Media Out Russian In Alleged Plot To Poison Czech Officials With Ricin
By RFE/RL May 11, 2020
PRAGUE -- Czech media have identified the man they say is the undercover Russian diplomat who entered the country nearly two months ago with a suitcase containing ricin as part of an alleged plot to poison as many as three Prague officials who had taken actions that angered the Kremlin.
In a report aired on May 10, the Czech public TV program 168 Hours quoted unnamed security sources as saying Andrei Konchakov flew to Prague's Vaclav Havel Airport two months ago with the toxin and was driven to the Russian Embassy compound in the Czech capital, long considered a nerve center of Russian espionage activities.
Konchakov, 34, rejected the allegations in comments to the Czech news site Seznam Zpravy, saying the suitcase contained "disinfectant, and candies."
"It must be some mistake," Konchakov told the news site, declining to answer further questions, saying he would need clearance from Moscow first.
Moscow, which has been accused of targeting its critics abroad, including the novichok poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018, has also denied the allegations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it "looked like a canard," while other Russian officials have called the story part of an anti-Russian campaign.
According to local media, Konchakov is suspected by Czech intelligence of working as a Russian spy. Several attempts to contact the Czech counterintelligence agency BIS to confirm those allegations were unsuccessful.
The allegations of the ricin plot were first broken by the Czech investigative weekly Respekt on April 26 and came amid reports of suspected Russia-backed hacker attacks on key Czech infrastructure. It said the targets of the alleged ricin attack were Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib as well as two of the city's district mayors, Ondrej Kolar and Pavel Novotny.
Hrib backed a move to rename the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague after slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.
Kolar supported the removal of a statue in his Prague 6 district of a World War II Soviet general, a move Russia condemned and said it was investigating as a violation of a 1993 friendship treaty between Russia and the Czech Republic.
The statue had been a source of irritation for Moscow since 2018, when a new explanatory text on the monument was unveiled. It described Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev's leading role in crushing the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, his contribution to the construction of the Berlin Wall ,and the preparation of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring.
Afterward, Czechoslovakia was taken over by a hard-line communist regime loyal to Moscow that lasted until 1989, when it was ousted in the anti-communist Velvet Revolution.
Novotny irritated Moscow when late last year he approved the construction of a monument in his Prague district to the Vlasov Army, Soviet Army defectors who fought with the Nazis but in the final days of World War II are credited with helping liberate Prague.
All three officials are now reported to be under round-the-clock police protection and Prime Minister Andrej Babis has said the Czech Republic would not tolerate "any world power" trying to interfere in its internal affairs, although few officials have publicly addressed the charges.
According to the report on 168 Hours, Koncharov arrived at Prague's airport on March 14 -- much earlier than first reports said -- with the ricin in his baggage, which, as a diplomat, he would not be obligated under standard protocol to have checked by Czech customs officials.
Seznam Zpravy said that Konchakov was picked up by a Russian Embassy driver -- identified in the report as Alexandr A. -- who is suspected by Czech intelligence of being an agent of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and is allegedly tasked with picking up Russian diplomats and taking care not only of their physical security but also any secret documents or other items they may be carrying.
Konchakov is believed to have been born in Moscow in 1986, but other public details on him are few, unclear, and even apparently contradictory. According to The Insider, a Moscow-based investigative website, Konchakov graduated from the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute (MIFI).
According to public records, it is unclear when he graduated. The Insider says Konchakov began working in Prague for Rossotrudnichestvo, a state-run agency tasked with overseeing the well-being of Russians living abroad.
He is also listed as the director of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Prague since December 2017. The center's website lists MIFI as the institute where Konchakov studied, but identifies it as the National Research Nuclear University, whose acronym is MEPhI. Further confusing the issue, it lists Konchakov's area of study as international relations.
According to Seznam Zpravy, Konchakov has lived in the Czech Republic for several years, but only gained diplomatic status last year.
The head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Yelena Mitrofanova, called the reports an "unsubstantiated provocation."
With additional reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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