For the second week in a row, Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev has been the “protagonist” of a conflict between Prague and Moscow. A monument to the marshal, who helped liberate the Czech capital from Nazi troops during World War II, was dismantled in the Czech capital in early April. Whilst he is unequivocally a heroic figure for Russia, most Prague residents perceive him more as a symbol of the occupying communist regime.
The Prague authorities later promised to move the monument to the not yet established Museum of the 20th Century. However, this caused a wave of discontent in Russia. Its Foreign Ministry called the dismantling of the monument to Konev "a blow to Czechia's own history", and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation even opened a criminal case for "looting the symbols of Russia's military glory."
in late April, the Czech media reported on a possible assassination attempt on the mayor of Prague and the head of the capital's district, where a monument to Konev had stood until recently. According to the publication, Prague officials were going to be poisoned by a representative of the Russian secret services – his stay in the country was confirmed by the head of the Czech counterintelligence Michal Koudelka. Because of this, both Prague officials have been under round-the-clock police protection for several weeks now. And the Czech Foreign Ministry has said it plans to tighten security measures for its diplomats in Russia following a scandal over the dismantling of a monument to Konev.
From Russia with Threats
In the midst of quarantine in early April, a "Russian intelligence officer" arrived at Prague's Vaclav Havel International Airport. He was picked up from the airport by a car of the Russian diplomatic corps and taken to the Russian embassy in Prague. The man had a diplomatic passport in the name of a Russian citizen, and possibly a portion of castor oil, which was intended for the heads of the two districts of the Czech capital, Ondřej Kolář and Pavel Novotný, as well as the mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib. This information was first published on April 26 by the Czech newspaper Respekt – and the situation was taken very seriously in the capital.
Two days later, the Czech Institute for Global Threats and Democracy Studies issued a statement saying that the Kremlin "keeps practicing political terrorism by murdering foreign political figures." Kolář, Novotný, and Hřib were provided with round-the-clock security. Some officials say they have received threats from Russia or noticed they were being surveilled.
"Unfortunately, I can't say for sure whether the Russian secret services wanted to poison me with castor oil, ‘Novichok’ or polonium. However, I can say that in early March I appealed to the police because a man was following me near my house. He behaved in an unnatural way and definitely did not look like a person who happened to be in this place by accident," Hřib said.
Daughter of assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov Zhanna Nemtsova (center) and Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib (left) at the renaming ceremony of the square next to the Russian embassy from Pod Kaštany (“Chestnut”) Square to Boris Nemtsov Square on the anniversary of his assassination, February 27, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / MARTIN DIVISEK
Whilst Russia rejects all accusations of assassination attempts on Prague officials, they have been very active in comments on the removal of the Konev monument. The Russian Foreign Ministry called such actions by local authorities "a crime that will become a long-term irritant in bilateral relations with the Czech Republic" and promised not to leave the action unanswered. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu asked his Czech counterpart to hand over the monument to Russia, but the Czech ministry explained that it was exclusively the prerogative of the Prague 6 district.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which opened a criminal case over the removal of the monument, also issued a statement.
"According to the investigation, by such cynical actions the municipal authorities of the city of Prague grossly violated the commitments made by the Czech Republic within the framework of bilateral agreements with the Russian Federation, demonstrating their disregard for the common memory and history of the Soviet people's struggle against fascism," the commission said.
In addition to the Russian authorities, protesters from the unregistered Other Russia party, who staged aggressive rallies near the Czech embassy in Moscow on April 5, also stood up for the Prague monument to Konev.
In an interview with Czech Radio, head of state Miloš Zeman, known for his sympathy to Russia, said: "I would very much like no one – and if I say 'no', that's exactly what I mean – no one to interfere in our internal affairs."
At the same time, Zeman does not decidedly side with the Prague officials, calling the dismantling of the monument "nonsense" and an attempt by "insignificant politicians to attract attention at least in such a way."
In turn, the leaders of Prague noted the unexpected and "inappropriate" reaction of Russia to the situation with the monument. This was stated in an open letter to the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen by Kolář. In the letter, he asked European institutions to condemn Russia's attacks on a member state of the European Union and stressed that "Russia is waging a hybrid war against the E.U., whose battlefield is now Prague."
"The act of removing the statue from the pedestal provoked a completely inappropriate reaction from the Russian Federation, which in response to this perfectly legal decision of Prague 6 decided to react with threatening and completely inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of Prague 6, Prague as such and the Czech state in general," the mayor noted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) greets Czech President Miloš Zeman, who arrives to attend a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of World War II Victory over Nazism, Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. Photo: EPA / SERGEI CHIRIKOV
What's wrong with the monument?
