While Czechoslovakia was a communist satellite, the buildings were given away for free "under the threat of Russian guns and tanks" but are still used today by Moscow diplomats.
The oft-tense diplomatic relations between the Czech Republic and Russia took a turn for the worse when the central European state’s foreign ministry announced it planned to sue the Kremlin for unpaid rent earlier this week.
The Diplomatic Service, an agency affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that handles real estate used by embassies of other countries, announced it had filed a lawsuit against the Russian state in the Municipal Court of Prague on Wednesday.
The lawsuit claims that Russia profited from “unjustified enrichment in the excess of 53 million Czech kruna” (€2m) over the past three years.
This follows a decision made in May cancelling the active agreements with Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union, which were made in the 1970s and 1980s when Czechoslovakia was a communist satellite state under the influence of Moscow.
“We can confirm that the Diplomatic Service, a contributing organisation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, filed a lawsuit against the Russian Federation at the Municipal Court,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský said.
According to the ministry, Russia did not acknowledge several attempts made by Czech officials to address these new circumstances.
“We have taken this step because we have not yet received any response to the pre-suit calls,” Lipavský added.
Nine active agreements or resolutions made over 40 years ago were cancelled by the government in Prague, which entrusted the Soviet Union with the free use of land for diplomatic purposes.
The decision affects a total of 59 plots of land. Russia will have to fulfil the relevant tax obligations on the affected properties. Instead of free use, the Czech side has said it would be possible to negotiate the use on the basis of lease agreements or “proceed with other solutions more beneficial for the Czech Republic”.
While the dispute predates the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with the Czech Republic attempting to resolve this issue going back as far as 2020, the Czech Minister of European Affairs Martin Dvořák indicated that their patience has run out now that Russia is using its wealth for the occupation of Ukraine.
“We overturned government decisions made under the guns of Russian tanks after the occupation of our country, which to this day allowed Russia to use large tracts of land on our territory for free. Unauthorised profits from the use of these lands must not be used to support the current occupation of Ukraine,” Dvořák said in a tweet.
The buildings include former Soviet consulates in Karlovy Vary, the country’s most popular spa town, and Brno, its second largest city after the capital, Prague.
Spying and warehouse explosions
The Czech Republic has strained diplomatic relations with Russia going back to at least 2014 after the country’s secret services and investigators discovered that Russian agents were involved in the 2014 explosion of an ammunition warehouse in the town of Vrbětice.
The two blasts, one in October and the other in December, shocked the Czech public after it became clear that the Russian military intelligence or GRU officers engineered the incident to allegedly disrupt weapons deliveries to Ukraine when Russia first launched its invasion of the country.
Prior to the explosions, GRU officers Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga visited the warehouse — the property of state-owned Military Technical Institute leased to the Ostrava-based arms company Imex Group — with fake passports claiming to be weapons buyers.
The two officers are also known as the Salisbury poisoners for their role in the attempted killing of Alexei and Yulia Skripal in the UK four years after the warehouse explosions.
The Czech Republic subsequently expelled 18 diplomats it had identified as undercover Russian spies.
There are currently six diplomats working at the Russian Embassy in Prague. The Foreign Ministry had previously expressed its doubt over the fact that such a small number of diplomats “could not use all the buildings for diplomatic purposes” and that they were likely being used for commercial purposes as well.
An audit was carried out, which confirmed that dozens of buildings are not being used for their declared purposes and that such buildings are subject to tax obligations.
Memories of previous occupations
The Czech public is sensitive to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, particularly because of similar experiences of Russian tanks rolling into their country overnight.
In August 1968, Czechoslovakia – the name of the country before the Czech Republic and Slovakia amicably split into two states in 1992 after the fall of communism – was invaded by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, including Bulgaria and Hungary.
Hundreds of thousands of troops, including tanks and aircraft, participated in the invasion under the cover of night to crush an attempt by intellectuals, protesters and even Czech communist party members – known as the Prague Spring – to reform and modernise the country.
The events were criticised internationally, including by other communist countries, and are thought to have crushed any hope that Soviet-aligned countries would be able to coexist and cooperate with the rest of Europe while allowing respective communist nations to operate individually.
In the decades that followed, the Soviet Union strengthened its grip on the country and removed its reformers, which is when these land use deals were signed that were active until recently.