Czech politicians and the public are in a state of shock. Just over a week ago, news broke that Russian agents were responsible for two devastating explosions at an ammunition depot in the southeast of the country in the fall of 2014. The government and the opposition have been speaking of “state terrorism” and an “attack by Russia on a sovereign state.” Memories of the 1968 Soviet invasion have been awakened.
President Milos Zeman’s reaction came as the next shock. After eight days of silence, Zeman gave a televised address on Sunday, saying he had not yet seen any evidence that Russia was behind the explosions. The head of state, known to be pro-Putin, warned against “speculation and hysteria” and urged people to wait for the results of the investigation into the blasts.
Russian state media rejoiced; Czech opposition politicians and many a distinguished commentator were horrified. Most of them accused Zeman of following the pattern of Russian disinformation campaigns and taking on the role of Kremlin minion, even though, they said, there was clear evidence Russia was behind the explosions. “This was Zeman’s saddest and most tragic achievement,” wrote journalist Martin Fendrych. “He completed the betrayal of the Czech Republic.”
As a result, the EU member state is likely to sink even deeper into its current foreign and domestic crisis — the most serious in many years. “Zeman may not have fully supported the Russian position, but he still gave Moscow a gift while at the same time pouring oil on the fire in the Czech Republic,” Milan Nic, a political scientist at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told DW. “Reactions to the speech show that Czech society is deeply divided politically — though Zeman has now gone against the majority of the public, which according to polls is critical of Putin’s Russia and wants a shift away from pro-Russian foreign policy positions.”
Zeman is known for his pro-Putin views
A week ago, Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a right-wing liberal populist and billionaire, announced the news of the 2014 Russian attack at a hastily called press conference — and it hit the Czech Republic like a bomb. According to what he said, two agents from the Russian GRU military intelligence agency intended to use the attack to prevent an arms delivery by a private Czech company to Ukraine, which was meant to be handled by a Bulgarian arms dealer. The GRU operatives were the same men presumed to have carried out the 2018 poison attack on Russian ex-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British town of Salisbury.
Babis and the Cabinet’s reactions were confused — after announcing the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats, the prime minister later argued it was “just an attack on a commodity” and one that was not even meant to occur in the Czech Republic but during transport. Faced with indignant reactions, he apologized for his words.
Babis is under fire for an alleged conflict of interest in another affair
Foreign minister does not mince words
Meanwhile, it turns out Babis and a few members of the government have known about Russian involvement in the deadly blast for some time. Perhaps they made the events public to get in before the media did, but now they are suspected of having wanted to keep the scandal quiet or cover it up.
The Czech Republic’s new foreign minister, Jakub Kulhanek, however, made it clear at his inauguration on Wednesday that the Czech Republic would reduce the number of Russian diplomats in the oversized Russian Embassy in Prague to the same number of staff as are in the Czech Embassy in Moscow. As a result, about 70 diplomats and embassy staff will have to leave by the end of May. Russia earlier retaliated by expelling 20 Czech diplomats.
Affront to EU states that show solidarity
The government was less clear on the hotly debated issue of whether Russia’s state-owned Rosatom nuclear energy corporation should participate in the tender for the expansion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant. Contrary to initial reports, the government has not excluded Rosatom from the bidding.
The country’s wavering course, in addition to President Zeman’s remarks, has consequences for Czech foreign policy: They insult Slovakia and the Baltic states, which have expelled Russian diplomats out of solidarity with the Czech Republic. EU-wide solidarity like that with Britain after the Salisbury attack, when almost all EU and NATO members expelled Russian diplomats, is unlikely at the moment. “Zeman’s speech, in particular, could be an excuse for some of the Czech Republic’s allies to do nothing,” said Milan Nic.
Babis’ conflict of interests
On the domestic front, Babis is under intense public pressure because of personal scandals. On Friday, after years of investigations, the European Commission issued a final ruling that the billionaire had a conflict of interest. When he was finance minister in early 2017, Babis had handed over his Agrofert consortium to two trust funds so he could continue to collect EU subsidies.
The prime minister has said he has not had any influence over Agrofert since then, but it seems he will have to pay back the subsidies to the tune of millions of euros. Babis argues he is a victim and posted a video on Twitter: “Audit? Conflict of interest? It’s always the same. Useful to get me out of politics. Share this!”
Is a no-confidence vote on the horizon?
In addition to this, the premier’s government is already teetering ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall. The country’s Communist Party recently pulled its backing for the minority-led coalition government of Babis’ “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” (ANO) and the Social Democrats, making a no-confidence vote that much more likely.
These aren’t exactly the conditions one would hope for if the goal is to hammer out consensus-based foreign policy changes with regard to Russia or to show solidarity with both the EU and NATO.
Czech political scientist Milan Nic believes, however, that it is in the interest of both EU and NATO, and especially of Germany, to position themselves unequivocally on the side of the Czech Republic.
Is Russia just testing the EU?
“The Czech Republic could set a precedent here. Russia is testing just how far it can go with smaller EU and NATO members,” Nic says. Germany, he continues, needs to keep up its solidarity with the government in Prague and would be well-advised to also play a more direct leadership role in the matter.
The political scientist is sure of one thing: “Even if Germany probably won’t expel any diplomats, it still would be good for Berlin to at least show that it is right at the front of the line with regard to solidarity with the Czech Republic and not just warn about further confrontations with Russia. That’s because most of the countries of the western and southwestern EU are now looking to Germany for guidance.”