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.
Three weeks ago, a Russian intelligence operative flew to Prague.
He was driven directly from Prague airport by a Russian diplomatic car to the Russian Embassy in Prague, carrying a suitcase with „ricin“ poison, according to Czech intelligence sources.
The news is reported by Czech newspaper Respekt.
The politicians under protection are the Mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib and the Prague 6 Mayo Ondřej Kolář. Both of them have been confronting the Kremlin authorities in recent months.
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 council voted on the measure on February 24, changing Pod Kastany Square to Boris Nemtsov Square. The name officially changes on February 27 — the fifth anniversary of Nemtsov’s killing.
On April 22, the Mayor’s spokesperson Martina Vacková informed the Czech media that Hřib was put under police protection.
“The reasons and specific protection methods cannot be commented, following the decision of the police. For security reasons, the Mayor is currently unable to use public transport,” said Vacková.
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.
Czech President Miloš Zeman slammed the statute’s removal, accusing Kolar’s council of abusing the current coronavirus crisis, according to a presidential spokesperson.
A few days later, the Public Council at the Russian Ministry of Defense proposed renaming the Prazhskaya metro station in Moscow to Marshal Konev station.
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.”
The Kremlin would like to see the monument to Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev that was taken down recently in Prague reconstructed in either the Czech Republic or in Russia, if need be.
The bronze statue of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev was taken down last week to make way for a World War II memorial, prompting the Russian embassy to protest.
On Thursday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu wrote to his Czech counterpart Lubomir Metnar asking him to hand over the statue to Russia.
The Czech minister responded this was not possible because the figure belongs to the city.
“We do not accept these actions and express our regrets in view of this. Of course, we would like to have this monument reconstructed — either on Czech land whose residents should be grateful to this man, we are convinced, or on Russian land if need be,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which examines serious crimes, said it had opened a probe into “defiling symbols of Russia’s military glory,” a charge punishable by a fine or community service.
Although the move is largely symbolic, the issue could affect diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Last August, the statue was covered in red paint by unnamed vandals. Prague city hall then covered up the statue, but pro-Konev protesters tore down the tarp and held a rally in its support.
The monument was similarly abused many times before.
Marshal Kove statue was originally unveiled during the Victory Day celebrations on May 9, 1980.