A briefcase stuffed with ricin… Mayors under police protection… An alleged Russian assassination plot has thrown Czech foreign policy into turmoil.
Reports that Russian assassins are targeting Czechs politicians may sound like the plot of a classic Cold War thriller, but they are the product of a very contemporary tussle.
Three Prague mayors have been put under police protection amid reports that a Russian agent arrived in Prague in early April carrying a case stuffed with the poison ricin.
The article, referencing intelligence sources and published by the highly regarded Respekt weekly magazine, set off a burst of curt and conflicting statements from Prague and Moscow in a diplomatic dust-up that threatens to escalate.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman dismissed the report as fake, and the foreign ministry in Moscow demanded action.
The Czech foreign ministry balked at the suggestion it could curtail the free press and confirmed Respekt’s story that a Russian diplomat had arrived at Prague airport three weeks earlier to be met by an embassy vehicle. Any other details, the Czech foreign ministry suggested, should be taken up with the secret services.
The Russian embassy retorted that none of its diplomatic staff had “arrived at Prague Airport” since mid-March.
The report remains unconfirmed by Czech security and political bodies. However, one of the alleged targets has sought to corroborate it.
Ondrej Kolar confirmed to BIRN from a secret location that he is under police protection because “Russian representatives are calling for my assassination”.
It is not the first time the 36-year-old mayor of the leafy Prague 6 district, which hosts myriad embassies including the giant Russian mission in its impressive fin de siècle villas, has been assigned special protection.
In August last year he and his family received death threats from local extremists when the district council decided to move a statue of Red Army general Ivan Konev.
With the coronavirus lockdown ruling out further protests, the statue was swiftly and suddenly taken down on April 3. The Russian embassy accused Kolar of “mocking the memory” of those who fought against Nazism and promised a reaction.
“I don’t know what they mean by an ‘appropriate response,’” Kolar said in an interview at the time.
The alleged assassination plot appears to be his answer. Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib and Pavel Novotny, mayor of the Reporyje suburb of the Czech capital, have also irked Moscow in recent months and are now also “targets of Russian aggression”, Kolar said.
The story may offer many ingredients of a spy novel from yesteryear but it is part of a struggle reaching across Europe.
Amid building global competition, the former communist states that joined the EU and NATO over the past 20 years now face efforts from Russia and China to test their loyalty to maintaining the stability of these Western structures.
Hungary’s “illiberal” regime openly embraces the competitors from the east. In the Czech Republic, the pressure has manufactured a foreign policy fight.
President Milos Zeman and associated business interests pull to the east. Push back comes from the pro-Western political establishment. In the middle sits the minority coalition government.
“The issues produced by the struggle for control of foreign policy would be solved by a strong government,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and an advisor to former President Vaclav Havel, who developed a foreign policy tradition based on human rights and liberal democracy.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis insisted to reporters on April 28 that the Czech Republic would not allow “any world power to influence our political affairs in any manner”.
But with his minority coalition dependent on extremist parties linked to Zeman for support in parliament, the premier often fails to robustly defend the government’s official pro-Western stance.
In the face of Zeman’s successful courting of Russia and China, others have sought to step into the breach.
The trio of Prague officials now under police protection has little in common. They come from competing centrist and conservative opposition parties. In conversation, Hrib and Kolar express strong reservations about one another’s actions and motives.
However, alongside Novotny — a rabble-rousing former tabloid journalist — they have been highly successful in recent months in disturbing the foreign policy lines that Zeman has been laying since his move into Prague Castle in 2013.
Their antics are officially frowned upon. A high-level official at the foreign ministry complained to BIRN that such provocations make its work harder.
But they have also been successful in exposing and disrupting the influence of Russia and China. Alongside the tensions stoked with Moscow, Hrib’s policies have strained relations with Beijing and helped alert the media and public to its secretive efforts to gain sway in the country.
“They’ve changed the public debate and made Zeman’s pursuit of his alternative foreign policy more complicated,” said the deputy editor-in-chief at Respekt, Ondrej Kundra, who broke the ricin claims.
Similarly unconventional approaches can be seen stemming from other parts of the political establishment.
The Security Information Service (BIS) has been increasingly explicit in warning that Russian and Chinese espionage and hybrid-warfare operations pose a high risk to the state. For its trouble, the state intelligence agency has been dismissed by the president as “bunglers” peddling “gibberish”.
While Kundra’s report is based on anonymous sources and is unconfirmed, such accusations against Moscow are not rare, and events appear to be following familiar patterns.
Russian security services are suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, as well as attacks in Bulgaria and Berlin, amid a wave of alleged assassinations. Media reports suggest they operate freely in hot spots like Ukraine. The 2018 poisoning in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal provoked the deportation of over 100 Russian diplomats across the globe.
Babis sent three packing from Prague, reportedly provoking fury from Zeman. The president also lobbied unsuccessfully the same year against the extradition of Russian hacker Yevgeny Nikulin to the US.
This evident fragility of Zeman’s alternative foreign policy perhaps raises concern in Russia over the mayoral efforts to pull the Czech Republic back towards the West. At the same time, Moscow is especially sensitive over monuments linked to the events of World War II.
As it has flexed its geopolitical muscles in recent years, Russia has regularly complained of efforts to “rewrite history”, amid a struggle for the politics of memory. Moscow is keen to mark its role as a liberator of Central and Eastern Europe but downplays the oppression that followed.
Poland, for instance, continues to fight assertions from President Putin that it was partly responsible for starting the war. Kolar has been branded a Nazi for taking the “liberator of Prague” from his pedestal, but General Konev also led the bloody put down of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.
Estonia learned in 2007 just how sensitive the Kremlin could be. The government in Tallinn reported a wave of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure after a Russian military statue was moved.
Czech officials say they suspect that Russian hackers are behind a wave of IT attacks on hospitals struggling to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. The attacks sparked unusually specific condemnation from the US, as well as veiled threats of retaliation.
Experts say the pandemic crisis threatens to bring the proxy war in Central Europe bubbling to the surface. Russia has been quick to try to link the Kremlin’s troubles in the Czech Republic to the malign influence of Washington.
“It is obvious that third forces are beginning to engage in our bilateral relations just to spoil them,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on state TV in response to the claims of an assassination plot, adding an accusation that the US has given financial and other support towards Konev’s unseating.