The deterioration in Czech-Russian relations reached a nadir this week as Prague ordered scores of Russian ‘diplomats’ to leave.

Starting a new job is always stressful – it always takes a few weeks to get your feet under the table. Much sympathy must go to Jakub Kulhanek then, who was appointed as Czechia’s new foreign minister on April 21 in the middle of a full-scale diplomatic war with Russia.

Czech-Russian relations nosedived this week following revelations that the same Russian cathedral-enthusiasts who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018 were in all likelihood behind the explosion of a munitions depot in Vrbetice four years earlier. The story, as Prague tells it, resembles a cold-war spy film: Russian secret agents, Bulgarian arms dealers and the war in Ukraine were all apparently in play seven years ago in the Moravian forest.

The diplomatic war kicked off when Russia, in response to the expulsion of 18 of its ‘diplomats’ whom Prague had identified as spies, ejected 20 Czech diplomats from Moscow, leaving just five in place and the embassy all but paralysed.

Give the new man Kulhanek his due, he was swift to take a firm grip. Just hours into his tenure, he handed Moscow an ultimatum: let the expelled Czech diplomats return or the oversized Russian embassy in Prague would have its staff reduced to the same level. “The number of employees in both embassies is unbalanced,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis explained on Thursday.

Russia, which claims the Czechs are mere puppets in a US plot, responded with the same kind of attitude it has employed from the start. Going for the Bond-villain look, Moscow warned that ultimatums are unacceptable when dealing with Russia and “the Czech side must understand what awaits it”.

However, an actual response to Prague’s call for its diplomats to be readmitted was never received, Babis said. Three hours after the deadline of noon on April 22, Kulhanek announced that around 60 diplomatic staff would be expelled by the end of May, unless Russia changes its tune.

Despite its rhetoric, Moscow has a lot to lose. It has invested much time and money over recent years seeking to raise its leverage in Czechia with the help of the wily president, Milos Zeman, whose spokesman, parroting the Kremlin line, claimed that the political parties calling for a stern response represent “the voice of war”. However, the Vrbetice revelations have exploded Zeman’s schemes in one big fiery blast.

The Czech government has already announced that Russia will not play any part in building new nuclear reactors, a key economic and geopolitical aim which Zeman has spent years trying to arrange. The head of state’s bid to aid Moscow’s vaccine diplomacy with an order of Sputnik V has also been stomped upon.

Kulhanek’s ultimatum is another palpable threat. Czech security services have long seen the giant Russian embassy as a significant risk, and a base for Moscow’s intelligence activities throughout Europe.

Prague has been trying for years to persuade Moscow to reduce its embassy staff. Before the expulsions, over 130 were stuffed into the villa sitting on Prague 6’s Boris Nemtsov Square, far more than the Russian representation in either London or Berlin.

Despite taking on Russia over the evidence that its intelligence agencies are increasingly ready to run sabotage and assassination operations across Europe, there is disappointment in some quarters over the level of support the Czechs have received from its western partners.

Warm words of support have been forthcoming, of course. The EU’s “concern” has no doubt been hotly discussed in the Kremlin. A spokesperson for the US State Department said that NATO and the EU face a “crucial test” of diplomacy. Russia must face “costs for… actions that cross boundaries respected by responsible nations,” it added.

But, unlike the situation in 2018, when allies of the UK – including the Czechs – expelled over a hundred Russian ‘diplomats’, apart from Slovakia there have been no coordinated expulsions or sanctions in support of Prague.

Many suspect that Czechia has been less active in seeking support than the UK was, especially given it had no full-time foreign minister in place when the crisis blew up.

Might that change with Kulhanek’s arrival? He has reportedly asked NATO allies to summon Russian ambassadors and provide for practical assistance in keeping Czech diplomacy functioning in Moscow.

