Central European countries are currently commemorating the 70th anniversary of their liberation from Nazism at the end of World War Two. Budapest was captured by the Red Army in February 1945; Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, was taken on April 4; Prague was liberated only after hostilities elsewhere in Europe were practically over, on May 9.
While the victims of the war, including large numbers of Soviet soldiers, were all too real – as attested by the numerous military cemeteries and memorials in the region – and their memory ought be honoured, the commemorations of the end of the war are also a welcome opportunity for the Kremlin’s propaganda. A number of Central Europeans leaders are playing along. Vladimir Putin might be a pariah in the West, yet both the President of the Czech Republic Milos Zeman and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico are planning to attend the celebrations of the end of World War Two in Moscow on May 9.
When Andrew Schapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, expressed concern about Mr. Zeman’s upcoming trip, the President replied angrily that, “no ambassador [had] the right to comment on his travel plans,” adding that from now on, the doors to the Prague Castle (the seat of the President) were closed to Mr Schapiro. Needless to say, the comment has been a source of much glee for Russian propagandist outlets and government officials.
This past weekend, Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov visited Bratislava to participate at the ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi rule over the city. The ‘liberation’, as the event is commonly referred to, is a bit of a misnomer. Notwithstanding the tragic human toll of the final weeks of the war, as Anne Applebaum documents in her book, Iron Curtain, for Central European countries the end of World War Two simply meant a replacement of one vile totalitarian rule by another.
That alone should serve as a small caveat to the unqualified expressions of praise that Central Europeans have for the Red Army soldiers. This year, the commemorative events suffer from an even bigger flaw – they come at a time of Russia’s blatant aggression against Ukraine, and place Central European politicians into an awkward position as how to treat the Russian guests who were oftentimes invited before the events in Crimea and Donbass.
Andrej Kiska, Slovakia’s largely ceremonial head of state, did the right thing. At a tense meeting with Mr. Lavrov on Saturday, he assured him of Slovakia’s debt of gratitude towards the fallen soldiers of the Red Army but reminded him of Russia’s nefarious role in the conflict in Ukraine.
Mr. Fico, the Prime Minister, did no such thing. Instead, he joined Mr. Lavrov at a ceremony at Slavin, Bratislava’s memorial to the Red Army soldiers killed in action on Slovakia’s territory. Predictably, besides Slovak and Russian officials, Slovak guards of honor, and ailing veterans of the war, the event was attended by a colourful group of anti-NATO protesters, bearing flags of ‘Novorossiya’ and NATO-bashing banners.
The sight of these symbols, few feet away from a large part of Slovakia’s political elite alongside with their Russian guest of honor, was a priceless photo opportunity for Russian propagandist outlets. More worryingly, it is a sign that, over a decade since these countries joined NATO, Vladimir Putin is winning in his fight for the soul of Central Europe.
Dalibor Rohac is a visiting fellow at the Max Belloff Centre for the Study of Liberty, University of Buckingham, UK. He tweets at @daliborrohac.