Some politicians have things other than the health crisis to worry about. It’s reported this week that Prague’s mayor, Zdeněk Hřib (no, I don’t know how to pronounce it either), is under police protection due to fears that he is the target of an assassination plot by agents of the Russian government.
Hřib has not confirmed the suspicions of Russian involvement, but said that his death “would mean that Russian agencies had crossed a red line.” The claim is that a Russian travelling on a diplomatic passport entered Czechia three weeks ago carrying a suitcase of ricin, a deadly poison, and that he represented a threat to “municipal politicians who were in recent months critical of the Kremlin.”
There’s no doubt Hřib fits that description. He backed the move to change the name of the square on which the Russian embassy is located to commemorate Boris Nemtsov, the murdered Russian opposition leader. He also supported the removal of a statue of Ivan Konev, the Russian general who led the forces that liberated Prague in 1945.
With some 14 million dead in the Second World War, the Russians are understandably touchy about war memorials. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet war memorial in West Berlin (known locally as the “tomb of the unknown rapist”) was conscientiously guarded by western troops, and many such memorials remain dotted around central and eastern Europe.
But Czechia’s relationship with the Soviets was uneasy at best. Prague had mostly liberated itself before the red army arrived, partly in the hope that the Americans would arrive first. In 1948 the Czech Communists, backed by Soviet troops, staged a coup and established a one-party state, which remained in place (as in the rest of eastern Europe) until the revolutions of 1989.
Konev was a key part of the apparatus of Soviet control. In 1956 he was commander of the Warsaw Pact armies that overthrew the government of Hungary and reimposed Communist rule, and in 1968 he visited Czechoslovakia (as it then was) to inspect its military defences in preparation for the invasion later that year that crushed the Prague Spring.
So it’s not surprising that the statue, erected in 1980, was controversial. Czech president Miloš Zeman, however, condemned its removal, describing it as “an abuse of the [Covid-19] state of emergency.” Although his powers are mostly ceremonial, Zeman is regarded as one of Vladimir Putin’s (and Donald Trump’s) firmest friends in the European Union.
The reports don’t quote any comment from prime minister Andrej Babiš, who in the past has denied reports that he is close to Putin. Since he depends not only on maintaining a civil relationship with the difficult Zeman but also on tacit parliamentary support from the Czech Communist Party, it’s probably a controversy he would prefer to stay out of.
No such restraint, though, from Hřib, who represents the Pirate Party and leads a broadly liberal three-party alliance on Prague’s municipal assembly. A few months ago he joined forces with the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest and Warsaw in a pact to resist populism in the region, and particularly the authoritarian tendencies of their various national governments – one of which, that of Robert Fico in Slovakia, has since gone down to electoral defeat.
Standing up to the Russians will probably play well with his constituents. Let’s hope it doesn’t have unpleasant consequences for his personal safety.