On April 25, Czech President Milos Zeman asserted that there was no definitive proof of Russia’s involvement in a deadly 2014 ammunition blast, contradicting a statement by Prime Minister Andrej Babis the previous week. Zeman’s speech followed the expulsions of Russian diplomats by Czechia and its allies, and prompted a domestic backlash from both officials and the public.
– Conflicting high-level narratives on the explosion’s cause may jeopardise Czechia’s relations with both Russia and the West
– A new ruling coalition in the fall and a continuing Zeman presidency could heighten internal political divisions and rule out further nuclear cooperation with Russia
EXPLOSIONS, EXPULSIONS, AND ENERGY
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis asserted in mid-April that national security and intelligence services had “clear evidence” supporting a reasonable belief that Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service was involved in the October 2014 explosion at Vrbetice. According to media reports, the October 2014 explosion took place at an ammunitions depot supposedly holding weapons to be sold to Ukraine or fighters in Syria via a Bulgarian arms dealer. Two Czech citizens were killed. A second explosion at a different depot occurred two months later, with no casualties.
After Babis’ announcement, Czechia expelled 18 Russian diplomats and later ordered a further 63 to leave by the end of May. The country’s police force also released a statement identifying two Russian suspects, allegedly in the area at the time of the explosion, who resembled the two agents whom the UK linked to the 2018 Salisbury chemical weapon attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. Following the first round of expulsions, Czechia announced it would exclude Russian state-owned company Rosatom from the preliminary security screening process for a tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant. This was a surprising move, as Prague and Moscow have a long history of cooperation on nuclear power, and Russia Rosatom remains the sole provider of fuel to Czechia’s nuclear power plants and the main holder of contracts for processing waste and reactor maintenance.
In contrast to Babis’ account, President Milos Zeman recently released a statement suggesting that Czech police were exploring two working theories behind the Vrebtice blast, one of which was simply improper handling of the explosives. This statement echoed Russian attempts to cast doubt on the veracity of the account given by Babis and national security and intelligence services.
TESTING EXTERNAL TIES
After Babis’ speech and a call for diplomatic solidarity measures from EU and NATO members, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia expelled diplomats, while Romania declared a Russian diplomat persona non grata. The EU and NATO also released statements in support of the Czech government. Despite similar contexts, however, this response does not compare to the mass expulsions and reprisals that over 20 Western allies and partners implemented following the Skripal attack. In the view of German analyst Milan Nic, Zeman’s speech and the resulting inconsistency in the Czech official narrative has all but ruled out further responses from Czechia’s allies, and may damage trust and ties with those that have already acted in solidarity. It is indeed difficult to envision a different outcome in the current circumstances.
Meanwhile, Babis’ statement and diplomatic expulsions prompted fierce denials and a direct response from Russia, which expelled 20 Czech diplomats from Czechia’s Moscow embassy. Domestic and foreign observers alike characterised the incident as a major blow to Czechia-Russia relations, with some comparing its effect to the Soviet invasion of 1968. Nevertheless, the diplomatic incident is only the latest flashpoint among growing tensions between Prague and Moscow since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and domestic analysts such as Andrej Kolesnikov of Carnegie Moscow Centre predict that relations will continue to deteriorate.
Zeman is widely perceived as closely linked to the Russian Federation, and his speech provoked outrage from Czech politicians and officials, who decried it as disinformation that was conciliatory to Moscow. Indeed, a slew of statements by Russian officials soon emerged on Russian media and social media about the Czech president’s speech, saying that it confirmed a lack of evidence of Russia’s involvement and essentially exonerated Moscow.
DOMESTIC RIFTS, NUCLEAR DEALS
The duelling statements of Zeman and Babis highlight the divisions at play in Czech domestic politics. Much depends on the trajectory of these internal political dynamics, not least further nuclear cooperation with Russia. Although Zeman stated in his address that Russia could be removed from consideration for the Dukovany contract if its involvement is proven, he has openly supported awarding Rosatom the tender in the past. Senate Speaker Miloš Vystrčil saw Zeman’s recent statement as merely introducing conditionality for Rosatom’s exclusion, making this move dependent on what he considers definitive proof of Russian involvement.
Rosatom’s exclusion from the Dukovany screening process also does not mean that it cannot be reintroduced into the running later on. Some observers suggest that this possibility is most likely if Babis’ party, “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” (ANO), and its ruling coalition regain its mandate following a strong performance in the next parliamentary election in October. If voted back into power, Babis and his allies would no longer face the policy pressure of an upcoming election and could quietly walk back their stance on the tender — which some observers say was tailored for Rosatom — and return to a longstanding cooperative relationship on nuclear power. Despite their rift on Russia, a government and state headed by Babis and Zeman is likely to be the most advantageous outcome for Rosatom in the upcoming election.
However, both politicians are struggling to maintain support. ANO and its coalition with the Social Democrats recently lost their majority in parliament and the crucial support of the Communist Party, increasing the likelihood of a no-confidence vote. Polls show public support for ANO falling over the last year. The Czech Senate also passed a law that will make it easier for smaller parties to gain representation in parliament. These trends point to the potential victory of an entirely new coalition in October, possibly led by the pro-European centre-left Pirate Party that has recently overtaken ANO in the polls, or by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) as part of the conservative SPOLU opposition bloc. This outcome would likely quash Rosatom’s ambitions for the Dukovany tender entirely, as Pirate Party leadership and ODS are in favour of adjusting the parameters of the process and moving up the tender announcement to take place before a new government gains power. A sector of the opposition also supports a draft law entitled “Lex Dukovany” that could put in place security safeguards against Chinese and Russian companies. This measure may soon be reintroduced in the parliament’s lower house.
On April 29, the same day as the parliamentary threshold legislation was passed, thousands of protesters took to the streets to call for Zeman’s removal for treason following his remarks on the Vrbetice blast. But the likelihood that the push will succeed is low: a 2019 Senate bid to remove Zeman from office on the grounds that he breached the constitution failed, and the nature of political speech makes this case even more difficult to adjudicate. Even if the ruling coalition in parliament is unseated later this year, it will likely continue to coexist with the same Russia-leaning head of state.
Without a unified stance on the Vrbetice events and other key issues, Czechia may find itself increasingly distanced from its neighbours to both the West and the East, especially if the fall brings a transition of power in parliament.
Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.
Katherine is an Analyst and a long-time contributor to long-form Analysis with Foreign Brief.