He also expressed confidence that Russia won’t expel any more Czech diplomats. “Russia has said it is moving to strict parity in terms of the number of workers, so the number should be the same,” he said, adding that the numbers at the embassies will be the same – seven diplomats and about 25 administrative and technical staff.

At the same time, Czechia’s NATO partners are trying to keep pace with several other developing tensions with Russia. Concern is high over Moscow’s military buildup on the border of Ukraine, while the health of opposition leader Alexei Navalny is being closely monitored.

The scheduling of a visit to Moscow by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday, who together with Russia’s FSB claimed over the weekend that the US tried to assassinate him, looks to be not a coincidence but part of a concerted effort by Russia to test how well its long hybrid war has stretched the unity of the West.

Regional support, to one degree or another
Words of support from Czechia’s Visegrad Four (V4) allies – ranging from tepid to fulsome – came on the heels of the revelations, though only Slovakia has so far expelled any Russian diplomats in response.

On April 19, the Visegrad Group of countries issued a joint statement of solidarity with the Czech Republic: “We, the Foreign Ministers of the Visegrad Group, condemn all activities aimed at threatening the security of sovereign states and its citizens… The Foreign Ministers of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary express solidarity with recent steps taken by our close partner, ally and neighbour, Czechia.”

It was notable, however, that the statement failed to mention Russia by name. That was though to be at the behest of Hungary, which has been at pains to react to the diplomatic row in a manner that does not undermine its V4 allegiance, but avoids explicit criticism of Moscow.

Hungary signed the V4 solidarity statement, but this was only made public by the Polish foreign minister. Rather, Hungary’s chief diplomat, Peter Szijjarto, dedicated a single sentence to the unprecedented row and mutual expulsion of dozens of diplomats in a long Facebook video and, unlike his V4 counterparts, carefully avoided naming Russia as the culprit. “We are in solidarity with our V4 allies due to the well-known events during the weekend,” Szijjarto said.

In the same eight-minute video, Szijjarto talked at length about how Ukraine is breaching the rights of the Hungarian minority and how effectively Hungary is defending the rights of Christians around the world.

Attempts by Hungary to continue playing down the issue could get trickier, however, as it seems that two of the agents alleged responsible for the explosion travelled to Ostrava directly from Hungary, leaving the question of whether Hungarian counter-intelligence had any knowledge of them.

Hungary’s position in Russia’s spying activities in the EU is even more sensitive after the headquarters of the dubious International Investment Bank – a Soviet-era institution breathed into new life by Russia – were moved from Moscow to Budapest, where its top-level staff enjoy diplomatic immunity. The institution is accused of being a Trojan horse for Russian intelligence operations.

The strongest support has come from Slovakia. On Thursday, Prime Minister Eduard Heger together with Foreign Affairs Minister Ivan Korcok and Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad announced Slovakia would expel three Russian diplomats. They have seven days to leave the country.

“This decision was made based on the evaluation of the activities, but it is also an expression of solidarity with the Czech Republic,“ Korcok told the media, the Slovak Spectator reported.

Korcok said that the recent developments “confirm the long-term findings of our intelligence services that our countries are the target of operations aimed against their security and stability.”

On Tuesday, Heger called an impromptu meeting of the country’s security council, where he received information from the intelligence services about potential threats from Russia. In a follow-up press conference, he refused to specify any details of this briefing.

Defence Minister Nad was also crystal clear in his reaction, signalling his support of expelling “Russian agents with diplomatic cover” in an interview with Dennik N. He said the two Russian agents compromised in Czechia “operated across the whole of Europe and it would be a surprise if they weren’t in Slovakia, too.”

Last year, Nad told the Czech weekly Respekt that the activity of Russian espionage under the cover of diplomatic status had reached similar levels in both Slovakia and Czechia. “The Russians are very active and use many innovative elements. They have all kinds of new specialists within the embassy’s structure, who give the impression of taking care of the graves of fallen Soviet soldiers. But, in reality, they are on completely different and wide-ranging missions in the whole NATO area.”

