Two Russian diplomats are being expelled by the Czech government amid a hoax poison plot against three Prague politicians.
The government in Prague says infighting between Russian embassy staff resulted in one of them sending details of the fictitious plot to Czech intelligence. In response, the three mayors were initially given police protection.
Russia condemned the expulsions as an “unfriendly act”.
The expulsion was announced on Friday by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who described the move as “appropriate and adequate”.
“We are interested in having good relations with all countries, but we are a sovereign state and such actions are unacceptable on our territory.” He gave no more details about the new information.
“The government has offered an explanation, but we still don’t see the full picture,” said Ondřej Kundra of the Czech weekly Respekt, the journalist who broke the original story about the plot. “It’s hard to imagine the government would expel two Russian diplomats just because they said nasty things about each other.”
Was there a plot?
Details of an apparent plot first emerged in Czech weekly, Respekt, which reported that a Russian agent had travelled to Prague with a suitcase containing the highly potent toxin, ricin.
It claimed the poison might be used to target Czech politicians who had angered Russia. At the time Russia condemned the reports as “misinformation” and “sick fantasies”.
Czech TV then named the man involved as Andrei Konchakov, head of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Prague, and he rubbished the story saying he had merely brought “disinfectant and sweets” in his suitcase
Mr. Konchakov is one of the two diplomats ordered to leave, along with his deputy, Igor Rybakov, an official has told Ria Novosti.
The reports were taken seriously enough to send Ondrej Kolar, mayor of Prague’s sixth district, into hiding. He had ordered the removal of a statue of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev in Prague, angering Russia.
Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib had also annoyed Moscow by renaming a square next to the Russian embassy after murdered Russia opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Another mayor had backed a memorial to the anti-Soviet “Russian Liberation Army”.
The Russian embassy in Prague dismissed the expulsion on its Facebook page as “provocation”.
“Based on ungrounded accusations in the media from the beginning, this hostile step shows Prague is not interested in normalising Russian-Czech relations, which have recently degraded, for which we cannot be blamed,” the embassy said.
“Russia will avoid a worsening of relations with the Czech Republic, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, commenting on press comments on the alleged preparation of an attack against Czech officials by Russia.
The Czech press reported the alleged arrival of a representative of the Russian security organs to eliminate officials responsible for dismantling a monument in Prague dedicated to Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev.
“We do not want tension in relations at all”, said Zakharova, who affirmed that everything possible is being done so that this does not happen, “since we depart from the fact that these links must be developed on the basis of mutual respect,” she said.
In addition, she considered strange the decision of the Czech government to rename Pod Kaštany Square, where the Russian embassy in Prague is located, in memory of the opposer Boris Nemtsov, organizer of protests against the Russian government in 2011 and who died the victim of an attack.
Commenting on information published by the Czech weekly journal Respekt regarding the alleged arrival in the Czech Republic of a Russian security official with the purpose of poisoning Prague municipal officials, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov called that version a sham.
The Prime Minister Andrej Babis, considered, for his part, that the expulsion of the Russian ambassador would not be necessary for anyway, because of the aforementioned information.
Moscow denounced at the time the intention of the Czech authorities to harm relations with Russia, insisting on the removal of the monument to Konev, even amid the limitations imposed by the coronavirus.
One of the Prague municipal leaders took advantage of the situation of the compulsory lockdown of the population to mobilize several workers and dismantle the aforementioned monument, dedicated to who is considered to be the liberator of then-Czechoslovakia from the Nazi occupation.
Following reports from the Czech weekly Respekt, of a Russian plot to assassinate two political figures in Prague using ricin, PM Andrej Babiš (ANO) said that the Czech Republic “is a sovereign state, and we would certainly not let any of the world’s powers to influence our political affairs in any way.”
“It is impossible – if true – for some foreign country to take some actions here against our citizens,” Babis added.
The Mayor of Prague Hřib approved the renaming of a square where the Russian Embassy is located after slain Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
The Russian Embassy is now having to use its consulate address on all of its correspondence, to avoid using the new name of the square.
A few weeks later, Prague’s District 6 council removed the statue of Ivan Stepanovic Konev, a World War II commander, whose statue was erected in 1980.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has called the removal of the statue “a crime”.
“It looks like another hoax,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday when asked about the Respekt report.
The Russian embassy in Prague protested the Respekt report in a statement on Monday and did not respond to questions on Tuesday.
Babiš also said that the Czech diplomacy is currently dealing with instances of hostility at the Czech embassies in Moscow and St. Petersburg in recent weeks.
Czech President Miloš Zeman will attend celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s Victory over Nazi Germany, which was scheduled to take place on May 9 but had to be postponed due to the coronavirus, as Zeman himself told Radio Frekvence 1 on Sunday.
“I accepted President Putin’s invitation,” Zeman pointed out. “I suppose that the celebrations will take place in September instead of May 9.
“It would be logical because World War II ended in September, and it was the war in Europe that came to an end on May 9,” he added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Thursday that the Victory Day parade and the Immortal Regiment march, initially set for May 9, would take place later in the year after the coronavirus threat is over.
The “risks associated with the epidemic, whose peak has not passed yet, are extremely high,” Putin said. “This does not give me the right to begin preparations for the parade and other mass events now.”
Victory Day is the most important public event remaining in Russia’s calendar. Western leaders have snubbed the parade since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Moscow’s alleged meddling in the US presidential elections and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 have made relations even chillier.
Russia holds a military parade on Red Square with soldiers, tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles and sees hundreds of thousands march with pictures of their relatives in a new tradition called the Immortal Regiment.
The number of Russian coronavirus cases has been accelerating in the last week.
There have been 47,121 cases of infections and 405 deaths, according to official figures, but the real number is believed to be higher.
The Public Council at the Russian Ministry of Defense proposed renaming the Prazhskaya metro station to Marshal Konev station.
A letter requesting support for this initiative was sent to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. According to members of the Public Council, it would be the right response to the dismantling of Marshal Konev monument in Prague.
On April 3, the Soviet general’s statue in Prague was removed by a local council, prompting protest from Moscow. Ivan Konev led the liberation of the Czech capital in 1945, but many Czechs criticize his crackdowns after World War II.
Local Prague politician Ondrej Kolar declared: “Konev has been toppled, but Konev will stand again — only in the museum.”
Czech President Milos Zeman slammed the statute’s removal, accusing Kolar’s council of abusing the current coronavirus crisis, according to a presidential spokesperson.
Moscow has vehemently protested the removal of the statue.
The local council’s removal decision prompted an expression of indignation from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which on Friday spoke of an “unfriendly” act of “vandalism by unhinged municipal representatives.”
On April 9, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu asked his Czech counterpart, Lubomir Metnar, to hand over the statue to Russia. Metnar refused, saying it belonged to the city of Prague.