Czech Citizens Protest President Milos Zeman for Pushing Country Into Arms of Russia

Czech citizens gathered by the thousands Thursday to protest against President Milo Zeman. The crowd massed in Prague's Wenceslas Square to accuse Zeman of treason for allegedly directing the country into the arms of Russia and staying silent since the beginning of a diplomatic crisis involving Moscow and Prague.

That controversy began after Czechs accused Russian intelligence of being behind a deadly explosion at a munitions depot in 2014. Thursday's protest was called by Million Moments for Democracy, a group that formed after the 2017 general election in the Czech Republic. The group was previously focused on scandals involving Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

"Instead of supporting his own state, the president repeats the same tales as Russian propaganda and Russian disinformation websites," said Million Moments for Democracy co-founder and leader Benjamin Roll, according to Czech news site Expats.cz.

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After Babis said that Czech counterintelligence service investigations found "irrefutable evidence" to charge Russian nationals in connection with the explosion, Zeman, who has been criticized for being pro-Russia by his opponents, broke his silence with a contradictory statement.

"We are working with two versions of the investigations; the first is that the explosion occurred after manipulation by unspecialized personnel," Zeman said in a televised address last Sunday. "The second, that there was foreign espionage intervention. I seriously consider both versions possible."

Zeman said that according to one report by Czech counterintelligence, there was "no evidence" that Russian agents were involved. "However, it does not mean that the suspicion of their involvement is not serious," he added. He also warned against "hysteria and speculations" until the results of the investigations are concluded.

Following the speech, Million Movements for Democracy said on Facebook that Zeman "mostly balances on the edge of constitutional rules."

"The president's questioning the conclusions of Czech secret services does not really mean justice and impartiality," the post said. "On the contrary, it holds the interests of Putin's regime in Russia."

Pavel Fischer, the chairman of the Czech Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security, said that Zeman "blatantly challenged the facts found and reprehensibly downplayed the severity of the attack" and "basically appeared in Russia's defense" in his television appearance.

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"It is certain that Zeman's scandalous statements will have serious consequences for the whole state - when the government acts and the president is silent to ultimately downplay the terrorist attack in his own country, we are unintelligible and untrustworthy for our allies," Fischer said on Facebook. "With his manipulative statements, Zeman directly undermines the defense of his own state. Zeman already stands on Russia's side and became [its] advocate."

The protest comes at a time of increased tensions between the Czech Republic and Russia, as the countries take turns expelling each other's diplomats.

Czech leaders said last Sunday they had evidence that two agents of GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, were involved in the 2014 explosion. The Czech government then expelled 18 Russian diplomats it identified as spies from GRU and the SVR (foreign intelligence service).

Russia denied the accusation and retaliated on Sunday by ordering 20 Czech diplomats to leave the country.

Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek demanded that Russia allow its expelled diplomats to return to Moscow.

Kulhánek gave the Russians a deadline of noon Thursday "to enable the return of all [Czech] expelled diplomats to the Czech Embassy in Moscow," according to the Associated Press. If not, he warned, "I will decide tomorrow afternoon to reduce the staff of the Russian Embassy in Prague so their number equals the current number of staff at the Czech Embassy in Moscow."

Kulhánek said he made the move in agreement with Zeman and Babis, and Zeman said Russia's move "paralyzed" its Moscow Embassy.

"Czech-Russian relations have entered an extraordinary difficult phase, and I, as a foreign minister, am not happy about it," Kulhánek said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the ministry summoned the Czech ambassador on Thursday. She added in a statement carried by Russian news agencies, "We suggest that Prague leaves ultimatums for [its] communication within NATO. This kind of tone is unacceptable while talking to Russia."

Newsweek reached out Zeman for comment but did not hear back before publication.

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Thousands of demonstrators take part in a protest march against Czech Republic President Milos Zeman and other politicians in Prague's Wenceslas Square on April 29. Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images