In a quid pro quo move, Russia on Monday ordered two diplomats from the Czech Republic to leave the country, days after Prague expelled two Russian diplomats over a fabricated story about a plan to ‘poison’ Czech politicians.
Calling the move a “mirror measure in response to Prague’s provocative action”, the Russian foreign ministry declared the two Czech embassy employees personae non-gratae, ordering them to leave Russian territory with their family members.
An alleged “poisoning plot”
In late April, the Czech magazine ‘Respekt’ reported that the Czech intelligence agency had learnt of an alleged plot to assassinate the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, and the mayor of Prague 6 district, Ondrej Kolar, for ‘angering Russia’.
The report said a ‘Russian intelligence officer’ had arrived in Prague on a diplomatic passport, carrying the potent toxin ricin in his luggage. At the time, Czech authorities refused to confirm or deny the report, and provided Kolar, Hrib, and the mayor of another Prague district with police protection. Then on June 5, the Czech government said the report in Respekt was fake, and the made-up murder plot was fed to Czech intelligence by a Russian diplomat who was at loggerheads with another embassy colleague.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that two Russian diplomats had been declared personae non-gratae, and were given 48 hours to leave the country. “We have an interest in having good relations with all countries, but we’re a sovereign state and such actions on our territory are unacceptable,” Babis said.
Hitting back, Russia called the order a “fabricated provocation”, and warned of an “adequate response”.
For months, relations between Russia and the Czech Republic have been strained. In April, the Russian foreign ministry was furious after Kolar ordered the removal of a statue of Ivan Konev – a Soviet military hero credited for liberating Prague from Nazi Germany during World War II, but who is criticised for his role in crushing the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against Moscow.
In February, Moscow was irked after the square outside its embassy in Prague was renamed after the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in Moscow in 2015. Prague mayor Hrib had unveiled the new plaque. There had also been calls to build a memorial to the Russian Liberation Army, which fought against the Soviet Union during World War II.
Why the poisoning threat caused worry
While under police protection at an undisclosed location, Kolar said in an interview with the BBC that he believed in the threat to his life, giving the example of the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who was administered a nerve agent in the UK in 2018.
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The Skripal incident had sparked a furore in the UK, causing London and its allies to expel over 150 Russian diplomats – the worst fallout between the two countries since the Cold War. In Europe as well, Russian intelligence operatives have been accused of killing defecting agents.
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