Prague set to rename square outside Russian Embassy after slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov

L’ambassade de Russie, photo: ŠJů, CC BY-SA 3.0

Prague is expected to rename the city square outside Russia’s embassy in honour of slain Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in time for the fifth anniversary of his killing on February 27. The City Council is also in favour of naming a public space after Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another prominent Kremlin critic gunned down a decade earlier.

Boris Nemtsov,  photo: Dhārmikatva,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Prague 4 district assembly member Petr Kutílek of the Green Party first launched a petition to rename the square after Boris Nemtsov four years ago. Ahead of the October 2018 municipal elections, he wrote an open letter to mayoral candidates asking them to commit to the symbol gesture.

A few did, and, now – following the resubmission of an official proposal and passing one last administrative hurdle – parties leaders in the Prague municipal government are set to vote on and pass the measure, says Mr Kutílek.

“Last Wednesday, the Commission on Street Names, an advisory body to the executive City Council, had no objections to this. And they stated that they do consider both Boris Nemtsov and Anna Politkovskaya to be important personalities that do deserve a public space to be named after them in Prague.

“So, now it goes to the City Council, which I understand next week or the week after will take a vote on it. Since all three coalition partners have expressed their support, I understand it is basically a done deal.”

In recent months, the Russian Embassy has objected to moves by two individual city districts of Prague regarding memorials to Soviet-era military figures.

In one case, councillors voted to remove a statue to Marshal Ivan Konev, whose forces liberated much of Czechoslovakia during World War II, but also helped plan the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968.

In the other, a district voted to erect a memorial to the so-called Vlasov Army, which had fought alongside the Nazis but switched sides during the Prague Uprising.

I asked Mr Kutílek if he was at all concerned that renaming the square outside the Russian Embassy in Prague after Boris Nemtsov could exacerbate tensions.

“Well, I’d say there’s a slight difference in that what we’re talking about here is indeed a recent, important Russian official – a pro-democracy activist. And so this is different from the Konev / Vlasov controversy, which has to do with events some 80 years past.

Russian Embassy in Prague | Photo: ŠJů,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“The important thing to say here is that – since the presidency of Václav Havel – it has been the official Czech foreign policy priority to promote and express support for democracy and human rights around the world. It’s still in the official Czech foreign policy position papers as a part of the strategy.

“So, what we’ve been trying to do is push the City of Prague to maintain this priority – even if the national government foreign policy has been, I would say, a bit more timid on this priority over the past seven, eight years.

“This is something that is supposed to express the support and respect to those brave Russian people who actually work towards making Russia – and indeed the world – more and more democratic and peaceful. And so we hope this is going to be understood in this context.”

In late June 2017, five Chechen men were found guilty by a Moscow court jury for the contract killing of Boris Nemtsov. But his family say those who ordered and arranged the assassination have not been brought to justice.

At the time, Nemtsov was helping to organize a rally against Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin called the killing “brazen” and politically motivated, and the Kremlin has denied any involvement.