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The would be trip to Moscow and the questions left behind it

AVION
©EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK  |   People board the Russian special government plane landed at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague, Czech Republic, 29 May 2021. Tension in Czech-Russian relations resulted from the findings of the Czech intelligence services asserting that members of the Russian secret service GRU were involved in the explosion of an ammunition complex in Vrbetice in 2014. The Czech Republic expelled 18 diplomats who were identified as members of the Russian secret services GRU and SVR from the Russian Embassy in Prague in April 2021. In retaliation, Russia then identified as undesirable 20 employees of the Czech Embassy in Moscow. Later, after diplomatic negotiations failed, the Czech side decided to reduce the number of Russian Embassy workers in Prague to cap the current number of staff at the Czech Embassy in Moscow by the end of May 2021.

The case of Vrbětice – the revelation that explosions of ammunition depots in 2014 were apparently caused by agents of the Russian military intelligence GRU – shook relations between Prague and Moscow in April. In May, there was a quake on the domestic political scene.

Did minister Hamáček want to offer Czechia’s silence for one million vaccines?

On Tuesday, May the 4th, the Seznam zpravy website published an article with very explosive potential, which questioned the role of Interior Minister Jan Hamáček: "Testimony: Hamáček wanted to exchange Vrbětice for a million Sputniks in Moscow".

What is the text about? On April 15, two days before the announcement of the Vrbětice case, a secret meeting took place at the Ministry of the Interior, which was attended by Hamáček – Minister of the Interior and interim Foreign Minister – the heads of two secret services, the Czech Ambassador to Moscow, the police chief, and the public prosecutor.

"According to a number of witnesses, the Minister of the Interior, who was in charge of managing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, actually wanted to go to Moscow with a plan to muzzle the international scandal related to the attack with Sputnik V vaccine supplies and float the possibility of a meeting of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (in Prague)," the website wrote.

The Chamber of Deputies met on the same day, and the opposition parties publicly demanded Hamáček's resignation. Their representatives also spoke about treason. The deputies met in closed session, where the participants of this meeting at the Interior Ministry were supposed to speak – but finally they did not get the word out due to a quarrel between politicians.

However, all participants in the meeting at the Interior Ministry – except for the police chief, who refused to comment on the matter – on various occasions denied that Jan Hamáček planned such a trade with the Russians.

Hamáček insists that he never said or planned anything like that. According to him, the planned trip should never have taken place and was intended to cover up preparations for the announcement of the case and the expulsion of Russian diplomats. The minister announced that he would sue Seznam zpravy for ten million crowns and would ask for an apology.

However, the site insists that it has this information from several sources.

The details of the would be visit

So what do we know about Hamáček's trip to Moscow and what was its fallout? Although hundreds of articles have been written about it, there are still many questions to answer. The reason is also that a large part of the information concerning the Vrbětice affair, and its preparation is classified.

First, let's briefly recall the events. On Monday, April the 12th, Tomáš Petříček, Minister of Foreign Affairs, was removed from the office, and his party chief, Hamáček, temporarily took over. That same day, he announced at the press conference that he was "ready to fly to Moscow and negotiate supplies of Sputnik V".

It is important to remember that at the moment Hamáček already knew that Russia was behind the explosions in Vrbětice – the Prime Minister and key ministers were told about it on April the 7th.

On Wednesday, April 14, Hamáček announced that he would fly to Moscow on Monday, April 19. On that day, journalists managed to find out the first details about the planned program and participants. The minister was to meet with the Russian Minister of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov, and the President of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin. He was to be accompanied by the former Speaker of the Slovak Parliament Andrej Danko, who arranged the meeting with the Russian Minister.

On Friday, April 16, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced without further details that Hamáček would not fly to Moscow. Then no one commented on the situation until on Saturday, April 17, Babiš and Hamáček spoke side by side and announced the expulsion of 18 Russian agents under diplomatic cover as a reaction to Russia's involvement in the explosions in Vrbětice.

The press conference had to take place on Monday, April 19, but politicians had to speed up the announcement because some journalists were already working with the information. The trip to Moscow and the announcement of the whole case were planned for the same day.

This is the first problem of the whole thing – Hamáček could hardly have been in Moscow on the day when the biggest scandal in Czech-Russian relations in the last decade was to start.

However, the trip was really being prepared to the last details. The army received a request for an aircraft and was prepared to fly there. The countries on the route were informed that Hamáček would travel through their airspace.

Why invent the visit? Hamáček‘s explanations

The minister claims that the preparations for the trip were necessary to keep Russia off its guard. 

But what why the charade? According to Hamáček, it was all done in order to allow the Czech ambassador to Moscow Vítězslav Pivoňka to return to Prague without arousing suspicion in Russia. He says it was necessary to discuss the whole matter with him personally; among other things, they wanted to prepare the Czech embassy for the expected expulsions of diplomats.

