After a week of silence, Czech President Milos Zeman has finally commented on the Vrbetice arms depot explosion that has wrecked Czech-Russian relations, saying that the report issued by the Czech counter-intelligence agency BIS is not definitive and the 2014 explosion could have been an accident.
The pro-Russian president's belated intervention was immediately criticised by opposition parties, who accused him of confusing the government's message to its Nato and EU allies, but it was welcomed by the Kremlin.
Zeman pointed to the fact the BIS has no direct evidence that two Russian GRU agents were actually present in the Vrbetice arms depot. "However, it does not mean that the suspicion of their involvement is not serious," Zeman said.
He called for a thorough investigation into the explosions in 2014, saying that no sovereign country could tolerate having foreign agents carrying out terrorist attacks on its territory.
Zeman said Russia should pay for the terrorist attack, but only if the involvement of Russian agents is confirmed, which could include elimination of Russian company Rosatom from the tender for the completion of the Dukovany nuclear plant. Zeman has been a strong supporter of Rosatom being allowed in the tender but the government has now expelled it on security grounds.
He also said he fully trusted the Czech police and the Supreme State Attorney's office, intentionally avoiding praising BIS for its work due to his long-term dislike of the agency and its head Michal Koudelka, whom he has repeatedly tried to remove.
Zeman did not mentioned the expulsion of Russian agents from the country or the government’s follow-up in the matter.
The explosion at the Vrbetice depot, in the Zlin Region, in October 2014, killed two people and resulted in the evacuation of nearby areas. The second explosion at a nearby depot later in December resulted in further evacuations, but no casualties.
At the time, the depot reportedly contained weapons that were to be sold to a Bulgarian arms dealer and supplied to Ukraine, to help it in its conflict with Russian-backed separatist forces. The explosion was probably not meant to take place in the Czech Republic, but during its transport to another country, according to the Czech News Agency.
After tit-for-tat rounds of expulsions, both countries will reduce the number of embassy staff to 7 diplomats, 25 administrative and technical workers and 19 local support staff by the end of May.
According to the opposition, Zeman's comments opened the door to the Russian disinformation campaign and questioned the already known information and the work of BIS. Some of them even noted he intentionally lied in favour of the Russian Federation.
“He should have supported the government, I did not hear [it] there," said former PM Bohuslav Sobotka (Social Democrats) on Czech television, stressing that this undermines Czech diplomatic efforts and relativizes the message sent to partners. “They will ask where [the truth] is,” he added.
Sobotka was premier at the time and was constantly in conflict with Zeman, a former leader of his party. Deputy premier Jan Hamacek, Sobotka's successor, said on Sunday that Zeman's speech has not been helpful and that it would have made Moscow "most happy".
According to Civic Democrats chairman Petr Fiala, the president's "special speech" has not been special at all. "Milos Zeman could have said it all a week ago. We are in an absurd situation: the whole country is relieved that the president did not go directly against the interests of the Czech Republic. [However], he questioned everything in some way," he said.
Jan Farsky, a member of the STAN movement (Mayors and Independents, which is in coalition with Pirates for the autumn elections), said that Zeman's speech had a basic goal, to open the gates for the Russian disinformation campaign. "He shattered, questioned, and supported the version of ´who knows how it was´," he said.
"As a member of the Parliamentary Security Committee, I must state that [Zeman] does not have accurate information and he either deliberately misinterprets it to the public or is just mistaken," said STAN leader Vit Rakusan on Twitter.
According to Rakusan, the information received by the members of the committee is complete and “I can only speculate as to why he is playing the Russian aggression down. I can only speculate as to why he is opening the gates to disinformation campaigns.”
“Evidence has been presented in the House, and also to our EU and Nato partners. Nevertheless, the president speaks at the level of hypotheses and questions the credibility of his own country's security services. I believe that despite this relativizing speech, the government will continue its confident policy," commented the chair of the Pirates Ivan Bartos.
According to the head of TOP09 Marketa Pekarova, it was not a speech for Czech citizens, but rather a speech for the Russian Federation. "Trivialization, raising doubts, slander. All this cleverly wrapped up," she said.
Russia´s response, as expected by the Czech politicians, came straight away. The first deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma and head of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Pyotr Tolstoy said Zeman’s statement on Russia´s alleged involvement was the first step towards debunking the fake accusations against Russia, as reported by TASS.
"Czech President Milos Zeman recognized that there is no evidence of the involvement of Russian intelligence services in the Vrbetice blasts, the investigation is not yet over and its results will be made public," he wrote on his Telegram channel.
"Zeman’s statement is the first case when the notorious highly likely principle that was used to accuse Russia of all deadly sins in the recent years was actually debunked," he stressed, adding that he is sure that all other fake accusations against Russia will be dispelled sooner or later.
"Over the recent seven years of investigation, the country’s government has had no grounds, let alone any evidence, to make such statements," the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in an interview with the Rossiya-1 television channel.
"It has emerged that there were depots that were not controlled by that country’s government, by neither of its official structures in the Czech Republic," she said, quoted by TASS.
"The most peculiar thing about this is that as follows from media reports, notably, from Western media reports, a private company owned by a citizen of a Nato state, specifically, Bulgaria, was operating in the Czech Republic," she added.
In response to Zeman's speech, Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov said on his Twitter that it is no surprise Czechs do "not have any evidence, because it simply does not exist," adding that this was a "propaganda attack" on Russia under the baton of the West. According to Puskov, Zeman's speech seriously questioned the "Russian version" of the Vrbetice explosions.
Russian political scientist Andrej Kolesnikov from Carnegie Moscow Centre noted that Czechia is not perceived in Russia as part of the "Axis of Evil" and relations between the two countries will continue to deteriorate.
According to Kolesnikov, Moscow has been warning individual EU members against acting in solidarity with Czechia. So far, Slovakia announced expelling three Russian diplomats last week, followed by the three Baltic states, which declared four Russian diplomats personae non gratae in solidarity.
Also Germany confirmed it will discuss possible steps to support Czechia with other EU member states and Nato. German diplomatic representatives in Moscow have also offered a support to Czech embassy to help it preserve its operation, said German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr.
According to the website of the Slovak private television channel JOJ, one of the three Russian diplomats, Yuri Penkov, who was expelled from Slovakia, is the alleged head of the Bratislava cell of the GRU.
"As a sign of solidarity with our Czech allies and due to the violation of the Vienna Convention, Latvia decided to expel the Russian diplomat," said Latvian Foreign Manager Rinkevich, TASS quoted.
"Latvia will not suffer subversive activity on its territory or on the territory of its partners and allies," Rinkevich said. Lithuania expelled two Russians, Estonia one.