Czech president causes outrage as he questions Russian involvement in Vrbětice explosion

Miloš Zeman

There are two working versions of what happened in Vrbětice, one is that there was Russian involvement; the other is that it was caused by bad handling of the munitions, President Miloš Zeman said in a televised address on Sunday about how he views the 2014 explosion in the Czech munitions depo, which caused two deaths and billions of crowns in losses. The president’s long-anticipated address stirred strong criticism among experts, opposition politicians and even high ranking constitutional officials.

After a week of silence, Czech President Miloš Zeman gave a televised address on Sunday in which he laid out his thoughts on what caused the explosion at the Vrbětice munitions depo in 2014.

He said that he is not yet persuaded that Russia played a role in the explosion, warning of what he called “hysteria” and “speculation”.

“No sovereign country can allow two agents of a foreign state to undertake a terrorist attack on its soil. One in which two Czech citizens died and billions were incurred in damages.

“On the other hand, we are working with two versions in the investigation. The first, the original version, is that the explosion was caused by unprofessional handling of the material. The second is that this was a foreign intelligence operation. I am taking both of these versions seriously and hope that they are investigated in full.”

Vrbětice | Photo: Dalibor Glück,  ČTK

The Czech president went into considerable detail about the information that he was given access to in connection to the Vrbětice incident. He said, for example, that the conclusion of the original investigation was that the explosion had been an accident caused by unprofessional handling of the explosives.

President Zeman also said that, if the accusation that Russian agents were behind the explosion is confirmed, there should be consequences.

“Although I support correct relations with all of the leading states, it is necessary that the Russian Federation pay for this action, if it is proven to have taken place. For example, this could be done by excluding [Russia’s nuclear energy corporation] Rosatom from the Dukovany nuclear power plant tender.”

The statement that there are two working versions of what caused the Vrbětice explosion came under fire not just from pundits and opposition politicians, but also from high ranking officials.

For example, Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Jan Hamáček told TV Nova that Miloš Zeman’s focus on exploring two possible versions of what may have happened was more beneficial to Russia than to the Czech Republic.

On Monday, Mr. Hamáček went further by saying that, as far as he was aware of, there is only one version of events in the investigation and it is directly connected to the movements of Russian intelligence unit 29155.

Several commentators also said that the president's statement does not help bolster international support for the Czech Republic in what has become a diplomatic standoff and instead helps Russian claims of deniability.

The leader of the opposition Pirate Party, Ivan Bartoš said that the president had been using "hypotheses" and questioned the integrity of his country's own intelligence services which provided the evidence.

Miloš Vystrčil | Photo: Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

In a subsequent discussion pannel on CNN Prima News, Speaker of the Senate Miloš Vystrčil said that the president may have divulged sensitive information about a live case by going into extensive detail and that this could in turn hamper the investigation.

“I think it is very irresponsible. It could lead to a security threat for the Czech Republic.

“Furthermore, as someone who was present at the meetings where we were provided with details on the investigation, I can say that there were some parts of the details which the president chose not to disclose, but must surely be aware of.”

Several analysts have also pointed out that the president's conclusion that Rosatom could be excluded from the Dukovany nuclear power plant tender if the investigation proves Russian involvement in the Vrbětice explosion is off point, becuase the Czech government already decided to exclude Rosatom from the Dukovany tender last week.

Mr. Vystrčil told CNN Prima News that this could in fact be an attempt to keep Rosatom in the tender, by conditioning its exclusion to definitive proof that Russian intelligence was not behind the explosion.

President Zeman's doubts about what happened in Vrbětice were widely cited in Russian state media on Sunday.