Russia’s foreign minister has dismissed claims a Russian agent was sent to Prague to poison its mayor and two other city officials as “fabrications,” in the highest-level denial yet on an issue that is straining ties between the two countries.
Respekt, a Czech investigative weekly, published a report on April 26 quoting unnamed security sources as saying that a suspected Russian intelligence officer traveling on a diplomatic passport had arrived recently in Prague carrying the deadly toxin ricin as part of an alleged poisoning plot.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 30 that it was "unthinkable” Czech authorities would identify the man carrying poison and let him in the country.
“They found a deadly poison and let him into the country?” he said at a briefing. “Would any sound person believe in these fabrications?”
Moscow, suspected in the 2018 poisoning in Britain of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent, earlier this week dismissed the alleged poisoning plot against the three Czechs as part of a "disinformation campaign" aimed at discrediting Russia and threatened "serious consequences" to Czech-Russian relations.
The Czech counterintelligence service, BIS, has previously issued reports warning of the threat posed by Russian spies using diplomatic cover at the Russian Embassy in Prague to carry out espionage activity.
Upon arrival, the suspected intelligence agent was driven to the Russian Embassy, according to Respekt.
The weekly said the Russian national entered the country with a suitcase containing the toxin ricin around 3 1/2 weeks ago. That suitcase or any diplomatic envelope could have escaped customs inspection as per diplomatic protocol.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis on April 28 said the Czech Republic was a "sovereign state" that would not tolerate "any world power" trying to interfere in its internal affairs.
"It's not acceptable -- if it's true -- for a foreign state to take action against our citizens here," Babis said.
Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek is reported to have warned Aleksandr Zmeyevsky, Russia's ambassador in the Czech Republic, of repercussions if anything happens to the three Czech officials.
All three have taken or supported actions that have angered the Kremlin, including the renaming of the square in front of the Russian Embassy after a slain former Kremlin critic and the removal of a statue of a Soviet-era general. As possible payback, Moscow is suspected of having a role in a recent wave of cyberattacks in the Czech Republic.
The officials have all confirmed they have been given around-the-clock police protection.
One of them, Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, told RFE/RL on April 30 that he can’t comment on details surrounding the police protection.
But Hrib said that around a month ago, he had filed a criminal complaint after noticing “I had been followed near my home."
Ondrej Kolar, the Prague 6 district mayor who is also in hiding, told Prima TV on April 28 that he was restricted from disclosing details about the case, which also involves Pavel Novotny, another Prague district mayor.
"I can really only tell you that I have police protection. It was ordered on the basis of certain facts and those facts are that there is a Russian here who was given an assignment to liquidate me," Kolar said. "Not only me, but Mr. Hrib and Mr. Novotny."
Kolar was criticized by the Kremlin after his district on April 3 removed the statue of Marshal Ivan Konev, who led the Red Army forces during World War II that drove Nazi troops from most of Czechoslovakia. Moscow called the statue's removal an insult and an attempt to rewrite history. Days later, several masked attackers threw smoke bombs at the Czech Embassy in Moscow and placed a banner saying "Stop Fascism" on the compound’s fence.
Commenting on the statue on April 30, Lavrov said its removal violated a 1993 friendship treaty that obliges the Czech Republic to protect memorials to Russian World War II heroes.
Kolar previously said the statue would be moved to a new museum.
Novotny irritated the Kremlin after proposing to erect a monument to a controversial World War II military division called the Vlasov Army made up of Soviet defectors that fought alongside the Nazis but turned against them in the final days of the war and helped liberate Prague.
Novotny told RFE/RL on April 28 that he was under police protection but also said he was under restrictions when speaking about the case.
Asked whether he found the ricin poisoning plot credible, Novotny didn't hesitate.
"Are [the Russians] capable of something like that?" he asked. "Definitely."
Relations between Prague and Moscow also soured over a Czech decision to rename the square where the Russian Embassy is located, a decision backed by Hrib.
Two months ago, Prague officials dedicated the leafy square in front of the embassy complex to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was fatally shot in Moscow in February 2015.