Last week, three Czech politicians, including Prague’s mayor, were put under police protection due to an alleged plot to assassinate them using poison. The plot was reported by Czech newspaper Respekt in an article dated 26 April. The article claimed a man carrying Russian diplomatic papers had arrived in the Czech Republic with a briefcase filled with ricin, a deadly poison. Czech security forces evaluated the man as being a threat and immediately put his possible targets under police protection. These targets included Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, Prague 6 District Mayor Ondřej Kolář, and Reporyje Mayor Pavel Novotný.
According to Respekt and The Moscow Times, each was supposedly targeted for separate reasons: Hřib for renaming the square in front of the Russian Embassy after Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Kolář for removing a statue of Soviet General Ivan Konev from Dejvice (a town in Prague 6), and Novotný for proposing a memorial to Russian troops who broke Soviet lines to fight with then against Nazi Germany during World War II. According to The Guardian, Czech officials have not confirmed the report and Russian officials have denied it. US News claims that Respekt’s story was based on reports from anonymous sources. This is an ongoing situation.
In an interview with Echo of Moscow, a Russian radio station, Hřib confirmed a threat against him but did not provide any further details: “The police protection was simply given to me by the Czech police. By their decision, I am not able to comment on the reasons.” In an interview with Prima TV, Kolář explained, “I can really only tell you that I have been given police protection. It was provided to me on the basis of certain realities … that there is Russian man here whose task is to liquidate me”. After confirming he was put under police protection, Novotný did not elaborate on his situation any further.
In a televised news conference, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis explained that he would not allow foreign interference in Czech politics: “It is impossible – if true – for some foreign country to take some actions here against our citizens.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the report’s claims, calling it “a fake”: “It looks like another hoax… We don’t know anything at all about this investigation,” he said on Monday. “We don’t know who did the investigation. It looks like yet another canard.”
According to both The Guardian and the BBC, neither Czech nor Russian authorities have confirmed the authenticity of Respekt’s report. Russia has denied the claims, as explained by Peskov. According to a BBC article dated 3 May, Czech authorities claimed that Respekt’s report was “grounded in factual information,” although authorities have yet to confirm the report. Independent news sources like Reuters have also been unable to confirm the authenticity of Respekt’s claims. The Czech counter-intelligence agency BIS, the Czech police, and the Russian embassy all did not respond to Reuters’ questions regarding the situation. According to the BBC, the assassination of any of Prague’s mayors would be “counter-productive,” as such a drastic action is nearly tantamount to war. But given the uncertainty surrounding the details of the situation, no conclusions or inferences can be made with confidence.
The report of the poisoning plot comes after all three mayors undertook actions that were described as controversial. On 24 February, Mayor Hřib renamed the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague to honour Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Nemtsov was an opposition party leader shot in 2015 and killed outside the Kremlin. This drew public criticism from Russia’s government. On 3 April, a statue of Soviet General Ivan Konev was removed from its pedestal in Mayor Kolář’s district in Prague. Konev commanded Soviet forces during the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and helped end the Prague Spring in 1968. Russia viewed the action as insulting and threatened legal action against the Czech Republic for removing Konev’s statue, according to The Guardian – which adds that Russia views Konev as a war hero whereas Czechs view him as a symbol of Soviet oppression. In late 2019, Mayor Novotný proposed a memorial to the Russian Liberation Army troops that helped fight Nazi troops during the Prague Uprising in 1945. The Russian Liberation Army was comprised of Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Soviet Russians drafted in the final years of the war to fight on the German side. These troops then switched allegiances and fought against Nazi troops to liberate Prague from Nazi rule in 1945. The proposed memorial was viewed as a provocation by Russia, since the historical legacy of those troops is a subject of debate.
Reuters reports that the authenticity of Respekt’s assertions is still up in the air. Neither Russian nor Czech authorities have confirmed any details of the report. If this turns out to be the plot of an individual working alone, then it is likely to have little lasting importance in international affairs. However, as the BBC points out, the assassination of world leaders at the behest of another government is grounds for war. Given the paucity of reliable information, it is difficult to make any sweeping conclusions in this case. However, whether government-backed or not, the events themselves do speak to the suppression of opinion that is increasingly evident in modern society and the violence it begets.