Revelations that two Russian spies accused of a nerve-agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 may have been behind earlier explosions at a Czech ammunition depot that killed two people sparked outrage and anger in the Czech Republic.
The allegations by Czech intelligence have plunged relations between Prague and Moscow to their lowest level since the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1989.
Amid the escalation of tensions, Prague has expelled 18 Russian diplomats, and Moscow, which dismisses any role in the blasts and described it as a provocation concocted by Washington, has kicked out 20 Czech Embassy staff in Moscow.
It also comes amid a series of incidents that have roiled relations over the last few years, including claims, later dismissed, that Russia had smuggled ricin into Prague in 2020 to poison three municipal officials who had taken action or supported positions that angered the Kremlin, mostly to do with disputes over the Soviet role in World War II.
In 2020, the Czech Republic reported a series of cyberattacks on key institutions, including hospitals, that Czech intelligence suspected were the work of state-backed Russian hackers.
The fresh claims have triggered support for the Czech Republic and condemnations for Russia's alleged role from the European Union, the United States, and others, including Ukraine.
For many in the Czech Republic, the alleged attacks by two officers of Russia's GRU military intelligence service in Vrbetice in the southeast of the country in October and December 2014 was an act of terrorism, if not war.
Many of those voicing such charges are opponents of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who has been dogged by corruption allegations -- some involving EU subsidies -- that he denies, and President Milos Zeman, one of the European Union's most Kremlin-friendly leaders.
Just Some "Goods"
Babis, who along with another top official first made public the blockbuster charge on April 17 in an emotional address in which he stressed the loss of life and widespread damage, two days later took a softer tone.
Babis, accused but cleared in 2015 by a court of working with communist secret police in the 1980s, said it was an unacceptable operation by Russian agents that went wrong. "Russia was not attacking the Czech Republic. The agents attacked the goods of a Bulgarian arms trader, who was probably selling these arms to parties fighting Russia," Babis told a news conference on April 19. "The ammunition was supposed to explode en route. Of course it is unacceptable that GRU agents were undertaking the operation here -- which they bungled," he said.
Acting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek on April 19 confirmed the trader to have been Emilian Gebrev, an arms-factory owner who survived an attempt to poison him in 2015. Bulgarian prosecutors charged three Russians in absentia in 2020 with his attempted murder.
Gebrev's company, EMCO, denied on April 19 that it had made or planned any shipment from the Czech warehouse in the months before the explosion or for at least a year after the blast.
Prague has previously said the warehouse blast was caused by the same GRU agents blamed for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018. Moscow denies involvement in the Skripal poisonings, which both victims survived.
Babis's apparent downplaying of the ammo-depot blast left many Czech politicians dumbfounded and spawned social-media memes ridiculing his comments.
"What Prime Minister Babis says is nonsense. An action resulting in deaths is an act of state terrorism, in contradiction with international law and the rule of bilateral relations in the 21st century," said Pavel Zacek, a member of the opposition ODS party, in comments to Czech media on April 20.
Facing a backlash for the remark, Babis a day later said he was sorry for using the term "goods" and specifically said it was a "heinous and completely unacceptable terrorist act."
Zeman, who holds less power than the prime minister, however, has been slammed not for what he has said, but for refusing to speak publicly on the matter yet. He says he will do so on April 25 during a TV program.
Zeman, who became the first directly elected Czech president when he took office in 2013, is rarely shy about sharing his views, often sharp-tongued, on domestic and foreign-policy matters. He has criticized Western sanctions on Russia and insulted journalists, among others.
Big blue letters reading "High treason" lit up Prague Castle, the official residence of the Czech president, on the evening of April 19. The message was delivered by a group calling itself Stop High Treason, which in a statement said it wanted Zeman brought before the country's highest court to face charges of betraying the country.
A day after the stunt, Zeman's spokesman lashed out at the country's opposition. "A vote for the opposition is a vote for war. Remember that when you go to the polls," Jiri Ovcacek wrote on Twitter.
The findings on the Vrbetice explosions by the Czech Security Intelligence Service (BIS) and the National Center for Combating Organized Crime (NCOZ) came amid efforts pushed by Zeman and his supporters to secure the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V, as well as support for the Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom in its bid to secure a lucrative deal to build a reactor at the Czech Dukovany nuclear power plant.
Czech Health Minister Jan Blatny was fired on April 7 by Babis, whose government is dependent on Zeman's political allies, a month after the president called for his dismissal for his refusal to use the Russian vaccine without approval by the European Medicines Agency.
Also losing his job in part due to his stance against the Sputnik V vaccine was Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, whom Zeman dismissed on April 12.
Petricek had clashed with his rival, the aforementioned Hamacek, over control of the Social Democratic Party. Petricek had also suggested the party should cut its ties to Babis's populist ANO party. Petricek had also opposed efforts by Zeman and his supporters to push Rosatom on the Dukovany contract.
At the time of his dismissal, Petricek said that "the minister's office has windows facing east" on Facebook.
"Sometimes when you defy physics and other forces, you can look completely, calmly, and boldly toward the West and Europe," Petricek said. "It's no secret that I have not been well regarded by the Prague presidency for some time," he told reporters.
Who Is 'Facing East'?
Zeman has characterized the BIS as a bunch of "incompetents" and is on less-than-friendly terms with its director, Michal Koudelka, pressing him last year for a list of Russian spies in the Czech Republic.
Zeman has said he will not recommend Koudelka be given another term at the head of the BIS once his current mandate runs out this summer.
With Petricek out of the way, Hamacek -- also still holding the post of interior minister -- had reportedly planned to travel to Moscow on April 19 to negotiate on Russian deliveries of Sputnik V. Those plans were quashed after he and Babis announced on April 17 the BIS and NCOZ findings on the 2014 Vrbetice blasts as relations between Prague and Moscow plummeted.
And Russia was effectively shut out of the multibillion-dollar contract for Dukovany when Czech Industrial Minister Karel Havlicek announced on April 19 that Rosatom would not take part in security assessments before a planned tender.
However, the Czech news website Aktualne reported that not only had senior Czech politicians known about the BIS and NCOZ findings much earlier, on April 11, but a special session of the country's security council had been canceled.
Asked why he had only canceled his trip to Moscow at the last moment despite knowing of the alleged Russian role in the blasts much earlier, Hamacek said on April 18 that he never had any intention of flying to Moscow, and that it had all been a "coordinated action." That left few convinced and many suspected that those with friendly ties with the Kremlin were intent on at least delaying the release of the BIS and NCOZ findings.
"If the FM (Foreign Ministry) AB (Andrej Babis), Hamacek and others had known about Vrbetice for some time and still got rid of Petricek, after which Hamacek wanted to go to Moscow," said Jiri Pehe, a longtime political analyst and director of New York University in Prague on Twitter on April 18.
"The whole affair begins to take on the dimensions of a huge political scandal, one in which treason cannot be ruled out."