Relations between the EU and Russia, already in a deep freeze, went truly subzero this month over Moscow’s treatment of Alexei Navalny, troop deployments on the Ukrainian border, and a major diplomatic row with the Czech Republic.
Earlier this month the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis sensationally revealed that the country’s security services had “unequivocal evidence” about the involvement of Russian GRU intelligence agents in the explosion of a munition warehouse in 2014 that killed two people.
Incredibly, during the emergency press conference, police released copies of two passports belonging to men sought in relation to the explosion: Alexander Petrov, 41, and Ruslan Boshirov, 43 – the very same men identified by UK authorities as suspects in the 2018 Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.
In response the Czech government expelled 18 Russian diplomats – Moscow retaliated by expelling 20 Czech diplomats – and a host of European countries joined the Czech Republic in solidarity by declaring envoys as personae non gratae. European leaders spoke out to condemn Russia’s actions, while the European Parliament adopted a resolution doing the same.
Czech President Milos Zeman, was conspicuously silent on the issue though, and waited a whole week following the revelations about the munitions warehouse to make a public statement on the issue. But when he finally spoke in a televised address, many Czechs were left wishing he hadn’t.
Milos Zeman, pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in 2017. Photo: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images
"There is no evidence to show that the two Russian agents were present in the area of the Vrbetice ammunition warehouse at the time of the explosion,” he said in a national address this week, flying in the face of his own Prime Minister and the country’s intelligence agencies.
"We are working with two investigative theories – the first, the original one, that there was an explosion resulting from inexpert handling of explosives, and the second that it was an operation of a foreign intelligence service," he said on Prima television. He also added that he took both of these theories seriously, and wished for them to be thoroughly investigated.
His belated appearance and statement on the subject matter sparked street protests and an array of negative responses from the Czech public.
"We must prevent President Zeman from further influence on the direction of our state in Russia. This will not wait,” said Benjamin Roll, president of the political campaigning group Million Moments for Democracy, who gathered tens of thousands of protestors in Prague on Thursday.
Meanwhile a meme showing the countries that supported the Czech Republic in its diplomatic dispute with Russia spread like wildfire.
Green are countries that support the Czech Republic, orange is Russia, and red are countries not supporting Czechs. Photo: Mladi Lide/Facebook
Besides public disapproval, several politicians also expressed their concerns over Zeman's belated statement.
"The president's silence was a serious mistake, but his statement was an even bigger mistake,” said Pavel Fisher, the head of the Foreign, Defence and Security Committee, in a Facebook post. “Zeman attacked evidence provided by our intelligence services. He now stands on the side of Russia and has become its advocate. This will have serious consequences for our country," he wrote in a separate post.
Opposition leader Marketa Adamova-Pekarova also accused the president of trivialising Russia's involvement while distorting evidence. She said his speech "wasn't aimed at Czech citizens but the Russian Federation."
An investigative reporter and expert on Czech-Russian relations, Petra Prochazkova, told VICE World News that the president's statement undermined the efforts of Czech security services and caused confusion amongst the public.
"Russian mainstream media immediately responded to the president’s speech with headlines of 'No proof' and 'false allegations.'" She said that by making the investigation sound inconclusive and blurry, the Russian public had quickly lost interest.
Prochazkova said that the Czech Republic is often seen as an anti-Russian tool of the US. "The Russian narrative of the Czech Republic is that of a country incapable of being self-sufficient and in the claws of Western anti-Putin propaganda. Many think of the president as brave because he dares to speak the ‘truth’."
Besides internal turmoil, country leaders around the world and international bodies like the EU, the Visegrad Four – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – and NATO all issued statements denouncing Russian involvement in the 2014 explosion while showing support for the expulsion of Russian diplomats.
Slovakia's president Zuzana Caputova said in a tweet that Slovakia stands by the Czech Republic and deems threats directed at EU members as "unacceptable".
Protests in Prague following the Czech president's comments. Photo: Lukas Kabon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The EU issued a statement condemning illegal activities by Russian GRU intelligence services. "The EU takes extremely seriously the conclusions by the Czech authorities, based on extensive investigations, that officers of the Russian military intelligence GRU perpetrated these actions."
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the U.K. also stands in full support of Czech allies, who "have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations."
In the meantime, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova deemed international response as a "provocation "and driven by "Russophobia", claiming that "American footprints "are clear. "We will take response measures that will force those behind these provocations to fully understand their responsibility to destroy the foundations of normal relations between our countries."