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Czech president draws fire for stance in spy dispute with Russia

  • Published at 08:58 pm April 26th, 2021
Russia Czech Republic Tension
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman in Sochi on November 21, 2017 AFP

Prague expelled scores of diplomats last week after accusing Russian agents of blowing up a munitions warehouse seven years ago

The Czech Republic's pro-Russian president drew a storm of criticism for comments about a historic rift between the two countries that fellow politicians said favoured the Kremlin's interests over his own nation.

The government in Prague expelled scores of diplomats last week after accusing Russian agents of blowing up a munitions warehouse seven years ago. On Sunday, President Milos Zeman said the European Union and Nato member state shouldn't be quick to impose economic punishment on its Soviet-era master.

Zeman, who supports closer economic ties with Russia and has criticized western sanctions against Moscow, said the country is right to kick out diplomats that it identifies as spies.

But he contradicted the government's account that it had evidence linking two operatives of Russia's GRU intelligence service to the explosion that killed two Czechs and caused about $50 million in damage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's government rejected the accusations as absurd and responded by casting out diplomats to leave the Czech embassy in Moscow operating with a skeleton staff.

"Let's wait, without hysteria and speculation, for the results of the investigation, and only then make a decision," Zeman told Prima TV.

Vice-Premier Jan Hamacek responded by saying the government acted in coordination with Zeman and that the findings of both police and the intelligence services were too "crucial" to be left without a response.

Hamacek told TV Nova late on Sunday that he couldn't comment on details as police are still investigating but that the Czechs' Nato allies, as well as lawmakers in the nation's parliamentary and senate committees, had "no doubt" about the steps taken against Moscow.

On Thursday, the Czechs told Russia that it had until the end of May to cut the number of staff at its embassy in Prague from about 100 to a few dozen. The move will decimate Russia's largest diplomatic hub in central Europe, which Czech governments and intelligence services have long complained Russia has used as a regional center for its spies.

The dispute added to tensions between the Kremlin and its near neighbours, stoked by Russia's recent military buildup on the border with Ukraine and the worsening condition of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil, a member of the opposition Civic Democrats, said he was shocked that Zeman had included secret information in his speech and also omitted crucial parts of the investigation.

"He is openly acting in favour of Russia and against his own state," Senator Pavel Fischer, who heads the Senate's Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security, said on Twitter.

The former chairman of the NATO military committee Petr Pavel said on Twitter that Zeman's comments had "extremely" helped Russia in an effort to spread disinformation and create doubts over whether the Czechs deserve support from their allies.

Zeman also said that if a police probe confirms the Russians were behind the sabotage, the consequences could include barring Rosatom Corp from a planned $7 billion tender for a new nuclear reactor. The government has already said that will be the case, although it will be up to the administration that is formed after October elections to hold the bidding contest.