Czechs ban Rosatom from nuclear tender, exclude Sputnik vaccine

The Czech government said on Monday it would eliminate Rosatom from Russia from a multibillion-euro tender for the construction of a new nuclear power plant and would no longer consider purchasing Sputnik V vaccines.

The announcements follow tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats after Prague accused the Russian secret service of being behind a deadly explosion on Czech territory in 2014.

Russian Atomic Energy Agency “Rosatom will not be invited to submit documents for the safety assessment,” Czech Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlicek told reporters.

The decision leaves EdF in France, KHNP in South Korea and Westinghouse in the United States at stake for a contract to build the new unit at the Dukovany plant in the south by 2036.

Eighteen Russian diplomats identified by Czech intelligence services as spies left Prague for Moscow on Monday, while 20 Czech diplomats expelled by Russia in retaliation landed in Prague later that day or drove home.

Members of the Russian Embassy in Prague were returning home on Monday, even as Moscow expelled Czech diplomats to Russia
AFP / Michal Cizek

Citing an intelligence report, the Czech government said the Russian military secret service GRU orchestrated an explosion in 2014 that killed two people, followed by another in the same year.

Czech police are looking for two men in connection with the explosion, who British authorities also identified as suspects in the 2018 poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

The Kremlin called the expulsion of its diplomats “provocative and hostile.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers “expressed solidarity” with the Czech Republic.

In addition to rejecting Rosatom from the nuclear tender, Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek has said the Czech Republic will no longer consider purchasing the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.

“The only way now is to rely on vaccines that have been approved by the European Medicines Agency,” Hamacek said.

Images of the Czech embassy in Moscow before the expulsion of 20 diplomats

Images of the Czech embassy in Moscow before the expulsion of 20 diplomats

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the 2014 explosion at an ammunition depot near the eastern village of Vrbetice was not an act of state terrorism as it targeted goods belonging to a Bulgarian arms dealer.

“He probably sold these weapons to entities fighting against Russia,” Babis told reporters.

“But there is no way that we can tolerate GRU agents carrying out such operations here,” he added.

The attack took place the same year that Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine and a conflict erupted between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country.

Babis said the attack was “groped” because the military equipment was probably supposed to explode en route to Bulgaria and not on Czech territory.

The two Russians allegedly behind the explosion were identified as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepigov based on video footage from the site and photos released after the Skripal attack.

Czech Republic prosecutor Pavel Zeman said the two had arrived in the Czech Republic days before the first explosion, posing as arms dealers.

Gebrev himself was the victim of poisoning in 2015 in the Bulgarian capital Sofia and an attempted murder investigation is ongoing.

Gebrev said he believed he, his son and an Emco executive were all targeted with a Novichok-related substance.

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