The pro-Kremlin media joke about reports of a Russian agent with poison who came to kill Czech politicians. They ironise Czech journalists, demand the publication of evidence, label reports about the Russian agent with ricin as "fake news" and almost openly suggest abducting the politicians as a legitimate solution, mentioning the example of Nazi criminals.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the “war of memory” unleashed by Russia against some countries in Central and Eastern Europe did not come to halt.

After the Second World War, these countries were included in the Soviet block, but in the late 1980s, they were done with the communist regime and freely decided to become part of the Western integration project, joining the EU and NATO.

In all Central European countries that became part of the Soviet block after the Second World War, without exception, the interpretation today is that the end of the war in Europe and the defeat of Nazism did not bring them real freedom, but one “brown” undemocratic regime was replaced by another: a “red” one.

In a concise and concentrated form, this interpretation was expressed a few weeks ago in a joint statement by the foreign ministers of Central and Eastern European states, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Today’s Russian leadership does not agree with such an interpretation and shows it at the level of official foreign policy. Today, Russia, as perhaps the only state in the world, is forcing other countries to abide by its interpretation of historical events, and if they do not, it is threatening them and trying to punish them.

The case of Marshal Konev and the “Vlasovtsi”: version 2.0, ricin included

Ivan Konev

It was Russia’s approach that led to the serious Russian-Czech diplomatic conflict that erupted around the statue of Marshal Ivan Konev in early 2020. It was moved by the district council of Prague 6 from Interbrigades Square, where the artefact of socialist realism – built at the expense of the then Czechoslovak state – had been standing since 1981, to the newly created Prague Museum of Twentieth Century Memory.

At about the same time, the mayor of the Prague part Řeporyje, Pavel Novotný proposed installing a memorial plaque dedicated to the soldiers of the collaborationist Russian Liberation Army (known as “Vlasovtsi”), who fell during the liberation of Prague from the Germans in May 1945.

Russia perceived both cases as an attempt to undermine the narrative about the liberating role of the USSR and tried, through diplomatic démarches, to prevent the aforementioned step of the Prague 6 district council – however unsuccessfully. Both cases attracted a lot of attention from the Russian pro-government media, which reported on it in detail and used it to propagate claims that European countries are pushing for a revision of the Second World War and the rehabilitation of fascism.

After the relocation of the statue in Prague 6 and the installation of the plaque in Řeporyje, the case acquired an unexpected and breathtaking gradation. Based on information obtained from the local secret services, the weekly magazine Respekt published an article stating that one of the Russian diplomats, apparently a member of the FSB (his name was later published, Andrei Konchakov, in charge of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Prague), imported a toxic substance (ricin) into the Czech Republic with the intention of using it against three Prague politicians: Ondřej Kolář, the mayor of Prague 6 district, Pavel Novotný, the mayor of Řeporyje and Zdeněk Hřib.

The latter is the mayor of Prague city, who contributed to the renaming of the square, where the embassy of the Russian Federation is located, from “Pod Kaštany [Under Chestnut Trees] Square” to “Boris Nemtsov Square”.

In the case of the use of ricin, the eventual death of all three could allegedly be perceived as a consequence of coronavirus infection, which causes symptoms similar to ricin.

The reaction of the Czech official authorities (including the minister of foreign affairs, the prime minister and the head of the secret service) indicated that it was not a journalistic “duck” (i.e. novinářská kachna or a false story), that the case had its substance and that the published information was taken seriously. This was confirmed by police protection for all three politicians.

This incredible turn of events caused the case of a two-state dispute over the interpretation of the past to come to the level of a security threat posed by one actor to another. And now, they present not only historical contexts (war, fight against Nazism, Stalinism, communism, the events of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia – which in some way were related to the life of Ivan Konev) but also completely different, contemporary contexts.

For example, the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, the attempts to assassinate ex-agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury and businessman Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria (all three cases involved the use of radioactive or chemical warfare agents) and the shooting of Chechen refugee Zelimchan Khangoshvili in Berlin.

In all these cases, the only suspects were Russian men working for the secret services of the Russian Federation (typically for the GRU). In addition, the mysterious deaths of several Russian emigrants who got into disputes with the Kremlin in various European countries have still not been fully, reliably explained and investigated.

Let us try to take a closer look at how the Prague case in its development was presented by Russian pro-government media for Russian domestic audiences. Let us look at how they explain the reasons for its escalation and what further action they recommend to the Russian government to conduct.

Why?

All pro-government media tend to question information published in the Czech press, ironise Czech journalists, demand the publication of evidence, label reports about the Russian agent with ricin as “fake news”, madness, nonsense, and a manifestation of anti-Russian hysteria.

But why did the Czech media even publish this alleged “duck” in the media? Why did the Czech secret services release the information and the police even provided protection to the mentioned persons?

In a comment published by the RIA Novosti agency, Irina Alksnis came to the conclusion that the Czechs were afraid of the punishment that threatens all three Prague politicians as a result of their criminal prosecution by the Russian Committee of Investigation.

According to the commentator, “the answer to this mystery is most likely to be found in the fact that Moscow’s reaction to the demolition of the Konev monument was a surprise for the Czech authorities. If earlier everything was limited to expressing dissatisfaction through diplomatic channels, now the criminal prosecution began unexpectedly. Czechs were taken aback.”

