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Czech PM: President Zeman Overreacted to Comments by US Envoy

FILE - Czech Republic President Milos Zeman is seen in a Sept. 8, 2014, photo.

The prime minister of the Czech Republic and other top officials criticized the country’s president for a rare diplomatic row with the U.S. ambassador to Prague.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said Monday he wished President Milos Zeman was more professional in diplomatic affairs. Sobotka made it explicitly clear that it was crucial for the security of his country to remain in lockstep with NATO and the EU.

“I think that the reaction of President Zeman was not adequate,” Sobotka said. "I would naturally welcome it if the attitude of Mr. President to foreign policy in general was a bit more professional,” the Czech news agency (CTK) quoted him as saying. “We should be able to communicate with our friends and allies…,” Sobotka said, adding that Zeman reacted disproportionately to the U.S. ambassador’s comments.

Parliament's lower house speaker said he thought President Zeman was overreacting, while the deputy speaker of the Czech parliament's upper house said Zeman demonstrated a “lack of tact and diplomatic thinking.”

A presidential spokesman also told local media that Schapiro could still attend social events at Prague Castle, the official residence of the Czech president.

Czech civil society members did not appreciate President Zeman’s statement. It was not received favorably either by Western foreign media commentators.

U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew Schapiro (Courtesy - U.S. Embassy, Prague)
U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew Schapiro (Courtesy - U.S. Embassy, Prague)

President Zeman said in an interview with online publication Parlamentni Listy on Sunday that the door of Prague Castle was closed to the U.S. ambassador, Andrew Schapiro, following the envoy's comments perceived as critical of the Czech leader's decision to attend a World War Two commemoration in Moscow on May 9.

"I can't imagine the Czech ambassador in Washington would give advice to the American president where to travel," said Zeman. "I won't let any ambassador have a say about my foreign travels. Ambassador Schapiro has the door to the castle closed."

European Union leaders are boycotting the ceremony in May over Russia's role in the Ukraine conflict, though Zeman - who frequently has departed from the EU line - has said he would attend.

Ambassador Schapiro told Czech television last week it would be "awkward" should Zeman attend the ceremony as the only statesman from an EU country.

"I understand the desire to honor all who sacrificed in World War Two,” Schapiro said, “but I think it would be unfortunate for President Zeman to be there as perhaps the only EU head of state, watching a military parade, at a time when Russian troops are destabilizing a neighbor in violation of international law."

Ambassador Shapiro has said that he regretted that President Zeman felt offended, adding that he would have expected that his “candor” were well received.

“I value a good working relationship with everyone, and I want [President Zeman] to know that my door will be open to him,” Shapiro said. “I also want the Czech people to know that the United States government, and the people of America, value our relationship as partners and allies more than ever.”

Most western leaders have decided to Russian President Vladimir Putin the cold shoulder on May 9, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to visit Moscow on May 10.

Besides Zeman, those known to be planning to travel to Moscow include Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and North Korea's Kim Jong-Un, as well as the leaders of India, South Africa, Mongolia, Cuba and Vietnam.

Zeman, a former prime minister, frequently has departed from the common EU line on Ukraine and criticized sanctions against Moscow. The government, which is responsible for foreign policy, however, has held the EU line fully.

The Czech presidency is largely a ceremonial role, but Zeman - who was the first president directly elected when he took office in 2013 - is outspoken on his views on both domestic and foreign policy.

Some material for this report came from AP, AFP and Reuters.