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Prague Says Ricin Plot Was a Hoax, and Moves to Expel 2 Russians

2020-06-05 18:14:09

MOSCOW — Russia on Friday denounced a decision by the Czech Republic to expel two Russian diplomats over an alleged ricin poison plot that Czech officials now believe was a hoax engineered as part of internal quarrels in Moscow’s embassy in Prague.

The Russian Embassy described the Czech order giving the diplomats 48 hours to leave as a “fabricated provocation.” But the embassy did not challenge an assertion by Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic that “one embassy employee sent deliberately made-up information about a planned attack on Czech politicians” to the Czech intelligence service.

The claim that Russia itself was responsible for fabricating the poison plot story — denounced as a “sick fantasy” by Russia’s Foreign Ministry when it first surfaced in April — added a bizarre new twist to an episode that has roiled already strained relations between Moscow and Prague.

The two countries have been bitterly at odds for months over the removal from a Prague park of a statue celebrating the Soviet wartime hero Marshal Ivan Konev. Moscow reveres the marshal for his role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, but many Czechs consider him an architect of their country’s subjugation to Moscow after the end of World War II.

The poison plot affair began in late April, when Respekt, a Czech weekly, reported that a suspected Russian intelligence officer traveling on a diplomat passport had arrived in Prague carrying the lethal toxin ricin in his luggage.

The poison, the report said, was to be used to kill the mayor of the Prague district who had pushed to have Marshal Konev’s statue taken down and other Czech officials whom Moscow viewed as hostile to its interests. Czech officials declined at the time to confirm or deny the report.

A month later, other Czech news outlets identified the suspected ricin-carrying intelligence officer as Andrei Konchakov, the director of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Prague.

Mikhail Bryukhanov, the deputy head of Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian state organization that sent Mr. Konchakov to Prague, told the Tass news agency on Friday that Mr. Konchakov and a second employee in Prague identified only as Ryabakov had both been ordered to leave the Czech Republic within 48 hours. Both had diplomatic status.

Unconfirmed reports on social media in Russia said that Mr. Konchakov and the second employee were fierce rivals and that their office feud had generated the ricin hoax. Mr. Babis, the prime minister, said, “This whole affair was initiated as a consequence of an internal fight between employees of the Russian Embassy in Prague.” He did not elaborate.

Like the Russian Embassy, Mr. Bryukhanov did not comment directly on Czech claims that the ricin story had resulted from an internal Russian feud, saying only, “We have no reason not to trust our employees.” He added that the “Czech side has not presented a single significant qualitative fact that allows us to agree with their position.”

He described the Czech account as “low-grade material for cheap detective novels.”

Speaking to journalists on Friday in Prague, Mr. Babis, the Czech prime minister, said an embassy staff member whom he did not name had fabricated the ricin story and passed it on to the Czech intelligence service, known as BIS, which spent weeks investigating the alleged plot.

“It imposed unnecessary burden on our information and security service, complicated Czech-Russian relations and damaged the good name of the Russian Federation in the Czech Republic,” Mr. Babis said. “We are a sovereign state, and such actions are unacceptable.”

The alleged ricin conspiracy had echoes of what Britain said was a 2018 attempt by Russian operatives to kill a former Soviet spy, Sergei V. Skripal, in the English town of Salisbury with a powerful nerve agent known as novichok. Russia strenuously denied any role in that, too.

The Czech government’s claim of a hoax generated by a quarrel between Russians in Prague clears Moscow of plotting to murder Czech politicians, but it is, nonetheless, a severe embarrassment. Russia invariably blames foreign reports of murder plots and other shenanigans by its spies on “anti-Russia hysteria” and Russophobia.

The Czech Republic’s insistence that the Prague ricin story was fabricated by Russians makes it difficult to blame malicious foreigners.

Ignoring the substance of the Czech government’s reasons for expelling the two Russians, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on Friday in a statement that the Czech authorities had “acted dishonestly and dishonorably in taking this unfriendly step.” Threatening what it called “an adequate response,” it said the Czech Republic must answer “for such provocations.”

Hana de Goeij contributed reporting from Prague, and Oleg Matsnev from Moscow.


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