Czech PM: Prague likely to expel number of Russian diplomats over nerve agent incident

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has said the Czech Republic may expel a number of Russian diplomats over the attack on a former double agent and his daughter in Britain. The prime minister made the statement at the end of an EU summit in Brussels which debated a common strategy over the incident.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
European Union leaders backed Britain on Thursday in blaming Moscow over a nerve agent attack on a former double agent in Britain agreeing to recall the EU envoy to Moscow and opening the door to additional retaliatory steps by some member states. One of the member states likely to take further action is the Czech Republic. Speaking shortly after the summit ended, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said Prague would seriously consider expelling a number of Russian diplomats over the incident.

“We are seriously considering this course of action and I will discuss the matter on Monday with Foreign Minister Stropnický and other members of the cabinet. We are likely to head in this direction.”

The prime minister said the number of expelled diplomats would be in the single digits, not dozens and would not include the ambassador.

The Czech Republic was directly drawn into the dispute after the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected responsibility for the attack, saying the nerve agent Novichok could easily have come from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, or Great Britain itself. Speaking at NATO headquarters earlier, Mr. Babiš resolutely rejected the idea calling it as a blatant lie. Czech Foreign Minister Martin Stropnický earlier summoned the Russian ambassador to explain the accusation.

Although Prague was among the first to condemn the poisoning and express solidarity with Britain over the incident, the prime minister’s statement that the country would most likely expel a number of diplomats came as a surprise, since earlier both the prime minister and foreign minister had stressed the need for coordinated EU action in this respect. To what extent the Czech prime minister’s one-on-one meeting with his British counterpart Theresa May on the sidelines of the summit may have influenced this decision is not clear.

Russian diplomats leave Russian Embassy in London,  March 20,  2018,  photo: CTK
In any case, centre-right parties in Prague have strongly supported such a move, saying it was long overdue and stressing that Prague does not need to wait for the big players to come to a decision on this matter. The Communist Party, on the other hand, sees the move as premature and opposition is also likely to come from the country’s president who is widely seen as pro-Russian.

The Russian representation in Prague is unusually large, with some 48 diplomats in residence. The Czech intelligence service has in recent years issued warnings regarding heightened activities on the part of Russian and Chinese agents in the country, and political scientists say there is no doubt that Prague has become a hub for Russian activities in broader Central Europe. According to them as many as half of the Russian diplomats here could be undercover agents.