UNLIKE TEENS, countries rarely write lists of their enemies. But Russia is doing it. On May 14, he published a list of “hostile countries”. Oddly, there were only two names on it: the United States and the Czech Republic. The latter was unexpected, but explainable. In April, the Czech government revealed that a deadly explosion in 2014 at an ammunition depot in the town of Vrbetice, believed to be accidental, had been set off by Russian agents. (Some of the ammunition was intended for Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed rebels.) The Czechs and Russians have since expelled dozens of diplomats from each other. Relations are now as bitter as at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union (but not as bad as in 1968, when tanks from Moscow entered Czechoslovakia to overthrow a reformist government).
It does not suit the Kremlin. He needs friends inside the EU to avoid further penalties for his latest misdeeds. While most Czechs are suspicious of Russia, it has long been able to count on Czech President Milos Zeman, a staunch populist who likes to set off rhetorical explosions. Mr Zeman questioned intelligence agencies in his own country for blaming the explosion on Russia. During a visit by the Serbian President on May 18, he asked for forgiveness for NATOThe bombing of Belgrade in 1999, clearly trying to suggest that the Russians weren’t the only ones blowing things up.
Zeman also called Russia’s enemies list “stupid,” and his powers as president are limited. But the government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis is hanging by a thread. The Czech Communist Party, an unreformed organization friendly to Russia that holds 8% of the seats in parliament, stopped supporting the coalition in April, depriving it of its majority. If Mr Babis falls, Mr Zeman could decide who will lead a caretaker government until the October election.
The biggest consequence of the quarrel concerns the modernization of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, originally built by the Soviet Union. The national electricity company plans to build at least one new reactor by 2036 for 6 billion euros ($ 7.3 billion), although analysts fear the cost could be twice as high. After the Vrbetice affair, the government announced that Rosatom, the Russian nuclear consortium, had been excluded from the tender.
However, experts say Russian companies were only kicked out in the initial phase and may end up winning contracts later. Having built Dukovany, they have an advantage over their competitors, France EDF, South Korea KHNP and the Japanese-American company Westinghouse. “If you ask Czech engineers, they mostly say it would be for the Russians,” says Martin Jirusek, an energy industry expert at Masaryk University.
Czech views on Russia have often been sawed off. Last spring, the two countries quarreled over the removal of a statue of a Soviet general, Marshal Konev, hailed for liberating the country from the Nazis in 1945, then vilified for planning the invasion in 1968. But the opinions of the West can also be suspicious. . A survey in 2020 by CVVM, a pollster, found that by a margin of two to one, the Czechs are happy that their country is NATO member, but they are almost equally divided on whether this is a guarantee of independence or a form of subjugation to foreign powers. List of enemies or not, some Czechs still hesitate to take sides. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “The Spirit of 68”