New Czech foreign minister sworn in amid crisis with Russia

PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech Republic’s new foreign minister, Jakub Kulhanek, was sworn in Wednesday, amid a fierce diplomatic conflict with Moscow over allegations Russian agents were involved in a massive Czech ammunition depot explosion.

Russia ordered 20 Czech diplomats to leave the country, in response to the Czech government’s expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it identified as spies from the GRU and the SVR, Russia’s military and foreign intelligence services.

Czech leaders said they have evidence provided by the intelligence and security services that points to the participation of two agents of GRU’s elite Unit 29155 in the 2014 blast that killed two.

Russia denied that.

The same two Russians were charged by British authorities in absentia in 2018 with trying to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury.

Russia’s ambassador to Prague, Aleksandr Zmeyevsky, was summoned to Kulhanek’s ministry for later Wednesday to be handed the Czech protest against the Russian expulsion move — which the Czechs consider disproportionate, saying it has paralyzed the Czech Embassy in Moscow.

“The Czech Republic must react to the unjustified expulsion of its diplomats,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.

Kulhanek will also negotiate support for the Czech steps with NATO and EU allies.

Kulhanek had previously served as a deputy minister at the interior, defense and foreign ministries. He also worked in the past for CEFC Europe, the biggest Chinese investor in the Czech Republic, whose Czech businesses were taken over by the Chinese state-run CITIC Group after it suffered financial problems.

The new foreign minister represents the Social Democrats, a junior party in the coalition government dominated by Babis’s centrist ANO (YES) movement.

His predecessor, Tomas Petricek, was fired after losing to Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, in elections for the leadership of the Social Democrats at their party congress earlier in April.

Petricek was the second government minister in a week to lose his job for opposing use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine that’s not yet been approved by the European Union’s drug regulator.

Health Minister Jan Blatny was fired several days before Petricek.

Both Blatny and Petricek were under fire from President Milos Zeman, who is known for his pro-Russia views.

Petricek said his opposition to Russia’s participation in a tender to build a nuclear reactor at the country’s Dukovany nuclear plant also angered the president.

In reaction to the revelations about the depot attack, the government banned the Russian state-controlled Rosatom nuclear corporation from participating in the tender on Monday.

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