It began with the dismantling of a statue of a Russian World War II hero and the renaming of a Prague square. Now three of the Czech capital's mayors are under police protection, fearing they are the targets of a Russian assassin carrying a deadly toxin, and Russian-Czech relations are in crisis.
“There’s a Russian here whose goal is to liquidate me,” Prague 6 district mayor Ondrej Kolar said recently in a television interview from a secret hideout.
In the week in which the Allies mark the 75th anniversary of victory over the Nazis in Europe, relations between Prague and Moscow are taking a turn for the worse amid what the Czechs see as Russia’s growing assertiveness over its interpretation of history.
At the center of the dispute is last month's removal from Kolar’s district of a statue of Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev, whose armies completed Prague’s liberation on May 9, 1945. The district said the statue would be moved to a museum and a new monument honoring the city's liberation would take its place.
The statue’s removal caused outrage in Russia, which has angrily lashed out at any attempts to diminish the nation’s decisive role in defeating the Nazis.
The Soviet Union had the most casualties in World War II, but its occupation or liberation of territory resulted in the ensuing decades of Moscow-backed Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov charged last week that the Prague authorities’ action violated a 1993 friendship treaty that included a Czech pledge to protect memorials to Russian World War II heroes.
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“That undermined agreements that have been the bedrock of our relations for the past 30 years,” Lavrov said.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in April that made damaging war memorials a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison, Russia’s top criminal investigation body launched an investigation into the dismantling of the Konev statue. The Czech Foreign Ministry called the move unacceptable.
The statue of Konev has long been a source of friction between Russian and the Czech Republic. In 2018, Czech authorities unveiled a new explanatory text on the monument. It described Konev’s leading role in crushing the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, his contribution to the construction of the Berlin Wall and the preparation of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring.
The country was subsequently taken over by a hard-line Communist regime fully loyal to Moscow that was only ousted by the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution.
With tensions spiraling, the investigative Respekt weekly reported last week that Czech intelligence services suspect that a Russian who arrived in Prague with a diplomatic passport three weeks ago and was driven to the Russian embassy was sent to poison Kolar and Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib with ricin, a highly potent toxin.
The story was based on anonymous sources. The Foreign Ministry only confirmed that a Russian diplomat arrived in Prague in March.
The Russian embassy sent a protest note to the Czech Foreign Ministry, calling the allegations baseless and designed to discredit Russia. The ministry responded that it was inappropriate for a foreign state to question basic rights such as freedom of the press.
Kolar said he is now receiving police protection, along with Hrib and the mayor of Prague's Reporyje district, Pavel Novotny.
Novotny had provoked Moscow's ire for his plans to build a monument to the soldiers of Gen. Andrei Vlasov’s army. Over 300 of them died when they helped the Czech uprising against Nazi rule and contributed to Prague’s liberation. Their role is controversial for Russia, however, because they previously fought against the Red Army alongside Nazi troops.
“The Russians still are unable to face their own history,” Novotny told The Associated Press.
In a separate move condemned by Russia, in February Prague renamed a square in front of the Russian Embassy after Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was slain in Moscow in 2015.
Lavrov ridiculed the claims of an assassin in Prague, saying that it made no sense that the Czech authorities would have identified a man carrying ricin and let him through.
In the Czech parliament, the security committee of the upper house, the Senate, called the Russian moves “an unprecedented attack on the (Czech) state's sovereignty” and asked the government to react accordingly, including by presenting a plan to reduce the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy who are suspected of spying activities.
Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said the Czechs sent the Russian side a note, asking for consultations over their disputes, the first such request based on the 1993 Czech-Russian treaty.
“Please, give diplomacy a chance,” Petricek told lawmakers in Parliament’s lower house.
“There’s no surprise that our long-term relations with the Russian Federation don’t flourish,” Petricek said, citing Russian actions against Ukraine among other issues. The Czech and Russian foreign ministers have not met since 2005.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said last week that Russia doesn’t want tension between the countries, and Russia's diplomats are “doing everything to not let that happen.”
“We believe these relations should develop with mutual respect, and there have always been grounds for it. It’s a big question why we are now seeing a whole chain of actions that say otherwise,” Zakharova said.
Gen. Petr Pavel, the Czech former head of NATO’s Military Committee, told The Associated Press that the Czech Republic is no longer a Russian satellite and its government should respond resolutely, using its membership in international organizations like NATO and the EU to make sure its voice is heard.
“In the long term, Russia only respects power, and they keep it as no secret that respect means to fear them. We don’t want to frighten Russia but we want them to take us seriously and that will happen only we if we have enough strength and power," he said.