18 June 2020
Marshal Konev’s Legacy
Prague and Moscow.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Here’s a “Take down the statue!” story with a difference. I’m still trying to work out what sort of story it is. Spy thriller? Political drama? Mystery? Comedy of errors? Farce? And I suspect that there are a few more chapters yet to unfold. But read on and judge for yourselves.
In May 1945, a Russian soviet general – Marshal Ivan Konev – led Red Army soldiers into Prague, having liberated Czechoslovakia from the Nazis. In 1980, a statue of the Marshal was erected in Prague to honour the event. But communist-era statues of Russians obviously became a bit problematic in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Czech historians pointed out that Ivan Konev helped to crush the 1956 uprising in Hungary and was involved in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. They also claim that he helped to prepare the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.
In recent years the statue was repeatedly defaced with paint and there were calls for it to be taken down. Last year the authorities covered it up while they decided what to do with it. The Russian embassy protested and ‘pro-Russian activists’ tore the covering down. Nevertheless, last September the assembly of the Prague-6 district voted to remove the statue. The mayor of Prague-6, Ondrej Kolar, stressed that the monument would be treated with dignity and placed in a museum. He expressed respect and gratitude for Marshal Konev and the soviet army for liberating Prague and eastern Europe from the Nazis, and announced an art competition for a new monument to honour the liberators.
The Russian culture minister compared the mayor to a Nazi party official, according to a report by Russia’s TASS agency. The pro-Russia Czech president Milos Zeman argued that the statue should not be taken down. Mayor Ondrej Kolar became the subject of anonymous death threats and had to leave Prague.
The statue was taken down in April, two months ago.
Moscow was not happy. Russian diplomats condemned it as an act of “unfriendly” and even “unhinged” vandalism. The Russian defence minister asked the Czech defence minister for the statue, offering to pay for the transportation, but the Czech government said it had no authority over the Prague-6 municipality. Russian federal investigators launched an official enquiry into the statue’s removal (though they, of course, have even less authority over Czech local officials). President Putin signed a law making the damaging of monuments to World War II punishable by up to 5 years in jail in Russia.
Relations between Moscow and Prague were already strained. Only two months before Marshal Konev’s removal, the mayor of the whole of Prague – Zdenek Hrib – announced that a square in the city was going to be renamed in honour of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian politician, opposition leader and critic of Putin who was shot dead outside the Kremlin in 2015 in what is considered to be a politically-motivated murder (many suspect Kremlin involvement). So, on 27 February, Pod Kastany Namesti – Chestnut Square – was officially renamed Boris Nemtsov Square. Now – surprise, surprise – the Russian embassy just happens to be located in this square, and the official ceremony – exactly five years after Nemtsov’s assassination and attended by Nemtsov’s daughter – culminated with Mayor Zdenek Hrib putting up a plaque announcing the square’s new name right outside the Russian embassy. Moscow, you can imagine, was not well pleased. (As it happens, squares and streets near the Russian embassies in the US capital Washington, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and the Ukraine capital Kiev have also recently been renamed in honour of Boris Nemtsov.)
And now the plot thickens. Last month, a few weeks after the statue was taken down, it emerged that the mayor of Prague and the mayor of the Prague-6 municipality were both under police protection. There were rumours of assassination plots and death threats. The authorities refused to comment. The two men were reticent. Zdenek Hrib did say, however, that he had reported to the police that he was being followed, and declared cryptically that if he ended up dead “this would mean that Russian agencies had crossed a red line”. Ondrej Koler eventually went as far as to say “there is a Russian here who has been given the task of liquidating me.”
And then the Czech weekly investigative magazine Respek dropped its bombshell. It reported that Czech intelligence services were aware that a Russian agent from a Russian intelligence outfit had entered the country on a diplomatic passport with a suitcase full of the deadly poison ricin and had been taken to the Russian embassy in a diplomatic vehicle. A Czech daily newspaper Denik N said that three intelligence sources claimed that counter-intelligence workers had warned the government that this man posed a danger to local politicians. His targets? Zdenek Hrib, Ondrej Koler and the anti-Russian mayor of another Prague municipality, Pavel Novotny (I can tell you no more about Mr Novotny – I wish I could but a Google search pointed me towards a porn star of the same name and I went no further. But now it occurs to me that someone of a suspicious nature might suspect that this could be an example of Russian fake news and cyber disinformation…) Czech television named the suspected would-be assassin as Andrei Konchakov, the head of the Russian centre for science and culture in Prague.
Mr Konchakov denied the accusations. The Kremlin denied the accusations, condemning them as “misinformation” and “sick fantasies”. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? So I thought and so, perhaps, do you.
But then, last week, the Czech prime minister Andrej Babis dropped his bombshell. The assassination plot, he declared, was a hoax. A made-up story had been fed to Czech security services; a Russian diplomat had “sent false information about a planned attack against Czech politicians to our counter-intelligence service.” Why? Infighting at the Russian embassy, he said. It seems that one diplomat was trying to set up another one for a fall. Prime minister Babis announced that he was expelling both the diplomats involved.
The two diplomats were Andrei Konchakov, the head of the Russian centre for science and culture in Prague who was fingered by Czech tv as the would-be assassin, and his deputy Igor Rybakov. Was Mr Rybakov trying to trip up his boss Mr Konchakov? If so, why? And why was Mr Konchakov kicked out of the Czech Republic if he was the innocent party? Expelling both of them makes little sense, as the Czech journalist who broke the story of the plot, Ondrej Kundra, pointed out last week.
Moscow condemned the deportation as a hostile act and vowed to retaliate. And this week, predictably, Russia expelled two Czech diplomats from the embassy in Moscow. So the story rumbles on, and no doubt will generate even more questions and perhaps even some answers eventually. Watch this space.
Can’t wait? Is the mystery too tantalising? The suspense too much? Don’t have the patience to read those answers here in Shaw Sheet as the story develops? Well, you could always try writing to the Russian embassy in Prague to get the pravda straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. But just remember not to address the letter to Chestnut Square. Or to Boris Nemtsov Square, for that matter. No, the embassy hasn’t moved – but it has somehow changed its address. It now officially declares itself as being situated not in the actual square but in a nearby street, Korunovacni Street. I wonder why.