City councillors in Prague are expected to controversially rename a public square in the Czech capital after slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
The move is likely to inflame tensions with Moscow as the square is located near the Russian embassy in Prague.
Nemtsov, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead in central Moscow five years ago this month.
The move to rename the square is also another indication of concerns amongst some of the Czech Republic’s political class that the country’s foreign policy is too closely aligned with authoritarian governments, like those in Russia and China.
The smaller opposition parties that control Prague’s administration have also engaged in a year-long spat with Beijing.
“Czech politics has been strongly divided in relation to Russia for several years,” said Lubomir Kopecek, a political science professor at the Masaryk University.
The renaming of the square, he added, is also a “symbolic expression” against Czech President Milos Zeman, the leading proponent of closer relations with Moscow.
The renaming of the square — called Pod Kaštany Náměstí — is expected before February 27, the fifth anniversary of the Nemtsov’s assassination.
A deputy prime minister in Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government in the 1990s, Nemtsov was one of the loudest critics of Russian leader Vladimir Putin until he was shot dead in Moscow in 2015.
Prague’s councillors also want to rename another public area in the city after the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006.
Russian prosecutors have jailed dozens of people for these two murders, but critics of Putin allege that Nemtsov and Politkovskaya were assassinated on orders from the political elite.
Renaming a public area after Nemtsov was first raised in 2016 by a Prague district councillor, Petr Kutilek, a member of the Green Party, a small opposition group. The same councillor raised the issue again in 2018 and last year.
The Russian Embassy in Prague had not commented on this matter at time of publication, and calls to the embassy went unanswered.
But it recently reproached Prague councillors for also wanting to remove memorials of Soviet-era military figures, including a Russian general who helped organise the Soviet Union’s military invasion to put down the Prague Spring, a pro-democracy protest in 1968.
The former communist state was a member of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact alliance system until 1989 when nationwide protests led to the fall of its socialist government.
“This is another gesture by the current Prague coalition government meant to symbolise support for those who oppose authoritarian steps in Russia and beyond,” said Richard Turcsanyi, director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies at Palacky University.
Indeed, this potential dispute with Moscow comes amid a year-long spat between Prague authorities and the Chinese government after the capital city’s mayor cancelled its sister city relationship with Beijing last year.
Zdenek Hrib, the mayor, is a vocal critic of China’s human rights record and opposed the sister-city accord because of its conditions on accepting the “one China” policy, Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan formally belongs to the mainland.
Last month Hrib announced that Prague will now instead have sister-city status with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
What began as a relatively minor affair between Prague and Beijing last year escalated into what some analysts now call a “culture war” in the Czech Republic, with the population polarised over whether China has too much influence in the country.
A Pew Research survey from last year found that 57 per cent of Czechs held unfavourable views of China, the second-highest in Europe. They are more divided on Russia, however.
Hrib is a member of the Czech Pirate Party, an opposition group that came third at last year’s European Parliamentary elections, and depends on support from smaller parties, including the Green Party.
But there are suggestions these opposition parties now oppose the Czech Republic’s relations with Russia and China in order to burnish their pro-democracy credentials ahead of next year’s legislative elections
Politics by other means
The decision to rename the square after the slain Russian opposition leader is “unfortunately less about commemoration and tribute to Nemtsov and more about populist political marketing of the politicians,” said Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the University of Economics, Prague.
“You could find many other places in Prague that could be named as Nemtsov Square” other than the one near the Russian embassy, she added.
The largest protests in the Czech Republic since the fall of its communist system took place last June, as an estimated 200,000 people protested against the actions of the government, mainly Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a populist politician who is also one of the country’s richest men.
Babis has been investigated by Brussels for an alleged fraud of European Union subsidies, while in December local prosecutors re-opened investigations into his business dealings.
Large demonstrations also took place in December, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that brought an end to the communist regime, to protest against Babis and Zeman.
“Russia and China are perceived in the Czech Republic as main symbols of the non-democratic world and any gesture symbolising opposition towards them is welcomed by the liberal and pro-Western sections of the public,” said Turcsanyi.
He added that the renaming of the square after Nemtsov “would be welcomed by most voters of the current city coalition”.
Public areas near the Russian embassies in Washington and the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, have also been named in honour of Nemtsov.