Speculation that Czechs may be fighting in the current Ukraine conflict have been simmering for several weeks. And the possibility appears even more credible following news this week that a Slovak fighting for the separatists was captured by government forces.
A former Brno physical education teacher Ivo Stejskal addressing a mass meeting in the middle of Donetsk - the heart of the one of the two separatist people’s republics where Ukraine government forces are now closing in – is so far the clearest indication that volunteer Czechs might be involved in the Ukraine conflict. In the video released mid-June, a uniformed Stejskal in poor Russian proclaims that he came to join the separatists because he felt he could not ignore what he described as the genocide taking place there. He proclaims that Serbs and Italians had also volunteered on their side and local citizens should join the fight.
Whether Stejskal was or is taking part in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, or has been joined in the conflict by other Czechs, is not clear. But there are pretty strong indications that the Ukraine conflict has been a magnet for foreign contingents of volunteers from Central Europe, especially those holding what could be described a modern day Pan-Slavic sentiments.
The likelihood that foreign contingents, including Czechs, are fighting in Ukraine was strengthened with the news Tuesday that a Slovak amid the Separatist ranks, reportedly tasked with operating a mortar, was captured by Kiev government forces. It is the first case of a EU citizen being recorded as part of the rebel, breakaway, forces. Slovak authorities have not confirmed the basic facts but have said that a man named Miroslav Rohác was a former member of the Slovak army.
The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday it has no specific information on such cases but is following the situatiuon closely and keeps track of media reports.
One group of foreigners that is clearly present among the separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk are Serbs, often with military experience from the conflict in former Yugoslavia. Nationalist Serbs, often with extreme right wing and pan-Slavic opinions were also evident when Russia annexed the Crimea at the start of the year.
The Czech state domestic intelligence service, the Security Information Service (BIS) has in the past drawn attention to the links between Czech right wing extremists and their Serbian counterparts, for example in their shared opposition to an independent Kosova state. The office was not able to comment further on Wednesday.
Pan-Slavism was a potent political force at the start of the 20th century with Russia seen, even by prominent Czechs, at the centre of a single Slav state or grouping of states. That enthusiasm ebbed with the Russian revolution and the class struggle that became central to the new Soviet state. But the opportunistic nationalistic tone of Vladimir Putin’s new Russia could make it a cause to rally to once again.