible not only to repair relations between the European Union and Russia, but expand them.
According to Interfax, the Kremlin leader also took an interest in Zeman’s health, telling the notorious chain smoker to give up cigarettes, after Zeman and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were caught puffing away during their one-on-one session.
The Czech president also didn't hold back in his praise in comments quoted by Czech media. "I wouldn’t rule out Russia joining the EU in 20 years. It is completely possible; they have complementary economies. Russia needs modern technology and the European Union needs energy resources,” Zeman was quoted as saying following his discussions with Putin.
Zeman also opined over the fate of EU sanctions slapped on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and what Kyiv and the West say is its support, both financial and military, for the rebels fighting government forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk region of southeastern Ukraine.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 6,100 people since April 2014.
No 'Business As Usual'
In an interview broadcast on May 10 by the Russian radio station Kommersant FM, Zeman predicted EU sanctions against Russia would be lifted by the end of the year, since the "civil war" in eastern Ukraine -- which he likened to the Spanish Civil War -- was practically over.
That remark, widely quoted in Czech media, elicited a response from Sobotka, who explained sanctions could only be lifted after the peace deal reached in the Belarus capital in February is fully implemented.
"If the Minsk agreements are fulfilled, then it is possible that sanctions will be reduced or ended, but I don’t think it will be this year," Sobotka said.
Zeman has been outspoken in questioning the effectiveness of the sanctions against Russia, putting him at odds with most top EU leaders.
Echoing other Western leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said there can be no "business as usual" with Russia until it changes its behavior in Ukraine.
Merkel did visit Moscow, but on May 10, a day after the military parade, to join Putin in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Aside from Zeman, the only other EU state president in Moscow over the weekend was Nikos Anastasiadis, the president of Cyprus, where, due to lax regulation, many of Russia’s wealthy have parked some of their cash.
Zeman has been in the crosshairs of criticism from the press and politicians at home for the visit and for some of his controversial remarks, especially on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia's role there.
"We know that Russian nationals are operating in eastern Ukraine. It seems to me that Mr. President is privy to other information unavailable in other EU and NATO capitals,” said European parliamentarian Pavel Telicka.
Mostof the support Zeman did get came from the left.
Pavel Kovacik, a leading member of the Czech Communist Party, said it was good that Zeman had taken part in celebrations marking the defeat of Nazi Germany and that business figured high on Zeman's agenda. "It was good too because, whether you like it or not, Russia is a significant political and economic partner," he said.
Sobotka’s cabinet okayed the visit, but only after Zeman pledged to stay away from the military parade.
Mlada Fronta Dnes posted photos on May 11 of the other leaders in Moscow over the weekend, including Mugabe, Castro, and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro -- all from countries critics say have dubious democratic credentials at best.
In his Mlada Fronta column, Korecky noted it was Zeman who back in 1990 proposed then Czechoslovakia celebrate the end of World War II in Europe on May 8 to “do away with the remains of the Stalin fiction.”
Never one to mince words, Zeman told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that those opposing his visit were of "low intelligence."
In the Russian capital, Zeman was defiant, saying he had traveled to Russia to defend the interests of the Czech Republic and not solve the problems of the world as he was not the secretary-general of the UN.
He said his talks with Putin had focused on business, and in particular, a gas-powered energy plant being built by a Czech firm in the Urals town of Salekhard and worth an estimated $203 million.
"I take it as the duty of the Czech president to defend the interests of the Czech Republic, even if some idiots don't want to understand that 5 billion korunas is a significant amount, and tried to scuttle my trip to Moscow," Zeman was quoted as saying by Czech media after his talks with Putin.
According to Czech media, work at the Polyarnaya energy plant has been plagued with setbacks. A manager at the Czech firm overseeing the project, PSG, has said construction at the site has been halted with no sign in site it will restart soon.
It’s not the only Czech project in Russia under threat. The Czech Export Bank, CEB, which is providing financing, has said up to $600 million in loans for Czech projects in Russia are under threat of default.
Putin assured Zeman he would look into the problems at Polyarnaya.