WASHINGTON – Georgi Markov felt a sting on the back of his thigh as he waited for a bus at Waterloo Bridge, about half a mile from the Houses of Parliament, on Sept. 7, 1978. He turned to see a man bending to retrieve an umbrella.
When Markov, Bulgaria’s leading man of letters before he defected in 1968, died four days later, a pinhead-sized pellet was removed from his thigh. Made of a platinum-iridium alloy, the pellet had two openings for the release of the poison ricin. In a speech shortly thereafter, a senior Bulgarian security official expressed “the deepest gratitude to our Soviet comrades-in-arms of the KGB for their constant help and comradely assistance.”
That was 42 years ago. This was last week:
Zdenek Hrib, the mayor of Prague, confirmed that he was given police protection after a Czech magazine reported that three weeks ago a Russian arrived in the Czech Republic carrying ricin and was driven to the Russian embassy in a diplomatic vehicle. Czech law enforcement has not confirmed a plot. The BBC reports that Hrib “filed a report to the authorities after noticing he was being followed close to his home, and had seen the same person ‘multiple times,’ but he added that he could not confirm if the protection was related to this report.”
As this column noted in January, last year China canceled its invitation to four Czech musical ensembles because Tibet’s flag flies over Prague’s city hall to express opposition to China’s attempts to extinguish Tibet’s national identity. Hrib, a doctor, has condemned “the forced extraction of organs from members of the Muslim Uighur minority and other prisoners of the [Chinese] regime.” Beijing canceled a “sister-cities” agreement when Prague balked at a clause renouncing independence for Tibet and Taiwan. So Hrib instituted a sister-cities agreement with Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, where Hrib has been made an honorary citizen. When, at a reception for diplomats in Prague, China’s ambassador repeatedly demanded that Taiwan’s representative be expelled from the reception, Hrib responded that he does not expel invited guests.
If Russia is threatening Hrib, this might be “comradely assistance” for China. Russia, however, has its own resentments.
Another Czech mayor, Ondrej Kolar, has been given police protection. He advocated the April removal of the statue, erected in Prague in 1980, of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, who was active in the suppressions of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring. Prague has named the square on which Russia’s embassy is located in honor of the Russian Boris Nemtsov, a fierce opponent of President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin. (In Washington, D.C., a portion of Wisconsin Avenue opposite the Russian embassy is designated Boris Nemtsov Plaza.) Prague is renaming a park promenade for Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and outspoken critic of Putin’s war in Chechnya. She was murdered in 2006 in her Moscow apartment building’s elevator. People were convicted in connection with the Nemtsov and Politkovskaya killings, but realists suspect that the murders were ordered by others.
In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, 43, a former Russian spy, was living in London when he was killed by polonium-210 evidently administered in a cup of tea. A British inquiry concluded that Putin probably approved of this assassination. In 2018, in Salisbury, England, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter survived poisoning that police consider an attempted murder. China’s arrogance in Europe is less lethal, so far.
For example, three Swedish political parties have endorsed expelling China’s ambassador. Yaroslav Trofimov, the Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, says the discord concerns Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen who as a publisher based in Hong Kong infuriated Beijing by writing about, among other sensitive subjects, the corrupt practices of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s family. In 2015, Gui disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand. Sweden says he was kidnapped. China says he voluntarily surrendered to stand trial in China for an alleged 2003 drunk-driving fatality, for which he was sentenced last month to 10 years imprisonment. Last November, when Sweden’s PEN Center awarded Gui a prestigious literary prize, China’s ambassador threatened: “Some people in Sweden shouldn’t feel at ease after hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”
Today’s Russian regime, a lawless kleptocracy, is a residue of the Soviet Union, and a successor to the Soviet Union’s Leninist party-state. China’s regime is such a state and is determined not to have a successor. Today’s world contains crude political menaces more durable and potentially more dangerous than a virus.