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Is the Czech Republic Using a Street Artist to Rebuke Its Own President?

Is the Czech Republic Using a Street Artist to Rebuke Its Own President?

For his next act, Russian street performance artist Oleg Vorotnikov might be making an international incident — one that might favor foes of the Kremlin.

On Wednesday, Russia asked the Czech Republic to extradite Vorotnikov, who fled with his wife in 2011 after they were arrested for taking part in an opposition march. He is charged with hooliganism and could face as much as seven years in jail. But, though the Czech Republic has kept Vorotnikov since September because it was awaiting a possible extradition request, the Czechs don’t seem likely to honor it. Justice Minister Robert Pelikan, in whose hands the decision ultimately rests, has been quoted as saying Vorotnikov will likely not be extradited.

Why keep a man in Prague because you might need to send him back to Russia only to refuse to send him back to Russia? It might just be because thousands of Czech citizens, Czech cabinet ministers, and perhaps even Justice Pelikan, are pushing back against the Kremlin’s man in Prague: Czech President Milos Zeman.

The Czech Republic, like some other members of the Central Europe group known as the Visegrad 4 — the others being Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — has lately been drifting away from the West and getting a lot closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is an open admirer of Putin, and has tacked closer to Moscow in recent years; ditto Poland’s lurch toward authoritarianism and away from Brussels.

Now, with a showdown over a street artist, one of the V-4’s wayward flock may be headed back West.

Until 2013, the Czech Republic was openly pro-Western. It supported Ukraine’s efforts to forge closer integration with the European Union, and helped Kiev in its recent energy disputes with Russia. But that year, Milos Zeman was elected president. And that’s when things took something of a turn and revealed a foreign-policy schism in Prague.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has been supportive of putting pressure on Russia, including Western sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine. But the president has not. In 2015, Zeman spoke out against sanctions. He also ditched a meeting in which Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande were pleading with Vladimir Putin to stop the fighting in Ukraine; Zeman preferred to smoke cigars with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Zeman repeated his desire to see sanctions lifted as recently as August. One European publication called him to the Kremlin’s Trojan Horse; another suggested that he is being used in Russia’s disinformation (read “propaganda”) campaign.

Czech ministers began pushing back. In September, Czech counter-intelligence officials said Russia had put in place agents to spread disinformation. And last month, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec announced the government would try to counter what the government viewed as Russian disinformation. “We want to get into every smartphone” to counter propaganda, Chovanec said.

Also late last month, thousands of ordinary Czechs took to the streets of Prague to protest Zeman after accusations that he refused to grant an award to Jiri Brady, a Holocaust survivor, because his nephew, Czech Culture Minister Daniel Herman, met with the Dalai Lama. (Zeman has landed like a cannonball in Czech politics: in addition to being pro-Russia, he is also pro-China.)

Zeman will stay in office until the next presidential election in 2018. Perhaps, though, in refusing to extradite Vorotnikov, the judiciary will join the government ministers and thousands of Czech citizens in pushing back against their president’s pro-Russian adventure.

Photo credit: SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images