When asked whether Czech estimates of a third of Russian ‘diplomats’ were, in fact, operating as spies, Nad said he did not see a reason “why it would be any different in Slovakia”.

Last August, three Russian ‘diplomats’ were expelled from Slovakia on the back of the Slovak Information Service’s 2019 annual report, which confirmed the presence of Russian agents operating under diplomatic cover in the country, where their job is to “infiltrate central organs of the state administration and security forces and seek collaborators,” the report stated.

Russia is interested in Slovakia’s nuclear energy, weapons technology, structure of its security services and even its politicians, Vladimir Pcolinsky, the former head of the Slovak Information Service, who now stands accused of corruption and has been remanded in custody, told Dennik N in November. He claimed it was mostly opposition MPs who cultivated closer ties with Russia.

Likewise, Poland was quick to support the Czech response to Russia’s belligerence. “The solidarity of allies and quick action makes us stronger. Poland fully supports the decision of the Czech Republic to expel the Russian diplomats who were involved in the explosion at the weapons factory in 2014,” the Polish Foreign Ministry said in a statement on April 18.

Several days before, on April 15, Poland expelled three Russian ‘diplomats’ following the imposition of further sanctions on Russia by the US in retaliation for election interference and cyberattacks. “Based on the findings of the Internal Security Agency, the results show that these individuals have ongoing contacts with the special services of the Russian Federation, hence their continued presence on the territory of Poland is linked to a real threat to the interests of the Polish Republic,” Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesperson for the minister coordinating special services, said last week.

The next day, Russia announced the expulsion of five Polish diplomats from Moscow in response.

Poland questions EU treaties; the trials of an independent judge
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki this week asked the Constitutional Tribunal, controlled by the governing Law and Justice (PiS), to assess the constitutionality of several provisions in EU treaties. Among them is Article 19 of the Treaty on the European Union, which asks member states to ensure the right to a fair trial in areas covered by EU legislation.

Over the last few years, rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) have chipped away at PiS reforms of the justice system, which were designed to put it under the control of the governing party. One of the main arguments deployed by the CJEU is that Polish courts are European, therefore obliged by EU treaties to be independent and fair in areas covered by EU legislation. Morawiecki and his government, on the other hand, argue member states have full sovereignty when it comes to organising their justice systems.

By challenging certain articles of the EU treaties before the Constitutional Tribunal, Morawiecki is seeking to counterbalance the CJEU rulings. The result expected by PiS from the Tribunal is it will strike down any obligation of Polish courts to have their independence influenced by EU legislation or CJEU rulings.

Commenting for Gazeta Wyborcza, Marcin Taborowski, an expert in international law, said what is on trial here is the whole rule-of-law principle. “If Poland does not adhere to rule-of-law principles, this will have an effect on the whole of the EU – the European system of legal defence will no longer work.”

In other judicial news, there was a surprising ruling announced late Thursday night as the PiS-created Disciplinary Chamber at the Polish Supreme Court decided that Judge Igor Tuleya, one of the main faces of the battle for the independence of the judiciary in the country, should not be arrested and forced to show up to be interrogated by prosecutors in relation to charges related to a ruling he made in 2017.

Tuleya himself had said he was expecting a verdict in favour of his arrest given the nobbling of the courts by PiS, but the court surprisingly ruled in the opposite way. The prosecution, controlled by hardline Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, can still appeal. The charges he faces come with a potential prison sentence of up to three years.

Tuleya, who argues that the charges against him are politically motivated (his 2017 ruling was inconvenient for PiS), is at the centre of Poland’s battle for the independence of the judiciary. With PiS taking over or creating new judicial bodies, independent judges like Tuleya have been refusing to acknowledge their authority, while asking for the CJEU to rule that their independence should be protected. This has led to a conflict over the rule of law between Brussels and Warsaw, which is casting a shadow over the future of EU fund allocations to the country.

