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Donetsk Separatists Fly Flag At Czech Center That Prague Vows To Close


Ukrainian Separatists Get 'Mission' In Czech City
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WATCH: Ukrainian Separatists Get 'Mission' In Czech City

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic -- The flag of Russia-backed separatists from Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region fluttered from an ornate, two-story building in this otherwise gritty city on the Czech Republic's eastern fringes on September 1, as the separatists opened what they call their first official office on EU soil.

Amid protests and vows by authorities to shut down the center, a Czech far-right activist said the office is aimed at rebuilding ties between Ostrava and Donetsk, both crumbling industrial centers that were once sister cities.

"We want to aid and coordinate communication between the people of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Czech Republic," said Nela Liskova, a member of the xenophobic National Militia movement, referring to the separatist group in eastern Ukraine.

Nela Liskova a member of the far-right Czech moverment National Militia
Nela Liskova a member of the far-right Czech moverment National Militia

Liskova addressed a cramped conference room packed with a few dozen reporters and a handful of supporters -- including a few allegedly from Donetsk. A self-described "honorary consul," she said she is disgusted with her government's support for what she calls the "junta" in Kyiv -- standard Kremlin shorthand for the pro-Western government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Putting down stakes in the EU would be a feat for the separatists, who have fought Kyiv's forces in a bloody war that has killed more than 9,500 people since April 2014 following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula the previous month.

Until now they have been recognized as an independent state only by South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia that itself is recognized only by Moscow and a handful of other countries.

But any kind of recognition by the EU is wishful thinking at best. Brussels has sanctioned several separatists in eastern Ukraine, including Oleksandr Zakharchenko, the self-styled leader in Donetsk, as well as officials in Moscow over Russian backing for the separatists.

In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman has departed from the common EU line on Ukraine and criticized sanctions against Moscow. But he has not offered the separatists in eastern Ukraine any public support.

Meanwhile, Prague has repeatedly said that the separatists lack any legitimacy to open a diplomatic post in the country, while the Czech Foreign Ministry vowed on September 1 that their self-declared representative office would be shut down.

The Czech Embassy in Kyiv said in an August 29 statement that "the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic cannot have an accredited representative office in the Czech Republic because the Czech Republic does not recognize its existence."

According to official documents, the organization behind the center was officially registered on June 16, 2016.

The opening of its office was met with a small public protest outside Ostrava's Mercure Hotel, where the press conference for the event was being held. Some 15 demonstrators held up placards reading "Stop Russian Aggression," and "Kremlin Theater."

"I'm upset that they are opening up an office for a group that the Czech Republic, including the Foreign Ministry, does not recognize as legitimate, and is a terrorist state," said Radovan Blaha, who traveled from Prague to attend the protest.

Mikhail Topolov, a Czech-based Ukrainian activist, said that "the pro-Russian terrorists should not have any representation in the Czech Republic."

'Historical Moment'

Organizers had promised that an "official" from the Donetsk separatist-controlled territory would appear at the opening of the Ostrava office. Liskova explained, however, that the individual was forced to cancel at the last moment "due to the current political situation."

Natalya Nikonorova, who styles herself as the separatists' foreign minister, did issue a statement handed out at the press conference in which she hailed the opening of the center as a "historical moment."

While invitations for the press conference were sent to members of the Czech parliament, not one Czech politician appeared to be present at the event.

Whether anyone from Donetsk had actually traveled to Ostrava was unclear as well.

One of three people Liskova claimed had arrived from the eastern Ukrainian city whispered as she entered the conference room that she was from Volgograd, in southern Russia.

And while numerous journalists were in attendance, gaining entrance was no small task. Local security -- made up mostly of beefy, bald-headed men -- scrutinized people's IDs and inquired about nationality before letting them pass. They then had to go through a metal detector on their way in.

One of the burly security staff at the press conference
One of the burly security staff at the press conference

A few of the security personnel were monitoring reporters closely, with one filming the journalists who were filming the protesters outside.

One reporter from the Czech weekly Tyden was first denied entry but later allowed in after he protested that the event had been publicized as a press conference open to the public.

"I guess I'm on the separatists' blacklist," the reporter, Ivan Motyl, quipped.

Liskova refused to answer questions about financing for the hotel event and the center itself, leaving some to question whether money may be coming from Russia.

A Czech member of the European Parliament has said the whole affair has made the Czech Republic the laughingstock of Europe and called for Liskova to be arrested on terrorism charges.

In an August 30 statement, Jaromir Stetina urged Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek to do his duty and arrest Liskova and shut down the center, saying it was "making a mockery of Czech diplomacy."

Liskova fired backed at the press conference, accusing Stetina of supporting the "terrorist" Azov Battalion, a former volunteer militia in eastern Ukraine whose ranks included far-right nationalists and which is now part of the country's National Guard.

Liskova has been photographed wearing military fatigues and packing firearms. The National Militia movement to which she belongs has ridden a wave of anti-Islamic feeling in the Central European nation to attract support.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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