The decision to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshal Koněv from a square in Prague has led to a chain of very unlikely international incidents, culminating in direct intimidation of political representatives of a member of both the EU and NATO.
What does this recent episode say about Russia’s relations with once its satellite states, now sovereign countries? And how does this undeclared conflict between the Kremlin and Prague threaten the freedoms of every one of us?
The statue of Soviet Marshal Koněv in Prague has been the subject of a political conflict and acts of vandalism for decades. The Commander played an instrumental role in 1945, when Prague was liberated from Nazi Germany, and did so again in 1968, when Prague was re-enslaved by the Soviet Union.
Having such a public statue of a war commander who played a crucial role in one of the most regretful eras of the Czech history was, indeed, very unfortunate for the city and its inhabitants.
So when the local government of Prague 6 decided last summer to permanently remove the statue from its prominent public space, most Praguers felt relieved.
However, as the Koněv statue was finally about to be removed this March, the simple act of a local authority deciding about its public decorations within its jurisdiction, a geopolitical response was far beyond adequate.
In quick succession, the Czech Embassy of Moscow and the Consulate in St. Petersburg were attacked by Russian extremists, calling Czechs “whores” and threatening Prague with the return of Russian tanks. The Kremlin not only did not denounce such acts, but immediately passed a law punishing everyone in the world who seeks to meddle with Russian memorials.
In the last act of escalation so far, an agent from the Russian counter intelligence agency, the FSB, equipped with a diplomatic passport and the poisonous substance Ricin, traveled to Prague. The FSB is associated with assassinations of representatives of countries all over Europe.
As a precautionary measure, three municipal politicians associated with acts that supposedly counter Russian interests, the Mayor of Prague 6, Ondřej Kolář; the Mayor of Řeporyje, Pavel Novotný; and the Primator of Prague, Zděněk Hřib, were immediately given police protection.
Russia’s New Law and Its Likely Effects on Europe
The new Russian law punishes destruction or damage to military graves and other war memorials located in, or beyond, the territory of the Russian Federation. This means that any citizen, of any state throughout the world, falls under the unprecedented extraterritorial jurisdiction of this law.
Indeed, directly after the law was passed, the Russian Minister of Defence, Sergej Sojgu, called for the criminal persecution of the Prague’s Mayor, Kolář.
As an outcome, people acting out in good faith and in line with the jurisdiction of their own country can be still punished by this law on the territory of the Russian Federation (or a Russia-friendly country). And the possible punishment is not neglectable – either a considerable fine or 3 years of forced labor in Russia.
Taking this into account the fact that Russian memorials can be found all over Europe and in post-Soviet bloc especially, this legislation should become a subject of interest of the international community as traveling to Russia might become risky to any person having entanglements with such statues.
This new law on protection of Russian war memorials is also inappropriate in the light of the way the Russian Federation is treating war memorials and graves of other countries on its own territory.
Despite the agreement between Czechia and Russia on mutual maintenance of war graves from 1999, graves of Czech legionnaires who died in Russia during the World War II, these memorials are being neglected and in the highest state of deterioration.
There are known cases when the financial aid sent by Czech Ministry of Defence on their reparations was embezzled by the Russian authorities.
Lessons Learned from Estonia
Fortunately, for now at least, the severity of the steps Russia has undertaken against the Czech Republic seem rather mellow compared to those in Tallinn, Estonia, in the spring of 2007.
When Estonian officials moved to remove of the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier symbolizing the liberation Estonia from the Nazis in 1944, the Russian Federation managed to mobilize the Russian minority making up approximately one-third of the country’s population, which led to 3 days of the biggest riots and protests since the country’s independence in 1992, later referred to as the Bronze night riots.
One man was stabbed to death and about 44 protesters and 13 police officers were injured. Looters started fires and overturned cars in the historic city center, and overall 300 individuals were arrested.
This event occurred simultaneously with a series of nation-wide cyber attacks perpetrated with highest probability by Russia, of a sophistication not yet seen before.
Since, the case has been studied intensively by many countries and military planners, given that it is thought to have been the second-largest instance of state-sponsored cyber warfare in the world.
Both Houses of Russia’s Parliament urged Vladimir Putin to break off Russian relations with Estonia, with Russian MPs further accusing Estonia’s government of “fascism” and calling the statue’s removal “blasphemous and barbarous”.
Russia’s Duma voted to “demand” that Russia punish Estonia, while several MPs called for an economic boycott.
Once a Russian Satellite, Always a Russian Satellite
So, what then are the lessons that the international community can learn from the Prague (and the Estonian) experience? Apparently, Russia as a fallen power is hypersensitive towards meddling with any commemorations of its former glory.
This still developing story is another addition to already existing thousands of proofs that the Russian Federation is a direct successor of the Soviet Union and does not respect the sovereignty of other countries, and still perceives many of them as its satellites.
This dwelling on the history transforms into a ridiculous illegitimate claim on their obedience and constant need of meddling with their domestic affairs. Russia never has, and probably never will, perceive those countries as equal partners but always as former colonies to be reconquered.
This attempt to “punish” and “bring back to order” the disobedient city of Prague goes along the lines of this sentiment.
When Estonia was hacked, the NATO responded by establishing NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence in Tallinn, where the first global norm in cyberspace, the Tallinn Manual, was developed.
When Sergei Skripal, a former Russian secret agent and a citizen of the UK, was poisoned, the whole Europe joined together, condemned Russian actions, and as an act of solidarity expelled altogether 146 Russian diplomats.
And these cases were just a few of the many examples of Russian violation of another country’s sovereignty during the last years.
Joint European and NATO Response Needed
Today, the Czech Republic—an EU and NATO member—has seen its embassy in Russia attacked, it is being targeted by Russian extraterritorial jurisdiction, and its democratically elected representatives are being threatened.
Another joint response from the international community should follow. The reaction could take a form of another round of coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats.
The Foreign Affairs Council within the Council of Europe should issue a joint public statement strongly denouncing the Russian Act of Aggression.
Regarding the Russian war memorials legislation, given its unprecedented extraterritoriality, the EU should consider issuing a universal warning to all of its citizens who could somehow become a subject of criminal prosecution under this law against traveling to Russia or Russian-regime-friendly countries.
Finally, the Czech experience is a strong argument for strengthening the legal mechanisms the EU has to protect itself. The need for the adoption and prompt implementation of a Magnitsky Law is now stronger than ever.
This would enable the EU to impose targeted sanctions and travel bans on Russian officials in charge of any criminal prosecution of the three Prague mayors or any state official responsible for individuals traveling around Europe assassinating or attempting to assassinate citizens of other countries, as was the case in Bulgaria, Germany, Montenegro, and the United Kingdom.