Is Prague trolling Moscow by honouring slain Putin critic?

Source: Aljazeera / / By Tim Gosling /

The square on which the Russian embassy stands will be renamed to honour Boris Nemtsov, killed near the Kremlin in 2015.

Boris Nemtsov
Boris Nemtsov led protests against Putin, and called for the release of ‘political prisoners’ Photo: May 2013/Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Prague, Czech Republic – The Czech capital risks angering the Kremlin with plans to rename a public square after murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

The change of name at “Pod Kastany Namesti” (“Under the Chestnuts Square”) in Prague will do little to improve recently strained relations with Moscow. The square, in reality little more than a tree-lined road junction in the leafy Prague 6 suburb, hosts the Russian embassy.

The move extends a series of controversies spurred by officials in the Czech capital that appear designed to reassert the EU member state’s pro-Western foreign policy orientation, in opposition to efforts by populists to pull the country closer to countries like Russia and China.

“This is in line with the Czech tradition of respect for human rights,” Prague’s mayor Zdenek Hrib told Al Jazeera, referring to the foreign policy stance developed under the Czech Republic’s first president, Vaclav Havel.

The three opposition parties that control Prague city council have indicated they will all support the name change in a vote on February 24. A ceremony is arranged for three days later – the fifth anniversary of Nemtsov’s assassination. Hrib says the former politician’s daughter, Zhanna, will attend.

Nemstov, a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, was a staunch critic of Vladimir Putin’s administration. He was shot while crossing a bridge close to the Kremlin walls on February 27, 2015.

Five Chechens were jailed for carrying out the contract killing by a Moscow court in 2017. However, the identity of who commissioned the attack remains unknown. Russian opposition figures allege the Kremlin was involved.

Hrib says Prague was joining “an international initiative”. Streets around Russian embassies in Washington, Kyiv and Vilnius have also adopted Nemtsov’s name, sparking anger in Moscow.

Prague also plans to name an approach to the square through an adjacent park after Anna Politkovskaya, a high-profile journalist and critic of the Kremlin who was assassinated as she entered her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

The Russian embassy in Prague did not respond to a request for comment.

The proposed name changes are the latest jolt in relations between the two countries, which have been tested by various parts of the Czech political establishment in recent months.

Moscow reacted with fury last year to a decision by Ondrej Kolar, the mayor of Prague 6, to move a statue of a Red Army general out of the district.

In comments to Al Jazeera, Kolar said the Russian embassy had orchestrated protests from local far-right and far-left groups. His family is still under police protection following threats.

The Czech Republic is believed to be a regional hub for Russian intelligence

Prague Security Studies Institute

In November, the Russian foreign ministry noted “yet another truly horrible report from Prague”, and slammed plans by the mayor of Reporyje district to build a monument to the controversial Vlasov Army, a World War II military unit made up of Russian defectors, as the “criminal rewriting of history”.

Meanwhile, Czech security services (BIS) have issued increasingly urgent warnings that the threat from Russian and Chinese espionage and hybrid warfare operations is rising.

“The Czech Republic is believed to be a regional hub for Russian intelligence,” state analysts at the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) reported. “Intelligence personnel represent around one-third of the embassy staff, in addition to those without diplomatic cover.”

The Czech foreign ministry has also risked Russia’s wrath by asking the embassy to reduce its headcount. The giant neo-Baroque villa in the Bubenec diplomatic district reportedly houses more staff than its counterpart in London.

These controversies are seen as part of a wider pushback against an “alternative foreign policy” crafted by outspoken populist president Milos Zeman.

Alongside a penchant for crude attacks on immigrants, Islam and liberals, the septuagenarian head of state has long sought to expand the powers of his largely ceremonial office.

In particular, Zeman has worked to replace Havel’s foreign policy legacy with a more “pragmatic” approach. He has sought closer ties with authoritarian regimes to the east, including Russia and China, often in contrast to official government policy, which follows the lines set by the European Union and NATO.

“President Zeman has repeatedly called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia,” note the PSSI analysts. “Among his closest allies and supporters are … entrepreneurs with well-established ties to Russian businessmen and diplomats.”

In reaction to the security service’s warnings on Russia and China, Zeman called the BIS security agents “bozos”.

However, since Hrib’s election as Prague mayor in November 2018, relations with China have gone backwards. Prague’s refusal to recognise the “one China” policy has provoked cultural and economic sanctions from Beijing.

The city administration’s proposal to honour Politkovskaya appears particularly pointed. In a meeting with Putin in 2015, Zeman “joked” that journalists should be “liquidated”, a comment that appeared to make the Russian president uncomfortable.

Zeman was quick to slam the plans to rename the square. His spokesman accused Prague officials of abusing Nemtsov’s name. Members of fringe political parties – including the nationalist Tricolor and far-right SPD – also condemned the move.

Hrib insisted, however, that “Mr Nemtsov’s daughter has requested the change and will come to the ceremony, so I don’t think anyone can suggest any misuse of the name”. He added that the Russian ambassador had also been invited, although he had not yet responded.

“I think all Russians should be happy that we’re honouring their former deputy prime minister,” the mayor declared.

However, Hrib skirted questions regarding the potential effects on foreign relations, as well as accusations that his run-ins with Russia and China could be motivated by self-promotion.

A senior official at the foreign ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that the recent spats have complicated international relations, and criticised both “local politicians trying to raise their profile”, and the “trolling” of government foreign policy by the presidential office.

However, the source also suggested that Russia was an enthusiastic participant in such shenanigans. With an eye on debates over EU sanctions against Moscow, “there are always attempts to create disunity”, he said, adding that the controversies in Prague only help “the Kremlin’s propaganda machine” justify its criticism of the West and claims of Russophobia.

“It’s important to show the Russians that we are an emancipated country,” adds Kolar, who will attend the ceremony on February 27. “However, I’m afraid that this renaming will only help ‘Zeman and his boys’ spread their pro-Russian propaganda further in the Czech regions.”