Spies, Poisons and Power Plants – Russian Adventures in the Czech Republic

  • Michal Beneš
  • 14.12.2020 16:32

Spy game in the Czech Republic is getting to a whole new level. We have recently seen allegedly invented assassinations by feuding Russian diplomats, plots to replace the Czech counter-intelligence chief, to get to who expands Czech nuclear power plants. All this with the President Miloš Zeman in the role of a kingmaker at the core of it all.

Russia and the Czech Republic have a complex history together. While the former wants to get back to it, the latter wants to let go. The Czech Republic has chosen that its future lies in the EU, NATO and European community, rather than in the red embrace of the motherland. This is, of course, a point of conflict. Russia, first of all, feels threatened by the ever-enlarging NATO on its very doorstep and second of all, eyes to extend its influence to its former glory before 1991. 

Until now, the Russian activities in the Czech Republic can easily resemble any regular spy movie. From running, ‘alternative media’ to influence public opinion, alleged attempts of assassinating Czech politicians, cyber-attacks on institutions like Foreign Ministry, to using older people sentimental for communist times. By the account of BIS, the Czech Counter-intelligence Agency, the Russian embassy in Prague is unusually oversized. Counting around 140 personnel and owning hundreds of real estates in the capital. With all of Russia’s intelligence agencies being reported to operate in Prague.


Confusing Czech Foreign Policy trio

Thanks to the clear accounts of the Czech counter-intelligence, it might then be clear. Prague is a hive for Russian spies and the government should do something about it, no? To understand why the Czech-Russian relationship is not so straightforward, we must look at the three most visible foreign policy actors in the country.

The first obvious choice is the Czech president, Miloš Zeman. Even though his powers are mostly ceremonial, he still wields some hold over the country’s foreign policy that he is not afraid to use. Especially since he is the first directly elected president and parliament has no power to change presidents at will anymore. Zeman is not afraid to regularly contradict the foreign policy of the government in regards to Russia, EU, or NATO and Russian media portray him as a strong anti-American leader who shares a friendship with Putin. In Russia, he is the second most quoted European politician after Angela Merkel. Although Zeman once in a while openly disagrees with Russia, such as in the case of Russia’s comments over the 1968 occupation, we can see him as rather pro-Russian out of the three. 

A somewhat neutral position is represented by prime minister Andrej Babiš. He claims that he is interested in “normal relations” with Russia. The Czech PM was seen both standing up for Russia, and criticizing it. He called on Russia for meddling in Czech internal affairs in terms of espionage. But he also refused to exclude Russia from a tender on a new nuclear reactor against American wishes. Babiš has to balance in between since he wants to be seen as pro-American and pro-European. While at the same time, he does not want to anger Miloš Zeman before the parliamentary elections in Autumn 2021. As the Czech president has the right to appoint the prime minister.


“According to the Czech media outlet Respekt, Russia dispatched agents to allegedly assassinate both of Prague’s Mayors, including one more District Mayor and all three had to be put under police protection.”


A clear anti-Russian sentiment is represented by a few of Prague’s politicians led by its liberal Mayor Zdeněk Hřib from the opposition Pirate party. He was not afraid to go on the offensive and renamed the square in front of the Russian embassy to Square of Boris Nemtsov, while openly criticizing Russia. District Mayor of Prague 6 Ondřej Kolář from the TOP 09 party moreover removed the statue of a Russian ‘liberator’ General Ivan Konev, angering Russia even further. In spring of 2020, according to the Czech media outlet Respekt, Russia dispatched agents to allegedly assassinate both of them, including one more District Mayor and all three had to be put under police protection. Resulting in the expulsion of two Russian diplomats. Even though the case was later claimed to be completely invented by feuding diplomats at the Russian embassy to solve their disputes.


