Friction over the NGO banned by the Kremlin and a monument, disputed by the Russians, which should be erected in Prague
Regarding the EU, the issue of migrants and quotas remains. The Czech government also says no to 40 unaccompanied minors stationed in Greece
A year-end with many irons in the fire regarding the Czech Republic’s foreign policy. After the friction with their powerful Chinese partner, which has caused quite a few diplomatic clashes between Prague and Beijing in recent months, the final weeks of 2019 were characterized by verbal crossfire with Russia on several issues. The two-faced Janus, representing the relations between Czechia and Moscow, in which on one hand there is the support for Russia led by President Miloš Zeman and formed largely by sovereigns and communists, is however contrasted by the Babiš government and the Prague city administration.
Three of the sensitive topics are the alleged Russian espionage networks in the Czech Republic, the ostracism of the Czech humanitarian NGO Človek v tisni (People in Need) by the Russian authorities and the planned monument in honor of Andrej Vlasov’s Liberation Army in the Prague district of Řeporyje.
Around this whirlwind of tensions, Prague’s stance on migrants remains unchanged and the no is ostentatiously extended also to unaccompanied minors temporarily held in Greece. Meanwhile, tensions are rising with Brussels over the verdicts and risks of the report on the conflict of interest of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.
Exactly one year after the high-level alarm launched by the BIS, the counter-espionage service of the Czech Republic, about the presence of a dense and very active network of Russian spies in Prague and on the Czech territory, it was the same counter intelligence organ that returned to the subject and revived the controversy. The head of the BIS, Michal Koudelka, in fact, reawakened the alert in his annual report. In 2018, the threat was described as tangible and potentially very dangerous, with a cyber-attack from Russia suffered by the Czech Foreign Ministry and a warning to Czech politicians to pay attention to contact with members of the Russian diplomatic mission in Prague, because from the ambassador to the last of the drivers, everyone potentially can be secret agents, the BIS stressed.
Koudelka went further this year, bringing new evidence from that network and adding that in the Czech Republic all agencies of the Russian 007s are active and operate not only to steal secrets but also to spread misinformation and fake news. Statements that enraged the Russian embassy in Prague which declared it “had nothing to do with any networks of agents”, and the Russian press who repeatedly spoke of “anti-Russian hysteria”, accusing the BIS of being at the service of the American CIA. Cold War stuff almost, from the Iron Curtain was still there, if it were not for the fact that more than 30 years have passed now.
But this was not only the hiccup in relations between Prague and Moscow, on the contrary, perhaps the spy story was the one best managed from a diplomatic point of view, with the unconditional support of President Zeman to Moscow and the refusal, once again of Koudelka’s promotion to general. The real problems proved to be two other unresolved issues: NGOs and the strictly political-historical-cultural one of the Second World War.
Regarding the first point, the reaction of opposition of the Czech government towards Moscow was clear: the Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, who considered the Russian motivations “absurd”, summoned Alexander Zmeyevsky the Kremlin Ambassador to Prague after Russian authorities banned the Czech NGO Človek v tisni, placing it on a list of “unwelcome” organizations, a condition that could expose activists to the risk of fines and prison sentences.
Another prickly issue which has developed is the Prague district of Řeporyje, of just over two thousand inhabitants, on the extreme western outskirts of the Czech capital. At the head of this tiny district is Mayor Pavel Novotný, an eccentric ex-tabloid journalist, belonging to the conservative ODS party, who came up with the idea of building a monument in Řeporyje in honor of the Liberation Army of Andrej Vlasov. The latter was a Soviet general, who once captured by the Germans, became a collaborator of Nazi Germany. Towards the end of the Second World War, in May 1945, in the hope of escaping Stalinist justice, Vlasov and his troops took part in the Prague uprising and the liberation of the city from the by then defeated Germans. After the end of the conflict, the Americans surrendered Vlasov to the Soviets who tried him for desertion and hanged him in 1946 in Moscow. The Vlasov monument plan caused the Russian Embassy to lose patience and they protested vigorously. The number one in the press department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Vladimirovna Zakharova, called the initiative “absolutely repugnant and a reincarnation of Nazism”. However, neither Řeporyje nor Mayor Novotný showed any sign of turning back and plans to inaugurate the monument on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Novotný has announced that there is nothing to discuss. He took a pen and paper and directly addressed Vladimir Putin, whilst defining Russia as “a symbol of occupying power, lies and lack of respect for human rights”.
The same “occupying power”, on closer inspection, that Prime Minister Babiš condemned on his recent visit to Ukraine. In late November, during the mission to Kiev, the head of the Czech government expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, explicitly condemning “the Russian aggression and annexation of Crimea”.
In the same period Prague was able to experience the irritation of Moscow first hand when the mission of Czech Agricultural Minister Miroslav Toman to Russia ended prematurely because local authorities did not allow the delegation to fly from Moscow to Kazan. The attitude of the Russian authorities is worrying, Toman later said, “and raises doubts about Russia’s actual interest in mutual collaboration between our countries”.
Meanwhile Andrej Babiš continues his arm wrestling with the EU. If on the one hand the Czech Prime Minister has said yes to the new commitments of the Green Deal of the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen, stressing that in Prague the green transition and the “coal neutrality” by 2050 will cost 675 billion crowns (“an astronomical figure and we want the EU to take this into account”), on the other there has been no shortage of clashes with Brussels. One of these (in addition to migrants, which will be discussed below) is the Czech conflict of interest law. Babiš reiterated that it is not the responsibility of the EU to interpret this law and its specific case, namely the European subsidies to its Agrofert company transferred to two trust funds in 2017. Finance Minister Alena Schillerová, loyal to the Prime Minister, has made it known that the Czech Republic will use all the means in its possession to defend itself in the EU after the Commission explained that it has reached its conclusions on the matter and made it known that the condemnation of Babiš’s behavior had not changed. Prague has two months to communicate how it intends to adapt to the indications contained in the EU final conclusions, meaning the penalty of having European funds cut.
The Czech Republic has not changed its position on this issue, much like the entire Visegrad group. Babiš and his deputy prime minister, and interior minister, Jan Hamáček (social democrat) reiterated that Prague continues to reject any scenario of the distribution of migrants and does not agree with any proposal for mandatory quotas from the EU. Furthermore, even if they accepted to welcome 40 unaccompanied minors who are in refugee camps in Greece, the general intention on the subject would not change. In any case, the Czech Republic “must devote itself to helping Czech children”, said Babiš, when addressing his electorate.
Little willingness seems to be perceivable also from Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, social democrat, generally considered the “dove” of the Czech government. The head of diplomacy, when speaking of the minors who Athens asks to be welcomed, in fact underlined, as if to underline the lack of communication on the topic, that the Greek authorities “have never said who exactly these minors are, which countries they come from, what documents they have and whether by chance they have parents in Germany”.
A myriad of comments, which even in this very particular case, leave very few glimmers of hope of the possibility that Prague will ever choose the path of hospitality.
by Daniela Mogavero