Czech government opts for interim spymaster amid political row

File photo. Czech Prime Minister and ANO movement chairman Andrej Babis after a statement to media after a meeting with Czech President Zeman at the Lany Castle in village of Lany, Czech Republic, 20 August 2019. [EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK]

The Czech government delayed appointing a new head of its BIS counterintelligence agency on Monday (9 August) in a move seen as allowing Prime Minister Andrej Babis to keep the country’s president on his side going into an October election.

President Milos Zeman has attacked the BIS’s work on numerous occasions, berating it for warning about the intelligence activities of his Chinese and Russian allies in the country.

Zeman’s support is crucial for Babis, whose ANO party is leading in opinion polls ahead of the 8-9 October election, as only the president has the power to appoint a new prime minister.

“The one thing Andrej Babis cannot afford is to lose the favour of president Zeman,” political analyst Jan Kvetina told Czech Television.

The government on Monday approved outgoing chief Michal Koudelka as temporary director until a permanent chief is appointed. Respected by western allies, Koudelka, whose tenure expires on 15 August, has led the agency since 2016.

The issue in sensitive in Prague. Pro-Russia and pro-China Zeman is no friend of Koudelka, while the prime minister is anxious not to alienate Western allies, who value the spy chief.

Appointing a new BIS chief could take months as tough negotiations to form a government are expected after the election.

“We think that such an important job should be decided by a new government, which wins the confidence of the people and the parliament,” Babis said.

The biggest row involving the BIS erupted in April, when Czech officials accused Russian military intelligence officers of causing an explosion at an army depot which killed two people in 2014.

Bellingcat connects the dots between Czech explosion and Bulgaria poisoning

Vladimir Putin dismissed as “absurd” Prague’s accusations against Moscow after Czech authorities accused the Russian secret services of being behind a deadly arms depot blast in 2014. But the investigative website Bellingcat connected the dots back to Russia.

Prague expelled dozens of diplomats and other staff from the Russian embassy, while Moscow described the Czech Republic as an “unfriendly” nation.

Czechs order Russia to pull out most embassy staff in worsening spy row

The Czech Republic on Thursday (22 April) ordered Russia to remove most of its remaining diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades.

Zeman claimed there were more avenues to be investigated, but the government and police disagreed.

He has previously claimed that the nerve agent Novichok, used in an assassination attempt in the English city of Salisbury, was made in the Czech Republic, a move seen as attempting to deflect criticism of Moscow.

He also opposed extradition to the United States of a hacker with Russian roots accused of breaching the data of major US companies.

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