Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 75

Yesterday Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and a massive governmental delegation completed a three-day official visit to Moscow, where they held talks with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and members of the Russian government. (Noteworthy: The Russian side refrained from attacking the Czechs for joining NATO.) The talks focused on ways to revitalize bilateral trade, which has declined dramatically since the collapse of communism and the Czech Republic’s reorientation toward the West. Zeman insisted that the Russian market remains attractive to Czech industry, which seeks ways to recoup its lost position there. He predicted that Russia’s financial crisis represents a “short-term phenomenon” rather than a durable obstacle to a revival of Russian-Czech trade. The sides agreed to set up a joint trading corporation, “Russian-Czech House,” to operate through barter–an intention which would seem inconsistent with Zeman’s prediction.

Russia’s debt to the Czech Republic, currently almost US$4 billion, poses another thorny problem. The sides agreed in principle that Russia may reimburse the debt partly through deliveries of oil, gas and components for the Soviet-era armaments which remain the Czech inventory. The amounts, prices and reimbursement schedules will form the subject of follow-up negotiations.

The Balkan crisis was relegated to the back burner during these talks, probably at Prague’s–though not necessarily Zeman’s own–wish. Zeman, a left-leaning social-democrat, is expected to step down soon as prime minister. He had recently made a series of ambiguous statements on the Balkan conflict, at times inconsistent with his country’s newly won status as a member of NATO, and which were criticized by other Czech leaders. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov described Zeman’s visit as a “potential turning point” in Russian-Czech relations–a characterization not borne out by the overall results of the talks (Itar-Tass, April 16-18).