The question may arise: how can the Russian state punish the citizens of a foreign state for a crime committed in that state, using its own criminal law, moreover amended ex-post? The state news agency announces in an almost open form that the Prague trio, which it implicitly compares to Nazi criminals, may be abducted and brought to Russia for trial: “The Czech special services should take much more seriously the possibility of abducting the suspects and hijacking them with the aim of convicting them in the spirit of the Israeli Mossad, which has pursued Nazis around the world for many years. There is a suspicion that this is what the state protection provided to Prague politicians is related to.”

The author claims that they should also be afraid that they will be extradited to Russia by other states if they appear there: “The world is changing very fast: much of what seemed unthinkable a few years ago became a matter of course. The West extradites economic criminals to Russia often enough, and more and more states on the political map of the world are showing sympathy to our country.”

The daily Vzglyad writes in the article “Moscow managed to scare Czech Russophobes without poison” about the panic of Czech politicians who are afraid of criminal prosecution in Russia. Newspaper’s sources in Prague allegedly found out that Hřib, Novotný and Kolář were “really afraid that Russia wants to turn to Interpol and declare all three international criminals. … This is the first time that the illusory threat from Moscow has caused fear among those who openly ridiculed Russia and the Russians.”

The daily proposes to create a “Konev list”, which would contain the names of those “reactive” (i.e. “Russophobic”) actors in Eastern Europe who behave similarly as the mentioned Prague politicians. This “Konev list” is supposed to be modelled on the “Magnitsky list”.

Magnitsky was a tax advisor at the Hermitage Fund, tortured to death in a Russian prison by those responsible for stealing money from the state budget with coverage from the highest posts. It is difficult to say what is more represented by this proposal – cynicism, ridicule or ostentatious mischief.

The same daily also sees a domestic political dimension in this case. According to it, Czech President Miloš Zeman who has long been a friend of Russia and China is allegedly taking a critical stance towards the pro-American head of the BIS, Czech civil secret service, Michal Koudelka. He is said to seek support from CIA chief Gina Haspel at every opportunity and “within a few days, he invented the Russian intelligence network funded by the embassy” – in response to criticism from President Zeman.

The icing on the cake, which the newspaper served to readers, is the comment of the “most qualified expert” on the matter – State Duma member Andrei Lugovoy, whose extradition from Russia has been requested by the United Kingdom since 2007, as it reasonably suspects this former KGB and FSB employee of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Lugovoy has no doubt that both the dismantling of the Konev statue and the Prague “duck” with ricin poison were initiated by the American and British secret services. Political scientist Rostislav Ishchenko sees the American footprint – but of a different nature – in the background of the decision of the Prague authorities. His opinion is published by the RIAFAN agency. According to him, the Czech Republic joined Poland and Ukraine and “strengthens Washington’s position in privatizing the victory in the Second World War by renaming streets with Soviet names and demolishing monuments.”

Political scientist Boris Mezhuyev added another dimension to the interpretation of the escalation of Czech-Russian tension. According to him, the Czech Republic has suffered heavy economic losses as a result of COVID-19, so “Czechs expect that the scandal with Russia and accusations of a possible “assassination” of the mayor will allow them to obtain financial assistance from their senior partners [in the West].”

How to answer?

What should Russia’s reaction be? Political scientist Vadim Truchachev, an author of analytical articles about the Central European countries on the EurAsia Daily online portal, is convinced that the Czech Republic should be punished. He considers the ways how this could be done. He admits that “the Czech case differs from the Polish and Baltic ones in that there is no state order for Russophobia and the war of memories.”

The confirmation of this thesis is to be the current President Miloš Zeman and the former President Václav Klaus. Truchachev also reminds the readers that the Czech Republic is one of Russia’s 20 largest trading partners, where many Russian tourists go and where Russians like to buy real estate and do business. He asks: “How to behave towards a country where Russophobes and Russophiles can be in power at different levels?”

The solution is to introduce the method of “a point-oriented, limited partnership, which can be interrupted if anti-Russian forces come to power and renewed when they are replaced by less hostile forces”. He advises Russia above all to “beat Prague, where such things take place. To beat the goods produced here, and go after their tourism”.

The Politpuzzle.ru server gives similar advice; boycott of goods should be added to the strikes on Czech tourism, following the model of Russia’s response to Latvia’s policy towards Soviet war veterans. This response (boycott of Latvian canned fish) allegedly ruined sprat fish production in Latvia in 2007.

State Duma MP Alexandr Sherin also has a proposal he shared with RIAFAN. The answer is not material but symbolic in nature:

“I do not ask for troops to be sent to the Czech Republic. … However, I think the time has come to emphasise that we are not only Russia but also a successor of the USSR – not verbally but in reality. Everything the Soviet Union did – we should not be ashamed of it and somehow distance ourselves from it. I think the time has come for us to pass a law in which we grant the status of veterans of combat operations to those soldiers who took part in the events in Prague in 1968. And then we will see how the Czechs will feel, what protest notes they will send”.

Political scientist Vladimír Kornilov also proposes a symbolic answer. He would prefer to install the “saved” statue of Konev (or a copy of it, if the Czechs do not give up the original) in Moscow right in front of the Czech embassy building – “for everyone to see”.

 

 

This article is the fifth of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It will also be available in Slovak on Denník N.

Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political scientist and the President of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Slovakia. He has published expert studies on party systems’ development and political aspects of transformation in post-communist societies, illiberal and authoritarian tendencies, populism, nationalism and hybrid threats in various monographs, collections and scholarly journals in Slovakia and other countries.


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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