Hungary retreats on NGO and CEU laws; a gift for Babis’s Agrofert
The Hungarian government decided to amend two pieces of legislation this week after both were found to breach EU law. Hungary was apparently not in much of a hurry to remedy the situation, however, since both decisions were handed down by the CJEU last year.

Making progress on the issue, however, is not accidental. As experts underline, Orban needs to show some goodwill towards the EU as he faces an uphill struggle to get his hands on the Hungarian chunk of the 750-billion-euro coronavirus recovery fund as soon as possible. Should there be any major delays – perhaps due to problems over his government’s flagrant disregard for the rule of law – his re-election campaign could run into difficulties.

The infamous NGO legislation – a 2017 law reminiscent of that found in Russia which requires civil society organisations to disclose foreign donors – was revoked by the government on Wednesday. However, a new law would enable the National Audit Office to conduct investigations into any foundation with a balance sheet exceeding 20 million forints (55,000 euros).

But as the Civil Liberties Union of Hungary (TASZ) points out, the National Audit Office was established with the mission of safeguarding public assets and public money, not the revenues of NGOs. And it deems the new law to be entirely superfluous, as civil society organisations already publish their finances in a transparent manner.

The government is also amending the so-called Lex CEU, which was drawn up to force out the George Soros-funded Central European University, which subsequently decamped to Vienna. This follows a ruling by the CJEU in October that found the law violated European law. But it comes too late to save the university’s core activities in Hungary.

“We believe the government has no intention of creating the conditions in which international institutions like CEU can operate freely in Hungary,” the university said in a statement.

“Under the new draft legislation, it remains a political decision – certain to be taken at the highest level – whether to allow foreign universities to operate in Hungary. The government has already made it perfectly clear how it proposes to use its powers. It threw out an institution that abides by international standards of academic freedom and has invited instead a university which obeys the ultimate authority of the Chinese Communist Party,” it said, referring to the decision by the government to invite Shanghai-based Fudan University to establish a campus in Budapest.

Perhaps as a form of personal compensation to the Czech prime minister for the government’s tepid support for the difficult position Babis finds himself in vis-à-vis the Russians, the Hungarian government granted a 1.7-billion-forint non-returnable grant to one of Babis’s agricultural investments in Hungary, the sunflower producer NT based in Kiskunfelegyhaza.

Some might take it as a “goodwill gesture” from one premier to another, but experts say it is in line with the government’s business promotion strategy. Although Babis officially put his assets into a blind trust upon entering government, his company Agrofert is an important player in Hungarian agriculture and it is not rare for the Hungarian government to subsidise those seen vital to employment, especially in the countryside.

Slovakia’s new court gets its first chair
Slovakia’s newly established Supreme Administrative Court, where the first gavel is due to be banged in August, got its first chairman on Tuesday in the person of Pavol Nad, a regional judge from the eastern metropolis of Kosice who was elected by all voting members.

If confirmed by President Zuzana Caputova, Nad will preside over a court which will be responsible for disciplinary proceedings against judges and prosecutors and, to a certain extent, other legal professions – very relevant given the widespread corruption recently uncovered in the criminal justice system. It will also pass decisions on the constitutionality and legitimacy of elections to local government bodies.

Announced late last year after extensive discussions by Justice Minister Maria Kolikova, the court was boycotted by prospective judge candidates who were aggrieved by alleged discrimination in the selection process that allowed for lawyers to apply under the same conditions. With 29 available seats, most of which Kolikova hoped to fill with Supreme Court justices, selection was envisaged as a hotly-contested affair. Instead, only four candidates applied in the first round, throwing the court’s entire existence into doubt, public broadcaster RTVS explained.

The tide eventually turned in favour of Kolikova and her pet project, with more candidates vying for the vacancies and the first round of selection taking place in early April. More justices are expected to take their seats in the new court after the confirmation of Nad, its inaugural chair.

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