Prague gripped by suspected Russian intrigue

Prague district mayor Ondrej Kolar has long been the target of Russian ire over plans in his neighbourhood to remove a statue of Soviet second world war commander Ivan Konev from one of its squares.

But when the statue was finally removed last month, after a five-year dispute, Mr Kolar and his family faced such severe threats that he was put under police protection. “There is a threat that the police have identified, and that threat is linked directly to Russia,” Mr Kolar told the Financial Times.

It is not the first time: the 36-year-old politician was put under protection last autumn as tensions over the statue’s fate rumbled on, he said in an interview. “Last year I asked [the police] if they could protect me. This time they told me they must.”

Relations between Russia and the countries in central and eastern Europe that it helped liberate in 1945 but then subjugated during the Cold War are never easy. But Mr Kolar’s case comes amid a deterioration in relations between Prague and Moscow that Czech analysts say is the worst in years.

Mr Kolar is not the only Prague politician being watched over by the police after angering Russia. The mayor of the entire city, Zdenek Hrib — who in February oversaw the renaming of the square on which Russia’s embassy is located after murdered Putin-critic Boris Nemtsov — also told the FT last week that he was under protection, although he said he could not divulge why.

Mr Hrib has told police that he had been followed by someone near his apartment in the Czech Republic’s capital. Both he and Mr Kolar declined to elaborate on the threats they were facing.

Notably, they declined to comment on allegations reported by Czech magazine Respekt that a man arrived in Prague three weeks ago with a Russian diplomatic passport and a briefcase containing the powerful poison ricin and was identified by Czech security services as a threat to both Mr Kolar and Mr Hrib.

Russia’s embassy in the Czech Republic said in a statement that it “categorically denies” the allegations made by Respekt, and in a separate statement said no Russian diplomats had arrived in Prague since mid-March.

“These are not just fantasies, but these are sick fantasies,” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry. “This is yet another act of . . . gross provocation on the part of some forces in the Czech Republic that seek to cause damage to Russian-Czech relations at any cost.”

The Kremlin said it was unaware of any investigation into the allegations, adding: “We don’t know who is carrying it out and into what. It looks like another hoax.”

Russian relations with the Czech Republic are a complicated affair. Although Czech president Milos Zeman is well-known for his pro-Russian pronouncements, the Czech domestic intelligence agency BIS has for years warned of rising Russian intelligence activities in the country, and last year said all three of the Kremlin’s spy agencies were active in Prague, adding: “The key Russian goal is to manipulate decision-making processes and the individuals responsible for the decision-making.”

The statue of Soviet general Ivan Konev is taken down from its plinth in Prague © REUTERS

Some local observers suspect the purported “man with ricin” was not so much part of a serious assassination plan as a calculated piece of intimidation meant to be noticed. Russia has shown little compunction in targeting its own citizens abroad, such as Aleksandr Litvinenko or Sergei Skripal in the UK. Both attacks on British soil, denied by the Kremlin, have remained diplomatic thorns between London and Moscow. But Russia is not known to have targeted European politicians, says Jakub Janda, from the Prague-based European Values centre for security policy.

The threats against the Czech mayors should be seen in the context of a broader spectrum of Russian anger that has flared along with the spat over the statue, said Jan Sir, from the department of Russian and eastern European studies at Charles University in Prague.

Last year, former Moscow culture minister Vladimir Medinski called Mr Kolar a “Gauleiter” — a Nazi official — and Russian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the removal of the statue of Gen Konev.

Last month, Russian protesters were able to target the Czech embassy in Moscow and its consulate in St Petersburg with smoke bombs. And two weeks ago, Czech infrastructure, including hospitals and Prague airport, were the target of cyber attacks that Mr Sir said echoed a massive Russian cyber offensive against Estonia after the removal of a Soviet war memorial in 2007.

Ondrej Kolar, mayor of the Prague 6, at a district assembly meeting © Ondrej Deml/CTK Photo/Alamy

Czech observers say the Russian reaction was so fierce because the Kremlin’s promotion of Russian sacrifice during the second world war, and the Red Army’s role in liberating Europe from the Nazis, is both central to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to rally domestic support, and also a key tool in its relations with central and eastern European states.

“What derives from this narrative is that we should somehow be thankful to them — not to those who fell here, but to Mr Putin and Mr Putin’s Russia, and this is part of their psy-ops, using historical narratives for their foreign policy goals vis-à-vis other countries,” said Mr Sir.

Given the importance of the second world war to the Kremlin’s worldview, Mr Sir said he did not rule out a further escalation of Russian activity.

Mr Hrib said that he had no intention of letting himself be cowed. “For me it’s very important to stand by my beliefs, even though it could mean risks to my safety, because the Czech Republic is a democratic country, and I have a duty as an elected politician to defend the freedom of speech,” he said. “Not just for myself, but also for other citizens.”