The monument to two-time Hero of the Soviet Union Marshal Ivan Konev, who commanded numerous Red Army operations during World War II, had stood in Prague since 1980. When it was built, it was meant to be a symbol of gratitude to Konev for the liberation of Prague from Nazi troops during the Prague offensive. It was conducted by the First Ukrainian Front under the command of Marshal Konev in May 1945.
But today, for many Prague residents, it is more of a reminder of Soviet pressure in Eastern Europe. It was Konev's troops in 1956 who suppressed the popular uprising against communist rule in Hungary and participated in the preparations for the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall, which divided Germany for almost 30 years, Konev was the commander-in-chief of Soviet troops in that country.
Russia drew attention to the monument in 2017, when plaques about Konev's role in the events of 1948 and 1956 were added to the monument and began accusing the Prague administration of "rewriting history."
Due to the marshal's controversial reputation, his monument is constantly subjected to attacks by vandals – every year on the eve of the anniversary of the "Prague Spring" it is covered with paint. This happened in the summer of 2019, when unknown people wrote on the monument "No to the bloody marshal! Let's not forget!" and the numbers "45, 56, 61, 68". But this time, Prague 6 leader Kolář said he would not rush to restore the monument because "over the past few years, we have spent hundreds of thousands of crowns from the Prague 6 budget to clean, repair and restore it."
It was then that Kolář announced for the first time his intention to dismantle the monument and offered the Russian embassy to place it there. The Kremlin did not like the idea, and in response, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky called Kolář a "Gauleiter" (leader of the Nazi party's regional branch – ed.).
The Kremlin has similar "historical objections" against other Prague officials. In February 2020, Prague Mayor Hřib initiated the renaming of Pod Kaštany Square to Boris Nemtsov Square (a Russian oppositionist killed on February 27, 2015 in Moscow). After that, the Russian Embassy in Prague, which was located in this square, changed its legal address in protest. And the head of the Prague district, Řeporyje, allowed a memorial to be erected to the Russian Liberation Army (ROA), which supported the Prague Uprising in 1945. Russia – which sees the ROA as collaborators and its commander-in-chief, General Andrey Vlasov, as a traitor – has opposed the monument.
Monument to Marshal Ivan Konev splashed with pink paint, Prague, Czech Republic, May 8, 2018
What does all this mean?
The Czech media is already drawing parallels with the poisoning of the Skripal family in Salisbury, the U.K., businessman Emilian Gebrev in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the assassination of Chechen field commander Zelimkhan Hangoshvili in Berlin, Germany. Representatives of the Russian secret services have been suspected of all these high-profile cases in recent years. As David Stulik, a senior analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague, noted in a comment to hromadske, such comparisons are not unfounded.
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"On the part of Russia, there is again some escalation of such schemes, because now the Russian leadership needs to divert attention from the daily problems in their country related to the coronavirus. And the Kremlin has to constantly increase the degree of its actions so that society pays attention to it. Moreover, there will be no parade in Russia on May 9, but there is a "war of narratives", and you see some ‘fascists’ in Europe saying that ‘our’ heroes were also criminals. It is important for Russians to think that their government is protecting their interests abroad,” Stulik explains.
According to the expert, it is unlikely that Russia will be able to go beyond threats in the case of the monument to Konev. Instead, such a direction of Russian propaganda may well find a response within Czechia, which is now divided by many issues, including historical: "Now there are many calls for the physical elimination of these three politicians (the mayor of Prague and the heads of two Prague districts – ed.) from the local ‘useful idiots’. At the political level, Czechia is divided on this issue, there is a conflict, there are political disputes – this only favors Russia, because it weakens the country from within. Most people are on the side of Prague's leaders, and they are now very angry with the government, with the Foreign Ministry for their inaction, and that undermines the credibility of democratic institutions," said Stulik.
A man with a poster "Konev is a communist lie" stands near a sign about the role of Ivan Konev in the events of 1948 and 1956, Prague, Czech Republic, August 21, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE / MARTIN DIVISEK
Some Czechs support the position of President Zeman, who criticizes the leaders of Prague. For him, this is a purely political issue: Novotný, Kolář, and Hřib are representatives of three different parties (Novotný, the right-wing conservative Civic Democratic Party, Kolář, the liberal Conservative Party, Hřib, the Czech Pirate Party), and are all outspoken opponents of the former communist Zeman.
"Although Zeman has no special constitutional powers, he has real influence. Therefore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very weak and slow to respond to this Russian narrative in the country,” says Stulik. “The issue of monuments in different parts of the city is the responsibility of local authorities, so they took the initiative and began to demolish monuments or change tablets. Thus, the actions of local authorities have become the subject of international policy. But at the national level, the government is still passive, we have no state policy towards Russia, so it seems that this is a conflict between Russia and the Czech local authorities – and these actions are simply commented on by President Zeman. We do not have a single voice in the country that would respond harshly to these Russian provocations."
/Translated by Bohuslav Romanenko