Czech counter-intelligence troubles

In the midst of this all, is Security Information Service (BIS), one of two Czech counter-intelligence agencies, which is focused on ‘civilian’ matters. While the other - Military Intelligence (VZ) is focused on military matters. BIS director Michal Koudelka has a longstanding complex relationship with the Czech president who refused to promote him to the rank of a general exactly 5 times, while this rank is usually a norm for such a high post. Moreover, he was seen calling BIS incapable and said Koudelka is a ‘bad manager’.

Since then, Zeman has not been afraid to go on the offensive against BIS. In August, he hired former BIS analytics chief Jiří Rom who worked for the agency for 27 years to gather compromising material on the BIS director. However, after handing the material to the prime minister, Andrej Babiš publicly stated that he still fully trusts Koudelka and has no plans of recalling him. Nevertheless, since the 5-year renewable mandate of Jiří Koudelka as BIS director ends in summer 2021, and the Czech Republic has general elections in the following autumn. We can expect to see further developments in the coming months. Zeman will likely push for Koudelka to not have his term renewed in exchange for support in forming of Babiš’s next government. Wanting instead his ‘groomed’ candidate Jiří Rom to take the post.


“A member of the Senate Security Committee even called Zeman’s request ‘high treason’.”


The situation intensified in November when Zeman requested a complete list of all Russian spies and their activities in the Czech Republic from BIS. Which has sparked political criticism. A Member of the Senate Security Committee even called Zeman’s request  ‘high treason’. By Czech law, the President has the right to assign tasks to the intelligence community. However, it is currently unclear if he can request the list of Russian agents, as the ‘executive’ control over the intelligence agencies lies with the prime minister. Andrej Babiš has so far refused to comment on the president’s request due to the ongoing clandestine proceedings. 


In the midst of a nuclear race

The Czech Republic, with about a third of its energy coming from nuclear power, is fairly reliant on its nuclear power plants. The plans for building four new reactors by 2040, however, has stirred a geopolitical battle of interests in the country. Russian, American, Chinese, South Korean and French companies are about to face each other in a tender. With the first three expected to have the highest chance of winning.

The official position of the Czech government has so far been neutral, not rejecting the participation of any state as of yet. The prime minister said the tender is not ready and it should not be announced ahead of the election and before all of the involved parties are in agreement. While five opposition parties rejected the participation of Russia and China straight away due to national security concerns.

Meanwhile, the Czech president Zeman has been busy with ‘his own’ foreign policy. He has been pushing for the tender, without public competition, directly being awarded to Russia’s Rosatom, energy corporation founded by Vladimir Putin himself. Raising concerns not just about security and safety, but also about the price and quality of the used technology. While risking geopolitical relationships with other international competitors that might be ignored by avoiding public tender. 


“In 2017 Nejedlý was seen to secretly meet with Rosatom’s director, just before the Czech government started preparation of the nuclear tender.”


In November, Babiš claimed he wanted to postpone the tender. As a result of which Zeman dispatched his presidential advisor Martin Nejedlý, a person with shadow links to Russia, to fly to Moscow and negotiate with Putin’s administration. Nejedlý claims he will not meet with Russians regarding the tender. However, the Czech Foreign minister said he has no information about the content of his visit aside from vague “improving relations with Russia”. Moreover, in 2017 Nejedlý was seen to secretly meet with Rosatom’s director, just before the Czech government started preparation of the nuclear tender.

This puts most of the Czech high-level political and intelligence actors into a difficult situation. It is currently the last term of Miloš Zeman and he knows the political establishment cannot force him to step down. So, Zeman, as he likes to do, plays the role of a kingmaker. While everyone else, including the prime minister, Prague’s mayor or BIS chief fight for survival one way or another. Especially since Zeman is known to keep grudges against those who challenge him, and his interests, for a very long time. So, in the upcoming year leading to the elections, we can expect lots of interesting developments. Not just nationally, but internationally as well. Czech intelligence agencies are in good favor in the West for now, but this can rapidly change as the system becomes more unstable and unpredictable. The US, who awarded Koudelka with the top CIA intelligence award in 2019, might simply not be willing to cooperate in intelligence sharing anymore.

About author: Michal Beneš


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