International Policy Digest

World News /12 Jun 2020
06.12.20

What to Make of the Czech Republic’s Ricin Scandal

On June 5, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, and foreign minister, Tomáš Petříček, revealed at a press conference the decision to declare persona non grata two Russian diplomats, Andrei Konchakov, and his colleague Igor Rybakov. The expulsion came on the heels of a spy scandal which stretched over two months, beginning with the publication in the Czech journal, Respekt, of information on the presence in Prague of a person with a diplomatic passport and a briefcase containing the deadly poison ricin.

Battle of the Chekists

According to the publication, the poison was intended for Czech politicians whose actions aroused the particular anger of Moscow, namely – the mayor of Prague’s District 6, Ondřej Kolář, who decided to remove a monument to Soviet commander Ivan Stepanovic Konev, and Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, whose administration renamed the square in front of the Russian Embassy in honor of murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. The police provided protection for all three. Soon thereafter appeared the name of the ill-fated diplomat – the aforementioned Andrei Konchakov who, according to media reports, is a member of the FSB.

However, according to Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, the diplomats were not expelled for any attempt to poison Czech officials. According to the Czech side, Rybakov wrote a false denunciation to local counterintelligence on his colleague because of a longstanding conflict with him. It was this false information that placed an unnecessary burden on the Czech special services and aggravated relations between the two countries leading Prague to expel both FSB diplomats from the country.

Main Inconsistencies

Such a version of events gives birth to more questions than answers.

First, the position of Czech authorities, expelling both the informant and his “victim” is illogical. According to Babiš’ own information, at a minimum one of the two diplomats had to be innocent, so it is unclear as to why he was declared “undesirable.”

Second, we cannot confirm the actual existence of the ricin, but we can attest to the fact that information about it came from many different sources rather than just one anonymous denunciation. Andrei Konchakov’s name was not first published in Czech media, but rather by the British investigative center Dossier on its Telegram channel on May 10th. The British did not cite Czech media in their report, but rather information from the border control database in Moscow, which at a minimum suggests other sources. Czech journalists also declared in an interview with the TV channel “Current Time” that information on the involvement of a diplomat in a murder attempt was received and confirmed from various, independent sources.

Third, the reaction of the Czech special services does not fit with the version about an anonymous denunciation. The speed with which the targets of the alleged assassination were protected and how seriously they took the threat themselves, suggests that the source was credible in the eyes of Czech officials.

Of course, the aggressive declarations of the Russian Foreign Ministry, threats from numerous Russian sponsored Internet trolls directed at Czech political figures, and the history of preceding murders also dictated that such threats should be taken seriously. In fact, less than two years after the attack by GRU officers on former Russian intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal, the prosecutor’s office of Bulgaria officially accused three Russians in the failed assassination attempt against arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, as well as his son and colleague. Soon after this, in February of the following year, information came to light that the FSB’s Vympel special forces unit organized the murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin. In any case, Czech counterintelligence would hardly have leaked information about ricin to the media if their only source was an anonymous denunciation.

The subsequent expulsion of Rybakov does not fit into this version either. If he still has ties to the FSB and came into contact with NATO counterintelligence, this would more likely become the basis for his subsequent recruitment rather than expulsion and a public scandal.

Fourth, Rybakov as an experienced FSB officer, would hardly have risked such a thing over a quarrel with a colleague at Rossotrudnichestvo. As many observers rightly point out, such actions qualify as high treason and are not forgiven by the Kremlin.

This is also the opinion of Czech resident Andrey Kurochkin, a Russian dissident and Director of the Prague branch of the Free Russia Foundation. He thinks it is unlikely that a person at Rybakov’s level would have committed such self-destructive action.

“This is foolishness. It is impossible that Rybakov would not have considered the effects of his actions and not have understood that such a denunciation is the equivalent of treason,” he declared in a Newsader interview.

Dangerous Connections

In Kurochkin’s opinion, such a strange version of events demonstrates that Moscow and Prague have agreed to suppress the story and lay the blame for everything at the feet of the unlucky Chekist.

“It was a very serious scandal which gives the impression that they are trying to hush it up by attributing everything to a quarrel between two diplomats. In truth, the situation is much more serious because otherwise, it would not have risen to such a level of tension leading to a tedious bargain and such a strange conclusion,” noted Andrey Kurochkin.

That the Czech authorities wish to avoid a sharpening of the conflict with Russia is completely understandable. Recognition of a credible ricin threat would require them to take more radical measures that the Czech government was clearly not prepared to do. President Miloš Zeman has been called the most pro-Russian politician in Europe who frequently parrots the Kremlin line, denied the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine, agreed that Crimea belongs to Russia, and demanded that the West lift the sanctions levied against Russia. Also, he has frequently publicly criticized the BIS security service for overestimating the danger of Russian activities in the Czech Republic.

Analysts attribute the position of the Czech president to his former ties to the Kremlin, including financial ties. At the beginning of May the Ukrainian publication, Gordon, published an investigation of these ties beginning with the scheme to sell Czech public debt proposed by Russia to the company Falkon Capital, which became, in fact, mutually beneficial “sharing” of Soviet debt. This investigation also includes the names of several Czech politicians and businessmen with Russian connections, including Zdeněk Zbytek. By the way, Zbytek is a close friend of Miloš Zeman and supported him in his election in an interview he granted to the Czech media. He spoke positively about Andrei Konchakov, calling him “an excellent boy,” and for many years he rented an office in the same building complex in Prague, where the Russian Science and Culture Center was headed by Konchakov.

One can draw only one conclusion from all of this: information concerning any radical actions of the Kremlin in other countries should be taken seriously and, at least, carefully checked, and the story of the “battle of diplomats” looks like a clumsy cover for some much more serious things.