"We would have to work it out better. The reason was the arrival of the ambassador from Russia. And if the trip were to look real, it had to be planned in detail. That's why we made a request for a plane, a request for flights over states, and so on. The trip was simply planned, Ambassador Pivoňka returned to Prague, and it was decided that it would be canceled. That's all. I don't understand where the problem is" Hamáček said.

Although Pivoňka publicly supported Hamáček, he never explicitly confirmed his version. "I stand behind Minister Hamáček," he said without elaborating. It is interesting that Hamáček began to negotiate the ambassador's return as the Minister of the Interior and didn’t inform Foreign Minister Petříček, who was sacked a few days later at his suggestion.

The diplomat returned to Prague on April 14, and there was no apparent reason to continue planning the trip if it were camouflage. But that day Hamáček officially announced that he will go to Moscow on April 19. 

How does he explain it? "Until we could meet physically, I kept that trip. And as we discussed all aspects, it was clear that there would be no visit. (...) We said that we would not cancel it until April 19. That was the agreement," explains Hamáček. In addition, he was allegedly asked by some secret services not to cancel the journey sooner to give them time to warn or withdraw their people abroad.

However, his version of the cover-up maneuver does not have much support at the highest levels of politics. Prime Minister Babiš has repeatedly refused to confirm it, and President Miloš Zeman even stated in an interview that his political ally Hamáček had “reasonably“ prepared a real visit to Moscow. Hamáček claims that none of them were initiated into the plan from the beginning.

Therefore, journalists have not yet been able to verify what was the real story. The version that he planned to trade the case Vrbětice for Sputnik and the Putin-Biden summit is not confirmed nor directly denied by all available testimony. The police, which is already dealing with the circumstances of the trip, might provide more answers.

Blurring the truth with a web of conflicting narratives

The situation concerning the visit to Moscow may be one of the reasons why the Czech Republic has received relatively cold support from the Allies – it’s difficult to understand what and why politicians do. And it can probably confuse even the domestic audience. In a recent survey, 45 percent of respondents said that they believe Russia was involved in explosions in Vrbětice. However, as many as 35 percent answered "I don't know". There are other factors which may have contributed to this uncertainty: the President repeats that the investigators have two different theories concerning the Vrbětice case, including one about an alleged unprofessional handling of ammunition, and according to the Minister of Justice Marie Benešová, there are even three. Eventually, the minister admitted that she had no such information from the police. According to the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, investigators are dealing with only one version – involvement of the Russian secret services.

While claims about various versions or any other ambiguity were used by Russia to question the Czech position, Hamáček's planned trip was never publicly commented upon by officials in Moscow, so the media worked only with Czech news.

Despite the sharp calls of the opposition, Hamáček remains in office. But uncertainty about his actions may bring more problems to the Czech Social Democratic Party, which he leads. This party, which won the elections in 2013 and now is part of coalition, has no certainty that it will enter into the Chamber of Deputies in October election (the latest poll gives it 3.6 percent, needs at least five percent) and the scandal around its chairman means the party is heading for a complicated campaign. The party was in a free fall even before the Moscow trip scandal; in fact, Hamáček seems to have wanted to get the vaccines and the Biden-Putin meeting just to give the party a boost.




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  • The case of Vrbětice – the revelation that explosions of ammunition depots in 2014 were apparently caused by agents of the Russian military intelligence GRU – shook relations between Prague and Moscow in April. In May, there was a quake on the domestic political scene.
  • On Tuesday, May the 4th, the Seznam zpravy website published an article with very explosive potential, which questioned the role of Interior Minister Jan Hamáček: "Testimony: Hamáček wanted to exchange Vrbětice for a million Sputniks in Moscow". What is the text about? On April 15, two days before the announcement of the Vrbětice case, a secret meeting took place at the Ministry of the Interior, which was attended by Hamáček – Minister of the Interior and interim Foreign Minister – the heads of two secret services, the Czech Ambassador to Moscow, the police chief, and the public prosecutor. "According to a number of witnesses, the Minister of the Interior, who was in charge of managing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, actually wanted to go to Moscow with a plan to muzzle the international scandal related to the attack with Sputnik V vaccine supplies and float the possibility of a meeting of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (in Prague)," the website wrote.
  • The minister claims that the preparations for the trip were necessary to keep Russia off its guard. But what why the charade? According to Hamáček, it was all done in order to allow the Czech ambassador to Moscow Vítězslav Pivoňka to return to Prague without arousing suspicion in Russia. He says it was necessary to discuss the whole matter with him personally; among other things, they wanted to prepare the Czech embassy for the expected expulsions of diplomats.
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